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Transforming HR with Design Thinking

As the future of work, workplaces and workforce has transformed rapidly during COVID era,  HR needs to look at the organization and people processes with a fresh perspective. In the new context and also with increased digital and technology interface, HR needs to comprehensively review current people policies, processes & systems and repurpose them to enhance employee experience.  

The above archaic people programs were designed from ‘process’ and ‘delivery’ mindset whereas now they need to be reviewed with ‘human-centric’ mindset to create meaningful employee ‘experience’.  

Organizations can adopt a creative problem-solving approach called ‘Design Thinking’ that delivers superior employee experiences. It provides a framework for understanding user’s need and developing insights to solve those needs. It is more a ‘mindset’ than a ‘process’ to follow. Many organizations such as Apple, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Starbucks, Google, Cisco, Airbnb etc. have been using design thinking to enhance customer experience with great results. A similar approach can be adopted by HR to develop innovative, user-centred processes and programs to create greater employee experience.  

Design Thinking in the simplest form 

Design thinking is an innovative, human-centred, collaborative and iterative process for creative problem-solving. Here ‘iteration’ means trying, failing and keep improving. With design thinking approach, solutions are designed, tested and taken back for improvement till such time it is optimized for users to have a great experience.  

As per Albreto Loyola, “Design Thinking brings a ‘Human-Centric Approach’ that is present in every single step of the design process. Teams are empowered and accountable to gather user insights that start with the question: ‘How might we’. Understanding that ‘how’ represents a solution-oriented approach, ‘might’ encourages optimism and ‘we’ represents collaboration. Teams are encouraged to inspire new thinking by discovering what people  need.” 

Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, described design thinking in the article “Design Thinking” published by HBR, as “A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centred design ethos. By this, I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.”

The relevance of design thinking for the HR function in the current context 

Design thinking approach will transform HR and the way HR teams find solutions for complex people problems and deliver them. As Josh Bersin, from Bersin Associates, put it: “Design  Thinking casts HR in a new role. It transforms HR from a ‘process developer’ into an  ‘experience architect.’ It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical  environment; how people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how  companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.” 

As organisations are championing diversity & inclusion a big way and modern-day workforce comprises of multi-generation employees co-existing, HR team needs to shift focus from  ‘single policy (standardization)’ to ‘unique needs and motivations (customization)’ as in today’s context ‘no one size fits all’ in designing HR programs. HR needs to think beyond the typical ‘process and system’ approach to service delivery and focus instead on the  ‘experience and outcomes’ that it is looking to drive. 

Examples of other companies using design thinking to improve the employee experience 

Progressive organisations have already started applying design thinking approach to organisation design, talent acquisition, onboarding, employee engagement, learning &  development, culture & team building, workplace design, compensation and benefits etc. Here are some examples of applications of design thinking in HR: 

  1. In 2015, GE made ‘simplification’ a core business strategy. They used a design thinking approach to achieve this objective. The HR team uses agile methodologies for product development to help individuals “do less” and “focus more”. 

  2. Nestlé and Qualcomm have used design thinking for developing their learning programs by focussing employee’s own work context to have a more engaging work experience which is connected to better skills retention. 

  3. IBM used design thinking to make organizational changes, overhaul their employee onboarding program to begin employee engagement early and implement a new performance management model across the company.  

  4. Cisco held a 24 hour “HR Breakathon” with the purpose of developing innovative HR  solutions that would improve the employee experience. They came up with 105 new  HR solutions spanning recruiting, onboarding, learning and development, and leadership.

  5. Pixar has a dedicated Employee Experience Manager who holds regular conversations with employees and managers to better understand experiences,  challenges, and development needs. 

  6. Peer Insight uses design thinking to design a system for Promotions, Bonuses, and Raises.  

Design thinking process 

Design thinking process involves the following five steps: 

  1. Empathize: Empathy is considered a core value in the design thinking approach.  It requires a human-centric mindset and active listening ability. This is the initial stage where a thorough understanding of the ‘personas’ of employees /  end-user is critical for the process. It is important for the HR team to learn how employees are currently experiencing the solutions, what problems and challenges they face and what are their actual needs and motivation.  Interviewing, empathic listening and asking the right questions are the key aspects in this phase. Empathic listening requires one to be considerate of the other party’s input. 

  2. Define: This is a phase where all information and understanding gathered about the personas and their experiences are analysed and synthesised to define the problem HR wants to solve. If the problem is too big or complex, it can be further broken into smaller elements. It is not necessary to start big. In fact, HR can start by just focusing on a small, but important piece of the problem. For example, in employee engagement, HR can start by trying to improve the onboarding process first to make it manageable and tackle other segments of employees later. Attempting a big problem in one go may become cumbersome and unmanageable. 

