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Engaging Employee Instincts with Design Thinking

Jul 17, 2019


  • EDITORIAL TEAM Talent Management Institute
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How often do you sit through a boring movie, or play that song you hate, or deliberately go out and see people you don’t like? We hope not often - unless you happen to be a masochist, in which case we have no argument. But generally speaking, people do things that they like. They hang out around the ones they love. Being human also means being free to make choices. The most dominant of these choices is the choice to feel good, which in turn drives other choices.

How else could you explain this?

People yearning for Friday binges, even when those hangovers give them throbbing headaches on Saturdays; people smoking even when it hurts their lungs and their pockets; junk food selling more than healthy grubs (it may make us obese too but that’s a talk for another day).

Our emotions dominate us more than our reason even when we are inclined to deny such is the case. In a recent incident, 50 out of 300 new employees at a well-known company opted out of a two-day onboarding workshop. This could have been the job they had been hunting for months. This could also have been the kind of profile they might not get again. Yet, they quit. And the reason was they didn’t “feel” right about it. The CHRO had to fly down a day before the final event and negotiated with the quitting participants. The deal for them was to design a program that fulfils the expectations of most of the other participants.

Why Design Thinking? Why Now?

It is simple and complicated at the same time. In the pursuit of meeting complex goals, we often tend to ignore or underestimate the subtle. But when it comes to engagement, it’s the subtle things which drive the whole. Work, workforce and work environment - all three tenets of modern workplaces are changing simultaneously. 94% of talent managers say that managing talent management is more difficult today than it was 5 years ago. While hiring time, costs, business goals and revenue potential have spiked up, worker productivity and engagement have fallen. Talent is short and employee expectations are towering.

Design thinking, a concept with its roots in product design engineering, is helping talent managers reinvent their strategies to meet these challenges. We understand now that isolated, theoretical ideas won’t take us far. We want to improvise and we are seeking concepts that give us results. Without tangible results we are unlikely to survive the future talent market.

So What is Design Thinking?

A few years back a news made it to the headlines. A cargo truck got stuck under a bridge and a slew of firefighters, emergency personnel, engineers, onlookers and drivers failed to get it unstuck. While emergency workers were mulling on the part of the truck to dismantle, a young boy commented: “Why not just let the air out of the tires?” The advice worked and the truck moved out without any damage. Sometimes the obvious is the easiest to miss. This is where design thinking comes into the picture.

Design thinking is a collaborative effort by different stakeholders who share their experiences in their day-to-day activities. It integrates business needs, technology viability and human experiences. A concept that almost rebirthed fallen Apple products’ appeal, design thinking is now that extra-edge that could bring people to your organization and make them stay.

It is a five-pronged human-centered step-by-step approach.



To empathize is to understand: the good, the bad and the unnecessary. Simple observation can bring extraordinary insights. If needed, travel to your employees’ locations and observe them performing a task. Put yourself in their shoes and you will know what needs to be done. Empathy goes a long way in building connection and bonding between team members, not to mention it encourages excellent brainstorming. Observe and communicate. You may as well know before-hand if your best-performer is intending to quit.

Define and Design:

In modern office environments, employees are stressed and distant from their natural proclivities. They are inclined to welcome any physical comfort or thought shift. Artifacts and visual aids can come to our aid in this cause. Google organizes 5-day Design Sprints for its employees wherein they are encouraged to innovate and learn without building and launching. Accenture’s Global Innovation Center in Dublin has employed 5,000 sensors to make it the smartest building. These sensors continuously collect data from the surrounding environment and tweak it to make it more pleasant for users. Employees are free to change light and heat wherever they are. Salesforce used design thinking to improve its sales discovery process. It gained a 100% increase in revenues by introducing the required changes.


Energies need to be diverted to the right channels. Give employees a chance to express themselves. A study by Adobe says that companies who invest in their employees’ creativity can outperform their competitors by 3.5 times. Involve the stakeholders to arrive at a better model. They will feel invested and valued. Use words like “we” and “together” instead of “You vs Us.”


Design thinking is a continuous process. Define-empathize-generate-validate! Keep improving and involving all stakeholders. Ensure that employees know about the drive. Learn from the test and make improvements in the design if needed. Remember, great designs don’t appear overnight.

Until We Meet Again:

Our representatives happened to be at a recent conference where a senior HR professional gave an hour-long address on the influence of pay package in employee retention. Our member had this sudden urge to stand up and interrupt “You’ve got it all wrong, Sir! You can’t buy an employee. No matter how much you pay, yes, no matter how much. But you sure can earn her and many more after her.” And who can say it better than Apple?

“Those of us on the [original] Macintosh team were really excited about what we were doing. The result was that people saw a Mac and fell in love with it. . . There was an emotional connection . . . that I think came from the heart and soul of the design team.” —Bill Atkinson, Member of Apple Macintosh Development Team

Love still triumphs all!

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