SPEAKER 1: This is a presentation of the ILR School at Cornell University, ILR advancing the world of work.
PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER COLLINS: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, depending on where you're dialing in from. I'm Chris Collins. I'm the director of the Center for Advanced HR Studies and a professor here at the ILR School at Cornell. And I want to welcome you to our second webcast of 2017. It turns out to be the 25th in the history of our webcast series.
And today I'm going to talk to you about this topic of design thinking in HR, which is a extremely hot topic for the function. Certainly been a hot topic in marketing and product design for a while. Lots of new implications when we start to think about it for HR.
I want to start really by just putting us all on the same page in terms of what this design thinking is, and the way I think about design thinking-- and I think a lot of people do-- is it's really an approach to solving problems and enhancing experiences of our employees. And it's based on really understanding the employees' needs or in the case of products, users' needs, and developing insights to solve problems and solve issues that are diminishing or detracting from their experience.
To me, when it's best applied, this design thinking process is not really just a process. It's a mindset for the function. It's really a different way for us to think through how to approach problems and problems that we want to tackle as a function. What I'd remind you of, though, that it's not that different from what we've done for many years already, which is this notion of process consulting. So those of you who've come through the OD world or through consulting backgrounds, certainly have probably come to know this notion of process consulting of ways to go about thinking about identifying underlying causes, brainstorming solutions, identifying best possible fits.
I think the thing that's probably the biggest difference between process consulting and design thinking is really pushing further back in the chain. Process consulting often started with managers as the owners of an issue that we're helping to solve for. Here we really want to go back to the root, really understanding what are the blocks, what are the solutions to fix it. And often, again, a big difference between process consulting and design thinking is really the involvement of employees across those different phases of the problem.
When we really think about this mindset for design thinking in HR, I'm a little-- maybe disturbed is too strong a word. But certainly I'm concerned that HR is not using design thinking to its full potential. I've heard lots of stories of where companies have put design thinking in place for HR, and it doesn't strike me it's really being used correctly, right?
So what design thinking is not is hey, we've got this new technology. We want to roll it out. Let's get a few employees involved in talking to us about the rollout. Not a good fit for design thinking. Neither is design thinking hey, we've got a problem where we got an employee issue. Let's take a few HR people, let's sit down in a conference room and brainstorm a solution.
What design thinking is also not is hey, I heard other companies are doing this-- and I've heard this a lot about performance management and how companies are going to do similar things to either eliminate ratings, eliminate performance management, do new things in performance management because competitors are doing it or other companies are doing it. So again, let's grab a few employees and do a quick survey and then roll out our preexisting or predetermined outcomes.
So where design thinking is really potentially useful for HR is what we'd think of as big, hard, difficult problems where the problem itself isn't completely clear and where the solution to that problem is unclear. And so the real notion, again, and the mindset is this purposeful interaction, observation of employees to develop an empathy of how those employees are feeling their work, how they're feeling their lives and our organizations, really identifying the underlying issues that are causing disruptions to that experience and thinking, then, about how to design solutions that fit to the environment in which they work. So it's a slightly different perspective.
When I think about the biggest differences in how HR has operated for most of its life and how it might operate under design thinking, some of the words that pop out to me clearly are things like collaborative. This is not just about HR solving problems, but it's about involving employees from across the organization and from different functions to identify and solve problems.
Part of what's also maybe different is this is very iterative. You're not designing for the perfect solution and launching once you get the perfect solution. It's very much iterative, introducing multiple ideas, testing them out, seeing which is better, and then going forward, which may also have an overlap with this word experiment. That it's not we've got one solution and we're going to launch that globally. You might launch multiple solutions, have different test cases, and roll it out almost as an experimental design and see which emerges as the best possible fit.
Part of this is also the words of listening and watching. So part of what is the beauty of design thinking is actually seeing employees using practices, using activities in the natural setting of work, understanding and watching their behaviors, their reactions, looking at how they work around problems instead of using the tools we've provided them, and ties that again of the voice of the employee, really getting more employees involved in identifying the issue at hand and identifying the underlying causes, helping us to brainstorm possible solutions and so on. So it's that notion of voice of the employee is pretty important here.
