Design Defined

Design Thinking is a creative process for problem-solving. It has a human-centric approach and helps identify new ways of seeing and understanding a problem. It is a solution-based approach because it focusses on finding solutions rather than focusing on fixing the obstacles and limitations. It focuses on people first by knowing their needs, understands related problems, and come up with effective solutions to meet their needs. In other words, design thinking is a process to come up with meaningful ideas to solve peoples’ problems. Design thinking has evolved from a range of different fields like engineering, business, and architecture. However, this applies to any area based on the processes and methods used by the designer.

We keep on facing problems in our lives/ and desire to solve them, but it is sometimes difficult to find the right solution or even where to start. That’s where the “design thinking” ideology comes in, as it helps to solve complex problems by approaching it from the user’s perspective. Design thinking is explained in various design and business schools across the globe. It has helped many businesses to become more customer-centric and come up with new and innovative solutions.  It helps organizations develop better products, services, and internal processes.

Design Thinking Process

As mentioned above, the design thinking process is highly progressive and user-centric. It is foremost to know the principles which form the base of the design thinking process. Christoph Meinel and Hary Leifer of the Hasso – Plattner Institute of Design, Stanford University, California has laid down four principles of Design Thinking as listed below-

  • The Human Rule –
  • The Ambiguity Rule
  • All design is re-design
  • The Tangibility Rule

Based on the above four principles, The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka the d.school) describes design thinking as a five-stage process as below-

  1. Empathize – Involves understanding the users’ needs in their frame of reference. It marks the first stage of the design thinking process as it helps to identify the wants, need, and objectives of the users. To do it appropriately, the designer sets aside all his/her assumptions and understands the user on a psychological and emotional level to gain a real insight into their need and wants. 
  2. Define – Its time to identify the problem statement based on the information collected in the empathize stage. You analyze the users’ needs and problems and synthesize them to develop a problem statement in a human-centered manner. Instead of defining the problem as per our wish, like “We need to get our client base in small and mid-size businesses” a much better way to define the problem would be, “Small, mid-size and many startups need HR support to run their operations at a nominal cost”.  It is from this stage that the designers gather great ideas and establish features of products and services to address users’ needs. This stage advances the designer into the third stage by asking meaningful questions to explore ideas for solutions: “What business-aligned services we offer to benefit the SMBs in their smooth operations”.
  3. Ideate – This stage challenges our assumptions and triggers to generate ideas. The problem is apparent at this stage, and it’s time to brainstorm ways to identify solutions. The knowledge background from the last two phases helps us identify the feasibility and quality of ideas to find innovative solutions. The point is not to get a perfect idea, but rather to come up with as many ideas.  It’s advisable to use sketching as it becomes easier to communicate the idea.
  4. Prototype – This is an experimental phase intended to find the best solution to problems identified in previous stages. The solutions are investigated and are further accepted, improved, or rejected based on users’ experience. This stage helps the designer get a clear idea of problems, still to be addressed before the final interface with the user.
  5. Test – This is the final stage wherein the designers test the best solutions identified during the prototype phase. It is time to revisit the problem statement and make sure the end solution is meeting the needs identified in the initial stages. Designers also make some alterations and refinements to develop a more user-centric solution. This stage also redefines one or more further problems and moves you to earlier stages making the design thinking an iterative process.

Thus, the design thinking process tackles problems by empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing solutions, and brings ideas to life, eventually resulting in successful products or services. It also fosters creativity and innovation towards complex problem-solving in a highly user-centric way. Design thinking process can be used at every level of business and also by individuals to develop better alternatives for both business and society.

Listen effectively to your people – a case study

The top Sales Executive of a mid-size Pharma company is consistently complaining about the performance of the Sales team and the related hiring process. However, the company follows the three-step recruitment process with checkpoints, but the VP of Sales complains of hiring the average and below-average people in the team. He is always raising the concern of not hiring proven sales talent that impedes the team performance and finally affects the targets. The HR Head noticed the frustration of the stakeholder and decided to take steps before the situation becomes dysfunctional. She decided to have a conversation with the VP and explore more in-depth as to what is the root cause of his behavior and complaints. To effectively handle the situation she planned a meeting with him to get to the core of the problem. The HR initiated the dialogue and listened to VP complaints with patience and assured him to work in a collaborative way to resolve them. So, what is that skill which the HR imparted in this situation?  Yes, She demonstrated a high level of active listening. Active listening forms one of the essential aspects of any communication when it comes to gathering information and solving problems.

