The Essence of Design Thinking

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I was struck recently, looking at college brochures for my graduating daughter, at a common design feature in many of the college campuses admired for their beauty. In so many cases, stone or concrete walking paths zig-zag across their outdoor spaces. I was thus reminded of the story I heard long ago of a new college president being given a tour of the campus grounds by the chief groundskeeper. Upon reaching the central quadrangle the groundskeeper grimaced at a foot path cutting across the manicured lawn and apologetically explained that no matter how many "keep of the grass" signs he posted, students continued to ignore the provided sidewalk. The president famously replied, "Then perhaps you should install a sidewalk where they're walking."

Perhaps this story went viral in the college groundskeeper network, but for whatever reason colleges seem to have taken the notion to heart, because it is clear that the seemingly random pathways installed on America's most beautiful campuses clearly are placed, yes, where students would want to walk. What a concept!

It occurs to me that the same shift in thinking -- outside-in thinking, to be specific -- is now happening in designing employee experiences using versions of a technique called design thinking. Despite efforts to complicate the concept so as to turn it into a consulting methodology, design thinking is essentially nothing more than putting the employee experience at the center of design, just as colleges place student behavior at the center of campus design.

Outside-in thinking is simply that -- starting with the experience, determining the best processes to deliver that experience, and then building the right structure to enable those processes. Though this seems common sense, the course we in the HR delivery model business have been following is exactly the opposite. We start with the structure we desire, design processes to fit that structure, which in turn define the experience employees will have. Design thinking stands this process on its head.

But what's too often missing in design thinking is the most important thing of all -- empirical study. In the campus groundskeeper story the evidence was a worn foot path, proof positive that students had chosen this as the desired course. Designing employee experiences takes a little more effort. In fact, without empirical study design thinking is little more than lip service using assumptions, not evidence, about the employee experience.

In the 20-plus years I've been designing and running HR service delivery models, I can count on one hand the number of initiatives involving actual employee research. Instead, believing we know what employees want and need, HR has chosen to go it alone. 

I truly understand this, because employee research is time consuming and potentially risky. It not only takes a lot of time on the part of HR but takes employees away from their jobs as well. And, if you ask employees what they think there's an inherent obligation to at least close the loop regarding how their input was used in the design. This gets rather tricky when their input is ignored. Faced with those obstacles, it's understandably appealing to make assumptions.

But don't think designing around assumptions about employee needs is bona-fide design thinking. Web site designers who have made design thinking a thing wouldn't consider going on their personal assumptions of what users and customers need and want. They do research. Like them, so should you.