Certainly other words that come into mind are things like creative. We're trying to increase the creativity of solutions by getting more people involved. In fact, this is human centered. Even though it may be the introduction of new technologies or new processes, we still want to think about the human experience and human emotions tied to that experience. And part of this design thinking is really about storytelling, really using stories to understand what's happening and how we might possibly solve it.
Again, to me, this is somewhat of a break in HR and how we've operated. We've tended to be very focused on designing the best solution, introducing that single solution, keeping that solution in place for years or even decades, and then only later in time trying to change it. So this is really flipping us around. In many ways what we'd think about is simplifying the delivery and execution of the function, which always brings to mind one of my favorite people, Albert Einstein, great quote, any intelligent fool can make things bigger or more complex. It takes a touch of genius and maybe courage to move in the opposite direction.
That notion of it's actually harder to make things more simple than just adding on layers and layers of complexity, which I'm afraid that often in our history of human resources we've tended to just add more, rather than making things more simplistic. So the notion behind this design thinking is trying to, again, get under the surface, really understand how people are feeling and engaging with the aspects of work. What are the things that are reducing or detracting from that more positive feeling about the place and the experience that they're having, and thinking through how we can solve for that.
There's lots of different models out there around design thinking. Certainly those from IDO, from this stand for a design center, from private consultants. And every day it seems to me that there are some new consulting organization popping up a shingle, trying to sell design thinking to companies.
What I want to talk about is some mix of these models. So some of these words will look the same. Some are different. The process as it appears in most places seems super linear. We move from phase 1 to phase 2 to phase 3 to phase 4 to phase 5. In reality, it's a pretty messy process, right, that you may start by trying to understand the problem. You collect some data. You synthesize that data, only to realize that you didn't understand what you're trying to look at in the first place, and you start all over.
Potentially you get all the way to ideating, coming up with new ideas of how to solve the problem, only to realize that most of those ideas that you created didn't really touch on or fit to the way employees were experiencing the problem. Potentially the same thing happens, you start to prototype, you create possible new practices to put in place to do something differently in HR, only to realize that maybe you need to relook at the data you're getting in to understand the problem better. So it's very much an iterative process.
I also forgot that-- in the beginning I should have mentioned this, as questions come up, feel free to type them in. I'm going to work through the last part of this presentation, a couple of more slides, and then move to Q&A. So the more questions you have, the more I think we'll all get out of this. So just a quick reminder.
Again, when we think about this design thinking process, the first phase of this, I think no matter where you are, is once you realize you've got some big problem, it takes a while to understand the universe of that problem. So to me this understanding phase is really about you as the HR expert getting to know the context, the conditions, and what's happening. So this might be external research. It might be internal research.
And a lot of it's about scanning, right? So where do we have employee groups that aren't really feeling the experience of being great? Where do we see challenges in the external market in terms of trying to attract talent? Where do we see big shifts in terms of demography or demographics? Where do we see big shifts in terms of the jobs themselves or the jobs we're going to try to attract to the organization? Where might we see problems?
The second part of this, then, is really what I think of as the empathize or empathy state. So lots of different techniques we can put in place. And again, what we're trying to get to is a deeper understanding, right? We're trying to understand how employees are experiencing the organization, what are particular situations where they're having more negative emotions about the organization and about the work itself, about the work environment, and really trying to understand, what are those moments that matter? What are those parts of their life as an employee?
Is it at the intro stage where they're becoming socialized in the organization? Is it in the delivery of the work itself? Is it in trying to partner outside of their narrow team or group of people that they work with? Where are they feeling or having negative emotions that are really detracting from the experience of working, detracting from their ability to get work done.
So what we're really trying to do through potentially observation, through focus groups, through looking at our surveys, through having open chat forums on a website internally is really trying to understand and lock in and really get data and understand where are these blocks to the employee experience? Where are these blocks to the way people are getting things done?
And it's often-- what we're trying to get at is a deeper understanding of their beliefs about the situation, the habits they've developed, quirks or work-arounds they've put in place that have taken some aspect of their job that they really disliked or didn't function well and are kind of incrementally building their own thing, or where are they're just feeling really negative aspects or negative emotions towards the organization?