  3. Ideate: In this phase collaboration and selecting the right team for the ideation process is the key to success. A cross-functional team comprising adequate representation of all stakeholders add enormous value to the ideation process by bringing in diverse perspectives. HR should use various techniques of  brainstorming to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. In this stage, the focus is on generating ideas and not evaluating or judging them at all. Also, it is ‘quantity’ and not the ‘quality’ of ideas important in this phase. It is important for the ideation team to be open-minded, think outside the box and focus on the possible creative solutions from an end-user experience perspective. The team members should be allowed to let their imagination flow freely without any limitation. The theory of constraints should be out of the ideation room. 

  4. Prototype: In this phase, few ideas are selected from the ideated solutions funnel. These solutions need to be filtered through the aspects of creativity  (innovative solution), viability (business), feasibility (technical) and most important, desirability (expressed and implied human need). A prototype gets developed thereafter to build out a simple, creative and implementable solution to enhance the end-user experience. 

  5. Iterate: In this stage prototype is tested in an actual situation. Here trying, failing and keep improving are critical to success. HR can start with a pilot or small test group, listen attentively to the feedback of end-users, bring in insights to make further improvements till the solution gets optimised for use and later scale-up. This cycle needs to continue and there cannot be a waterfall approach where the solution is rolled out, the program ends and then for years it’s never looked at for improvement. 

Some recommended soft-skills for HR professionals useful in design thinking: 

  1. Listening: Ability to empathic listening where it is important not only to hear the explicit needs of people but also sensing and detecting the implicit needs by deep diving into the problem.

  2. Collaboration: Ability to work in cross-functional teams, accommodate diverse opinion and cocreate innovative solutions leveraging strengths of diversity in the team.

  3. Mindset: Ability to think out of the box, risk-taking appetite, no fear of failure, open to experiment, high on emotional intelligence, human-centric mindset to see the problem from the end-users lens and breaking stereotypes and own limitations.

  4. Prioritisation: Ability to separate vital few from trivial many, see the bigger picture, analyse and synthesise diverse opinions & information to sense the actual problem.

  5. Open to feedback and feedforward: Ability to go out into the field, the courage to seek feedback & feedforward from end-users and operational teams and experience the moments of truth. 

  6. Storytelling: Ability to connect dots, build on inputs and insights gathered,  investigate deeper into the issues and construct a story narrating the actual need or pain points of the end-user which helps in framing the actual problem statement. 

Future of design thinking in HR 

In the current context of ongoing transformations all around, HR needs to develop design thinking capabilities to redesign the organization with a focus on ‘people experience’  instead of ‘processes and systems’. Design thinking can be applied to every aspect of HR  where there is the scope of enhancing the employee experience. 

It is important for HR to attract, engage and retain promising talents if organizations aspire to have a competitive edge and thrive in the new world order. Hence, it is time for HR to let go of all its inhibitions and outdated processes and adopt new tools and approaches to create meaningful employee experiences; merely employee engagement will not be enough. Design thinking is one such tool which provides a powerful framework to design human-centred policies, processes and systems throughout the employee lifecycle, from pre-hiring to retiring and even beyond. 



  1. How design thinking can transform HR practices by Peter Nguyen 

  2. How design thinking is disrupting HR by Alberto Loyola  

  3. How to use design thinking in HR by Ian Bailie 

  4. How to use design thinking in human resources by Enrique Rubio

  5. 5 FAQs about design thinking in HR by Jolene Nicotina 

  6. HBR article – Design Thinking by Tim Brown  


  1. Design thinking in HR – Chris Collins.pdf 

  2. Design thinking to improve employee experience and HR strategy by Karunesh  Prasad of Change Et AI. Author – Santosh Sharan, Partner – Positive Momentum Limited

A Global Leadership, Team, and Career Coach, Santosh Sharan is a highly acclaimed HR  consultant, advisor, thought leader, influencer, and speaker. He has three decades of enriched corporate experience of working in leading Indian and MNCs such as TATA Steel,  Jindal Steel & Power, Escorts Ltd., Singer Ltd., LG Life Sciences, S C Johnson, and Essel  Infraprojects Ltd. 

A former President and CHRO turned entrepreneur, Santosh is Founder & CEO, GenNxt HR  Consulting; Partner, Positive Momentum India and Senior Advisor to Vertebrand Group of  Companies.  

A recipient of ‘HR Leadership Award’ in 2010 and selected as one amongst the ‘Top 100 HR  Minds in India’ in 2018 by World HRD Congress, Santosh did his Science and Law graduation from Ranchi University and PGDPM in HR from Xavier Institute of Social Service  (XISS), Ranchi, India.

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