Listening is the ability of a person to respond to any sound or action. It means paying attention to the message, language, tone, and body language of the sender. Listening becomes active when a person concentrates on any communication with all senses. In our day to day life, we hear many sounds or messages and respond to them according to senses. A casual response to any external sound is considered passive hearing as it doesn’t retain the message of the speaker. But when the receiver pays full attention to the sender, understands their message, comprehends the information, and responds thoughtfully it is said to be active listening. For example, our response is casual on the bark of a street dog while our senses actively respond to a Lion’s roar. Likewise, response to an angry boss is highly attentive as compared to a normal discussion. Active listening involves both verbal and nonverbal communication, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding head, asking meaningful questions, etc. It will make the speaker feel listened that results in explicit, open, and honest communication.

Now let us examine the above situation where the Head HR decided to have a first-round of discussion with the VP to understand the situation. HR decided to take the Three-Step Dialogue strategy to address the situation. As mentioned, active listening involves full attention and understanding of the sender’s message by asking meaningful questions.  The Head HR prepared herself with a few sets of questions to reach to the core of the situation. She intended to get a clear vision of sales team objectives and align the HR strategy with the business. She structured the meeting session into following set of questions to understand the situation-

  1. Know the performance of the sales team to date – The main concern here was to collect information on sales team performance in a recent periodic review to understand the role and expectations of them.
  2. Identify the experience, skills, and behavior – This will help HR understand the characteristics required in a new hire to meet the team objectives. It helps HR in identifying potential candidates who can excel in the organization’s selling environment.
  3. Standard Profiling – The HR tries to frame a blueprint for current and future hires by identifying an ideal candidate for sales role. The VP – Sales was expected to discuss the top performer’s profile, and correlate it with new hires to improve on the hiring process.
  4. Know the competition – To create and Employee Value Proposition (EVP) it is pivotal to know about the competitors. It helps HR in identifying key differentiators used to make an appropriate hiring strategy to attract and retain talent.
  5. Appropriate JD for all positions – The HR understands any job accurately through the roles & responsibilities, qualifications, and experience. A detailed JD for a job not only helps the HR but also pass a clear communication to the applicants, about expectation and objectives attached to any position.

The VP Sales felt relaxed after this meeting and appreciated the structured and transparent communication of Head HR. Both of them agreed to partner in developing an effective strategy to improve the performance of both the departments to achieve their human capital objectives. The above case reveals the positive effects of active listening on problem-solving. It makes people feel listened to and heard. Furthermore, this skill helps people build and maintain relationships, handle conflict, retain information, and meet expectations.

Following the three-step dialogue strategy, the Head HR scheduled a third meeting with the VP Sales to discuss the blueprint for effective sales recruitment and retention strategies. She wanted to discuss the framework for maintaining clear communication, hiring process with timelines, and other changes that can support better outcomes. She plans to take the following initiatives –

  1. A three-level hiring process – The Head HR proposed to develop a mutually beneficial three-tiered interview process to hire only those candidates who exhibit only required skills, experience, and behaviors. The first level involves screening; the second measures the skills and experience; the third analyses behavior with role plays and psychometric assessment.
  2. Setting channels for clear Communication – To avoid delays and miscommunication Head HR assigned a special SPOC from the HR department who will work in close coordination with the VP Sales for the hiring process, receiving feedback and performance reviews with specific timelines.
  3. Create a top-notch onboarding program – The HR discussed an onboarding strategy that aligns with the department revenue goals. It involves the setting of onboarding objectives, developing of a sales manual, pre-hire materials, and involvement from selected stakeholders to educate recruits before and on their first day.
  4. Developing a PDP for the sales team – The HR proposed for a professional development plan in alignment with the business strategy for developing employees. It includes both the long-term and short-term objectives for the sales team together with a competency development plan that aligns with department goals.
  5. Advocating a robust sales culture – Best talent work for an organization that is engaged, competitive, and respected within the industry. The VP was advised to ensure regular reviews, appreciation, and reward systems for the sales team to develop a culture of continual progress and high achievement. It will not only help in achieving goals but will also help the HR in recruitment and retention.