So this observation phase-- it's not really us starting out with a predefined, hey, we want to solve for performance management. It's really trying to understand from our employees what aspects of work really are not working well for them and for others. From the observation or empathizing stage where we collected all this data, what we're really trying to do next is to use that data to develop insights. So looking at these users, trying to understand their needs, looking at the patterns of data that we've collected to develop these insights, which hopefully lead to what we think of as a point of view.
And the point of view is really the notion of trying to understand and empathize what's the most critical problem, what's the most critical experiences that are impacting these employees in a negative way. So really trying to get to this point of understanding where to focus.
And part of that might be also this notion of segmentation. So not every employee is going to feel the same about any situation. So there might be differences based on generations. There might be differences based on job type. There might be differences based on how long the person has been with the company.
And so the notion of this point of view is trying to understand a problem more deeply, to understand what the actual problem is that we want to solve in a fairly focused way that we can actually move forward on. But also for who? And are there differences across different types of employees in terms of how they see or feel or experience that problem?
So, if so, you don't want to design a one-size-fits-all solution if there's different groups experiencing the problem differently. That's where we probably want to get into segmentation of delivering or developing multiple solutions that fit the specific needs or kind of generalized needs across these different groups.
Fourth phase then is move this notion of ideation or the generation of possible solutions to the problem. And this is one of those times where broad is better than narrow. So we want as many people identifying as many possible solutions as we can. This is the sticky notes up on the boards everywhere. This is the jam sessions where people are trying to put out ideas, add other ideas. And at that ideation stage, particularly the beginning, we never want to be criticizing ideas. It's always about more is better.
So I think back to the early days of doing focus groups as a consultant. When you're trying to identify issues or identify ideas, you want every idea that comes up. Nothing's too little. Nothing's too bad. Nothing's the best. Everything's equal in terms of getting thoughts on the board, getting notes on sticky notes and posted somewhere. So the more ideas, the better.
Once we have the ideation creation stage, then we can move into evaluation. So then we can complete the evaluation stage of saying, OK, which of these are feasible given costs? Which of these are feasible in terms of potentially solving the problem? Which of these are feasible in terms of time frame?
So we can start to put parameters around judging and evaluating ideas, but I would always push you to wait to do that until after. If you start doing that early, you're going to cut off the possibility of things and emerge. So you always want to push yourselves, push the employees involved in this stage to generate more, rather than less, and be additive, rather than subtractive. So again, think about this as potentially two phases of ideation, generation of ideas and then culling them based on some important criteria.
Next thing we want to look towards is then take some of the best ideas and move to somehow prototype them. In HR we often see this as storyboards. So we might draw out what it would look like from let's say a recruitment phase of how do we start to make our message clearer to the employees we want to attract, or how do we make the application process easier? We want to try and-- through pictures, draw that out in a storyboard and then pitch that to people as a way to build what they call in the design world a low-resolution model.
You don't want to put lots of time, lots of effort, make it seem really sophisticated, because this is a way to judge and gain some initial reactions. How do people respond to this? Where do they see issues? Where do they see ways where we still haven't solved the problem? Which might push us back to the ideation stage. So if you build something fully formed, fully developed, people are less likely to try to critique it and either want to either put it down completely or pass it completely. And you'll miss the chance to iterate and make it better.
So the prototyping stage is really trying to make things quickly slapdash enough for people to get the feel of it, but also seemingly rough enough that people want to contribute more ideas. So the notion here is to, again, build these low-resolution models just to test out the ideas, and really the best part of this phase is the learning from the reactions. So how are people reacting to either the low-resolution computer system you put in place or the low-resolution storyboard you put in place? So you can iterate before actually building things out.
At some point you're going to take the insights gained from those prototypes and start to build real models, real product, real delivery systems for the HR solution. And again, you may still test these out. They still may be experiments out in the field where you can then build and improve on them. So the notion is still launching the beta version, launching the earlier version with people acknowledging that there are still chances for improvement. So making sure that employees understand this is the early version. Their feedback is going to continue to help shape and improve this product over time.
