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Design Thinking and HR

The invention of the wheel was an outcome of Design Thinking. So were inventions like the bow & arrow, boats, and thousands of others that followed. Design Thinking has been around for ages. The good part is that it is now formally recognized as a discipline with its own concepts, terminology, tools, and a vast body of knowledge. This systematization of Design Thinking (DT) allows us to understand it better, as well as teach and apply it in a more conscious way for our benefit. 

Design Thinking is a logical approach to problem-solving, keeping human needs at its core. Its 5 steps are:

1. Empathy – This is the foundation of DT. We are trying to see and understand the problem from the user/client’s perspective. This is an attempt to understand how the client thinks and feels, what his needs are, and what matters most to him. We put ourselves in his shoes and develop a holistic understanding of his perspective.

2. Definition – Here we try to get a clear definition of the problem statement. It involves thinking in detail, understanding the multiple chains of cause and effect, probing the stated problem layer by layer to get to the core problem to be solved.

3. Ideation – After defining the problem, we step into the solution space with ideation. This is where creativity happens. Ideas, thoughts, alternative solutions are proposed while judgment is suspended. After significant ideation has happened, then starts the process of narrowing down to the best solution.

4. Prototype – A prototype is a scaled-down version of the final solution. It helps us get a better and deeper understanding of how the solution will work, and how it will relate to its interdependencies.

5. Test – Finally, we test the prototype to see if it actually resolves the problem at hand.

This is an iterative process, so there is significant back and forth between stages. A lot of re-defining and re-thinking is done to achieve an optimal solution.

Besides its uses in technology, product design, and business, DT can also be used in HR. The customers for HR are the employees and the managers. HR has 2 roles to play – Firstly, use DT in its own processes, practices, and programs. Secondly, encourage the culture and mindset of DT in the organization. Here are a few suggestions on how HR can accomplish this dual objective:

Create a culture of listening and feedback – Empathy requires the core skill of listening because we can understand only when we listen. And, we can receive information by eliciting feedback. HR needs to create a culture of Organisational Listening by using tools that elicit feedback from its internal customers (employees and managers). Employee engagement surveys, exit interviews, grievance redressal systems, open house meetings, etc. are some of the tools that enable Organizational Listening. They go a long way in understanding the exact needs and concerns of employees so that optimal solutions can be designed to meet their needs. 

Besides using these tools at the organizational level, a culture of listening and feedback is also needed at the micro-level. Leaders and employees should be trained in listening skills, as well as on giving and receiving feedback. These skills will help build a foundation for a culture of empathy.

Ensure Psychological Safety – Fear is a huge deterrent to innovation. Fear of failure, fear of speaking up, fear of disagreeing with authority. There are so many kinds of fears that employees may have. A psychologically safe culture allows for mistakes, risk-taking and experimentation. Innovation is stifled in a culture of fear, and one antidote to fear is encouraging a participative leadership style. A participative leadership style encourages a free flow of ideas because employees feel safe sharing their ideas, and they also feel heard. This increases their motivation, which leads to more ideation. So, it becomes a self-sustaining virtuous cycle. Leaders need to be trained in participative leadership for innovation to thrive. Some of the competencies to be focused upon to develop a participative leadership style include collaborative decision making, trust-building, transparent communication and open-mindedness. 

Train for Creativity – Train employees on creativity tools and techniques like Brainstorming, Six Thinking Hats, Mindmaps etc. This will help them learn about divergent thinking and its importance in ideation and problem-solving. Creativity is needed in every aspect of work, and in every department and function. Equipping them with these skills will help them think out of the box, and come up with innovative solutions in their areas of work.

Reward and Recognise Design Thinking – Whatever your reward is reinforced. Therefore if you want to create a culture of DT, start rewarding and recognising it. HR can take the lead in creating programs to reward and recognize employees who use DT to come up with innovative solutions. This will provide a great incentive for leaders and employees to use DT in their day-to-day work. Besides increasing motivation, the organization will benefit significantly when so many minds are focused on problem-solving. Many intractable organizational problems will get resolved this way, simply because employees now have an incentive to resolve it. 

Given such a strong business case for Design Thinking, HR leaders need to start deploying Design Thinking within HR, as well as work on creating a culture of Design Thinking across the organization.

Gulshan Walia is a Human Capital consultant and coach. Her areas of expertise include coaching, leadership development, behavioural training workshops, HR processes, performance management, strategic HR, organization development, career planning, and high potential development. More details about her work can be viewed at

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