David Mallon, VP and Analyst-at-Large, BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP
The quality of the solutions you adopt to address the challenges and problems your company faces is determined, in large part, by the process you use to formulate them.
That’s a big reason why design thinking popped up as one of the 10 best practices for leading companies and innovative HR organizations in the 2016 Deloitte Human Capital Trends survey. Seventy-nine percent of the more than 7,000 executives surveyed ranked the creative problem-solving process as a high priority for meeting talent challenges. Moreover, those respondents who identified their companies as “high-performing” were three to four times more likely to use design thinking than their competitors.
Design thinking has been gaining adherents ever since Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon first articulated a process model in 1969. Since then, firms—such as IDEO—and universities have popularized design thinking and a wide range of companies have adopted it.
Today, there are many variations of the design thinking process, but there are three simple, but too-often ignored, tenets that appear in one form or another in all of them. If you follow them, I believe that you are far more likely to come up with successful solutions to the myriad of challenges that all companies face.
Start With Empathy
All design thinking processes start with the basic notion of empathy: that is, walking in the shoes of the target audience for your solution. Merck, the biopharmaceutical company with almost 70,000 employees worldwide, started with that when it overhauled its performance management and compensation programs.
Using listening sessions, focus groups, crowdsourcing, and other channels, it collected extensive feedback from more than 10,000 employees and managers across its divisions worldwide.
One simple and highly effective way to gain an empathic understanding of your employees is to use a tool like a journey map. Journey maps document the employee experience at every step of an activity. They help identify the moments that matter most and provide clarity on the problems that need solving. This is a tool that is often used by marketers to better understand the customer experience, but far fewer HR professionals use it.
Consider the candidate experience, for instance. A journey map allows you to identify the key moments that candidates experience as they apply for a job at your company. Once you know that, you can ask a host of questions: What’s going on in those key moments? What are candidates thinking about? What are they worried about? What is the company trying to accomplish? What resources are involved? Whatever journey you map this tool can lead to a more empathetic understanding of the experience and give you a foundation on which to rebuild it.
Listening to employees doesn’t stop with understanding the problems they encounter at work. The second universal tenet of design thinking suggests that you include them as co-creators of the solutions to those problems.
Being inclusive about solution creation allows your company to imagine the widest possible range of options. Generating a wide variety of options helps companies move beyond initial, obvious solutions, and it often produces solutions that are head-and-shoulders above the solutions produced by a small team of experts sitting in a room.
When IBM designed Checkpoint, a system for managing employee performance and fostering continuous feedback, it enlisted the efforts of nearly 100,000 people in a huge co-creation process. It created a digital platform and adopted the hashtag #reinventPBC to place its employees, with all their experience and ideas, at the center of the effort. Big Blue’s employees at every level and location became “sponsor users” and were invited to participate in developing a new approach to performance management.
The aphorism “perfect is the enemy of good” encapsulates the third universal tenet of design thinking. Too often, companies get tripped up by the quest for perfection—they overengineer solutions until they are so complex that they are dead on arrival. Design thinking processes avoid that fate with rapid and repeated cycles of solution prototyping, testing, and redesign.
This approach is commonplace among tech companies. They regularly launch minimum viable products and then improve them on the run, with real world results driving the process. The result is often a better, more robust solution that can enhance and be adapted in response to the ever-changing needs of customers.
The tenet of iteration is especially useful when it comes to employee programs and processes. When SAP SE, a global provider of enterprise business application software, with more than 77,000 employees in 120 countries, began offering human capital management (HCM) software-as-a-service (SaaS) to its customers, its global HR organization decided to transform SAP’s internal HCM system as well. The HR team used a four-phase implementation process in which the second phase included pilot programs.
In that phase, employees tested the new system, evaluating its functional and business requirements, to ensure that it simplified processes and was easy to use. They identified what was and was not working, which gave HR an opportunity to improve the system before it rolled out across the organization.
In the third phase, the learn-as-you-go approach continued, with HR seeking feedback, making changes, and customizing the new solution as needed. When the new solution went live, nearly all of the company’s managers and employees around the world were using it without a hitch.
Three simple tenets: start with empathy; co-create solutions; embrace iteration. None of them are rocket science. But they can help launch your company’s ability to attract, develop, and retain employees to new heights, with all the productivity and financial rewards that entails.