So again, just working backwards, there's lots of different parts to the model. Again, to me for HR, the first one really starts with choosing the right problem, so that understanding phase of saying, do I know roughly where there's big issues inside the company? Is it certain groups of employees? Is it certain parts of the business? Is it certain functions? Is it certain new employees we're trying to attract?
Start with the big picture idea, using the empathy stage, or the empathizing stage to narrow that down to a specific problem you can address getting answers and getting responses and really feeling how people are experiencing those issues, synthesizing that data to come up with your own point of view on what you're going to solve for, and for who you're going to solve it.
Then the ideation stage, right, bringing more employees back into the process to generate ideas of how to do this better, how to do it in a new way, prototyping some of those best ideas to test out how people are feeling, and then really moving into the final phase where we're going to launch some versions of this and then continue to track it and improve it over time. So with that, I'm going to try and move to some of the questions.
So lots of questions coming in, which is great, and keep it up. So one of the questions is, how do you know when it's a good time to move on from the ideation phase, particularly the brainstorming generation phase? It can be super seductive to be involved in these meetings where you keep asking people for ideas and you keep brainstorming and adding and adding and adding.
And honestly, when you do this in class or when I do it in class, I feel this generation-- they would love to spend the entire time on the ideation phase because it's fun. It's exciting. People are engaged. People are excited to share their own ideas, to build off one another's ideas.
At some point-- and this is why you have the team of HR leaders involved throughout the process-- as you do this across multiple groups or across multiple jam sessions or chat sessions, you're going to start to see the diminishing returns. You're going to start to see that no new real ideas are emerging. You're going to have that feeling of when it's time. You also may want to create a calendar time for this.
So if you've got a project timeline of where you want to solve the problem, you're going to probably have in that project timeline just how much in terms of days or weeks or even hours that you have for the ideation phase. So I think you need to put some guardrails around that. But certainly as you're kind of overlooking the collection of that set of ideas, you're going to start to see where there's not new ideas coming in. It's mostly just reiterations of the old. So I think there's two ways to think about that is setting up a time frame, but also monitoring it to see when things stop being new.
Couple more questions, though.
A couple of different folks asking around, well, how big can these employee groups be as you're involving them, right? And so we've seen lots of different examples. So we've seen companies who are on the far extreme end where they're trying to involve all employees on bigger issues. Maybe it's around performance management, understanding that performance management in their company simply wasn't working, and so they use jam sessions. And basically any employee anywhere in the world could be involved in those multiple jam sessions. They're all online, so facilitate online dialogues. And they used as many people as possible.
Others, because of the way they define the problem upfront, knew that it was really around a specific issue. Let's say it's the-- how do we make the application process much easier so we're not turning off applicants and we're actually getting people more excited to come work here. They start with a much smaller group, people probably who'd applied recently, who survived the disengaging process they actually applied. They may also have tried to create and reach out to folks who would be likely applicants. So they limited the pool immediately to a smaller number.
I'm not sure there's a golden rule here. What I think you want to make sure you're getting, though, is representation. So if it's across all of your engineers, you don't have to have all 2,000 or 3,000 participate as long as you're getting a nice representative sample. And again, not too different from change management.
Are people in the room participating who are thought leaders in that area? People who have natural influence in that area? People who've been in the company long enough to have experienced whatever the problem you're dealing with? People who have and are willing to kind of create the right culture for sharing? So you want to make sure there's that nice mix in the room, which I think is probably more important than the total numbers that you might have.
A bunch of people asking questions about technology. So again, this is a it depends question for me. So again, it depends on who the audience is. So if those people are face to face-- and this is probably a generational thing, too. I'd rather have them in a room face to face. Some places, they find it easier to get more people together through distributed technology, whether that's online chats that are carried out over the course of a day. I always find that a little bit difficult because the more people that participate, the longer that stream of comments gets, the harder it is for people to manage and understand what's been shared before and build off of it.
So I typically find that in the ideation phase, in particular, the more you can have people in the same room or at least in a common platform where they can experience it at the same time and physically feel like they can see what's happening and what's been generated, you get more incremental growth build off of that, whereas if you have everybody individually participating through some chat function, less useful.