The meeting concluded with mutual understanding and an assurance to take the strategy forward in achieving both the departmental and organizational objectives.

We can observe here that a number of problems can be solved with high level of active listening skills. When we listen carefully, we help calm the other person’s emotions, so they feel heard. And when emotions get de-escalated both parties can use cognitive problem-solving to generate options to overcome the situation. HR, therefore, has to be an active listener to know more about people and their concerns. Then only they can develop stronger relationships and retain more information from the workplace interactions. People who listen effectively can control communication, understand the situation, and come out with appropriate solutions.  This skill can give them an edge in life and at work. The Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “We have two ears and one tongue so to listen more and talk less”; So let’s listen first before we act.

At HRletes, we serve you by actively listening to your concerns, understanding them in your frame of reference, and work to develop efficient solutions to your problems.   

Practice Empathy for a peaceful life – A case study

The Sales team of a Pharma company was present for a project review meeting. John the project lead, felt excited to share his carefully researched presentation with his boss Sonia, and other team members. But he could not notice the same project zeal in his boss and can understand that she was stressed. It was apparent to other team members as well. Ignoring the tense atmosphere he carried out with his presentation and tried to involve the attendees. The session was going smoothly, with a proper explanation of all plan of actions required for the project. However, Sonia pointed out a minor error and berated John for not considering tiny points. She also accused the team of not putting in quality efforts. Her hurtful words embarrassed John and he felt disappointed, even the team was demotivated by Sonia’s harsh behaviour. The meeting could not be concluded and ended before the schedule.

As the week passed John and the team expected their boss to apologize for her behaviour. But Sonia didn’t however she was able to notice the team’s resentful and unproductive behaviour after the incident. She was remorseful over her harsh behaviour which resulted because of her wrestle with business continuity planning during COVID-19.  She was feeling unhappy, apologetic, and was worried about losing out a collaborative team. Being an empathetic leader she has always inspired and empowered her team but the incident loosened the bond. Sonia felt remorse for her actions but was struggling to express it in an appropriate way.

We know, all of us make mistakes and disappoint people around us somewhere or the other. But accepting the mistakes and apologizing help us become a good leader, build trust and understanding in our relationship. It also restores the dignity of the hurt person, makes them feel comfortable, and strengthens our bond with them.

But apologizing is not always easy, it is sometimes challenging for many of us. As humans, we all like to receive a heartfelt apology, but giving it, is a challenging endeavor. An Apology doesn’t come easily or naturally for most people, because they fail to identify a suitable way to express it. So, let’s try to find out some alternative behaviour in Sonia’s case to express apology.

  1. Mention and discuss the important points in the presentation through email
  2. Sharing some important links for improvement in projects
  3. Write an email or message  appreciating John’s performance in last projects
  4. Discussing a last successful project with the team
  5. Posting a picture of team achievements on social media or intranet
  6. Ask for assistance in a different on-going project
  7. Call on a team meeting to discuss the situation(COVID in this case) and brainstorm the ideas for a proper plan of action
  8. Arranging for a stress management program
  9. Organize a team lunch or get together
  10. Depicting a calm and caring behaviour

There could be numerous other ways to express regret and acknowledge fault but we struggle sometimes considering our position and image. Being a great boss doesn’t mean one has to be perfect all the time, what matters more is your readiness to acknowledge your faults and other people feel. And you would be able to do this only when you are an empathetic person. Empathy enables us to open our hearts and mind and understand the world from the perspective of others. Sonia was unhappy because she was able to identify her fault and was empathetic towards John and her team. Empathy not only makes you a successful leader but also plays a critical role in understanding and resolving conflict. It helps you establish trust and build relationships. Empathy shapes an individual and also transforms society. It develops an individual’s ability to humanize with others and create a better understanding of situations. This promotes harmony among people and helps in finding an easy solution to any conflict or problem. After all, empathy is not only an important trait in the workplace but also in your personal life as well.

So, let’s empathize to establish a better workplace and live a peaceful life.