On the phase of really trying to understand what's going on, I think there's lots of different technologies again where people can chat, they can share their experience, and we can distill that information with software packages, with new tools to understand the natural language tools that can really look at what's been said and categorize it. There's also ways to then play that back to people in terms of being able to react to it. So I think technology can certainly help probably to me a lot more in the empathizing stage where we can use surveys, some other distributed technologies to get more people than less to participate.
So a lot of people asking about, is there a single example that I could share from a single company to walk you through each of the stages? Yes, but they would probably kill me to do it. So I don't want to share any particular one company's experience, because I wasn't there for all of it and I don't have any legal rights to share their experience.
But I will tell you pieces. So the understanding phase to me again is, are we really asking the big question? And so what I've tended to see where it's gone off the rails is companies starting with a predefined problem, with a predefined solution. And to me that's a nonstarter for this design thinking process.
Where we really want to be is what's something where we really don't understand what's happening with employees. Why are people seemingly tuning out on us in recruitment? Or why do we seem to have a difficult problem attracting this kind of employee? Or we seem to be having more turnover or greater disengagement or a bad feeling about some part of the company. I don't know what it is. I don't know why it's happening. I don't know how to solve for it.
Perfect time to start using design thinking, again. That's a great way to say, hey, we've got this issue. It's really unclear to us what's happening. It's really unclear to us why it's happening or how to solve for it. Those are all great symptoms in that understanding phase to say, hey, this might be an issue where design thinking would work.
The empathizing-- I've seen some really great examples, again, of hey, we know there's something wrong with something like our recruitment or we know there's something wrong with our performance management because it's always rated the worst HR practice in the company. If you've got that bigger problem from the understanding phase, I think lots of cool techniques.
So again, companies have used this jam session idea where they invite as many people as possible to come over the course of a day, contribute ideas on how they felt about this process. How did they feel about performance management? What's the underlying need that's not getting served for them? What do they wish that they had?
And so the empathizing is a great way to start using a tool like a jam session to get a big sense of here's lots of things that might be going wrong, distill that and then do some more tailored focus groups where you can bring people together live and ask them more questions. So we've heard this from lots of employees during the jam session, here is a need that's going unmet. Here's an experience that everyone collectively seems to feel bad about. Why?
So the beauty of the face-to-face is being able to ask why, when, what, how. All those questions that aren't leading, but are trying to understand underneath the original words what's going on. So the face-to-face or some distributed tools that allow you to live have those conversations with people are really useful.
Again, I think the giant chat platforms are great for bubbling up big ideas, but I think you need more active face-to-face things to then distill that into deeper understanding of the hows the whats, the whys, the wherefores, and things like that.
The synthesizing-- this is a time where I think it's good for the HR leaders, the HR team to go back and live with that data themselves. So I don't think you want hundreds of people trying to distill that data. I think once they've shared it, it's within our own scope to say, OK, what are the big themes we heard? How do those themes seem to fit across different kinds of employees?
Again, that could be different generations, different stage in their career, different locations, different job type. Where do we see similarities? Where do we see differences? What are the biggest needs? What are the biggest issues that come out? And from that, develop that personal point of view from the function of which of these issues do we want to take on the most. Which become the most important issues for us to wrestle with? Which will we tackle later? Which will we tackle now?
And once you've developed that point of view and you understand for which employees you're going to take that problem on, then you can move to the ideation phase. And again, the ideation phase I think can happen lots of ways. I mean, I still think the face-to-face in groups where people can work together to build off ideas, share more thoughts, add to others, add new ideas, but somehow complement and bring together a greater number of ideas together always happens better, again, when it's face-to-face and collaborative. And face-to-face, again, could be through some distributed technology, but some way where people can live hear what's going on and add to it and be a part of it.
Again, moving into the prototyping phase, I think, again, this is where we can take the best of those ideas, against the criteria that we had, and then start building out rough sketches. Based on what we've heard from those ideas, how would this play out? Would we do that through a storyboard? Would we do that through a rough mock of the technology?
And then using, again, those-- going back to the employees as the users, getting their experience of that. If we did it this way instead and this was the process you followed or this would be the steps, what's your reaction? How do you feel about the way it's introduced to you? How do you feel about the actual use of it? How do you feel about the flow of how that's going to happen?
So again, getting employees to live use the prototypes or live walk through the storyboards where you can hear their reactions, hear their responses, see where there's pain points, see what you solved and didn't solve. I think those are all great techniques to then lead to the generation of one or two finalists or maybe even three finalists that you then launch and let live for a while to really test out which works the best. How would you improve it? How would you tweak it and so on? So hopefully that gives you a sense.
I know we're running up to our deadline for the end of the conversation today. Number of questions as well about the materials. So these are all-- the video and the PowerPoints will all be available for you all on the CAHRS website later today. We'll be posting those. So if your colleagues want to see them or you want to take them and think about them some more, that would be great. We'd certainly also appreciate, if you've got more questions and things that we could address additionally, feel free to send us notes, send us e-mails so that we can figure out what we want to follow up on, certainly other questions that I wasn't able to get to.
But again, the notion to me is this-- design thinking is a super powerful tool to add to our tool kit as HR leaders. I don't think it replaces everything we do. I think it is for, again, particular problems. The benefit of it is I think it takes our strengths that we already have as a function of understanding-- the function understanding specific HR practices brings in that voice of the user. So we become a two-powered superhero.
So when I was looking for a picture of this, the best one I found was when my daughter was four, maybe she was three. And if you notice in that picture, she's Super Woman, but she's also Spiderman. So the notion of this design thinking is it really gives us that extra strength to deliver HR even better, adds that second super power.
How does it do that? I think one of the biggest benefits is it really helps us break out of our own routines and limitations. So often I see HR leaders, when we see a problem, we just add more complexity to the solution. We tweak it some more or we add more bells and whistles, and it doesn't necessarily make the process easier, better or a better fit to the needs of our end users as customers.
So sometimes this design thing really breaks us out of our own history, our own traditions, and our own past ways of doing things and brings new ideas to light. I think as important as that and maybe more importantly, it helps us identify those problems that really matter for the employee experience. What are those things that are really the moments that matter, that are really turning them off or potentially going to turn off new employees, that are going to drive the talent away from the organization, that we want to keep? And in this labor market, where there's not enough talent in the jobs we want, we've got to make sure that we've got the best possible experience to attract, retain, and engage them.
I think, again, it helps us generate better solutions, more voices, more ideas, more brainstorming leads to potentially better ideas. And as it turns out, this prototyping and doing things fast so they fail early before we launch them-- that's part of the notion of the prototypes is to build them in simple ways, so that if they're not working, we can just trash them and move on. We're not pot committed because we've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in some new process. So it's a faster process in the end because we fail out all the bad ideas quickly and move on to the one or two that really might make a difference.
And again, to me the more you involve employees in this, it's just good change management. So if they've been involved in identifying what the problem is, they've helped to identify possible solutions, they've helped you rule out what prototypes don't work and what do-- the buy-in of the user at the end of the day is super high. So anything you launch, they feel partial ownership, they're more likely to want to drive it. And they're certainly more engaged to use it. So lots of benefits to the design thinking.
So with that, I'll thank you for sticking with me for the extra four minutes. Again, if you've got more questions, this will be posted up on the CAHRS web page. There's certainly lots more information about upcoming working groups, webcasts we've got coming up in June on the role of HR in driving innovation. We'll be sending out a invitation to that shortly. And again, feel free to send us questions or thoughts about design thinking or other topics you might want us to address in future webcasts. Thanks again for your time, and hope you have a great day.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of the ILR School at Cornell University.
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One of the hottest topics in HR is rethinking the employee experience as companies across industries look to reshape the workplace to create the experiences that can help to attract, engage, and retain key talent. One of the key tools that HR leaders are using to identify and reshape aspects of the employee experience is design thinking. While originally developed in the context of customer experience and development of new products, design thinking also serves as an effective tool and set of guiding principles for HR leaders to identify meaningful moments that impact and engage employees in root cause analysis and brainstorming of alternative solutions, and in effectively driving change management around new initiatives.
In this webcast, Chris Collins, director of the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resources Studies (CAHRS), discusses some of the key aspects of design thinking in the context of rethinking the employee experience and talk about recent examples of design thinking in action drawn from recent CAHRS working groups on the employee experience and engagement.