Design Thinking and the Workplace Experience

Design Thinking and the Workplace Experience

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Design has long played a major role in product innovation.  But in the last few years, a shift has been underway bringing design to the very core of the business.  “The Evolution of Design Thinking: It’s no longer just for products. Executives are using this approach to devise strategy and manage change,” read the cover of the Harvard Business Review’s September issue, which featured several articles on the subject. 

Leading-edge companies are leveraging design thinking to translate technological advances into compelling customer experiences in order to seize market share from more traditional competitors.  As noted in one of the HBR articles, design-centric organizations are adamantly focused on their customer’ needs, rather than on their internal operational efficiencies.

A second HBR article explored a different kind of application.  To help overcome the stiff resistance often encountered by disruptive innovations, - both within one’s own organization and in the marketplace, - the article proposed that design thinking should be applied to their actual introduction, - a process it calls intervention design.

I would now like to turn to another recent article, Management by Design, by professors Mark Gruber, Nick de Leon, Gerry George and Paul Thomson.  As the authors argue, design principles should be applied within the management domain itself, to help rethink business processes, workflows and the overall structure of the organization and thus create what it calls a New Workplace Experience (NWX).

The article views design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that puts the observation and discovery of often highly nuanced, even tacit, human needs right at the forefront of the innovation process.”  It’s particularly effective when breakthrough thinking is required to address highly complex problems.  It’s highly iterative, collaborative and interdisciplinary, - involving users and stakeholders with technical and business skills through the whole design process.

How can you apply design principles to help rethink the workplace experience? 

The mass production of standardized products is a hallmark of the 20th century industrial economy, bringing high productivity and low costs to a wide variety of products, - from household appliances to cars.  In the early part of the century, it was famously associated with the assembly line pioneered by Henry Ford for the Ford Model T, as well as with the scientific management methods pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor to improve the overall productivity of labor.  Decades later, lean production revolutionized manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, while business process reengineering was used to streamline organizations in the 1990s. 

As the article points out, these various industrial age initiatives “were engineered rather than designed - just as we might consider a product to be well engineered technically, but lacking in design and not empathetic with its users’ needs.”  They were focused on process and workflow optimization rather than on employee’s journeys and experiences. 

But, as has been the case with consumer experiences, workers now expect much more from digitally savvy companies.  Instead, for the past few years there’s been a puzzling discrepancy in technology adoption between individuals and organizations.  In their personal lives, individuals are enthusiastically embracing technological advances, while many companies and institutions seem unable to keep up. 

For example, during a panel discussion at the 2012 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, I learned about Sunday-night/Monday-morning syndrome, the name given to a certain kind of tension between employees and their IT organizations.  Employees are increasingly frustrated that, at home on Sunday night, they have access to the latest devices and applications, purchased on their own, that have become such an indispensable part of their daily lives.  But, when they show up at work the following morning, they have to use the more primitive and limiting devices and applications supported by their IT departments.  As a result, as a member of the CIO panel noted, a large number of employees now have two devices at work: “One is the device we gave them, the other is the one they actually work on.” 

The competition for talent has exacerbated this tension, especially when it comes to the younger generation of workers.  These digital native young adults are beginning to dominate the workplace.  They “tend to be well educated, well networked, multilingual, and self-determined, are looking for jobs that enable personal growth and development of the self, and yet, in their job search, typically encounter workplaces that are suffering from restrictive hierarchies, high levels of routinization, and do not offer the preferred flexible and multifaceted activities.” 

New technologies are continuing to transform the workplace, including social media, big data, cloud computing, Internet of Things and mobile devices of all sorts.  As a result, many established businesses are having an even harder time keeping up.  “These technologies not only blur the boundaries between work, rest, and play, but also have the capacity to transform the workplace experience, as well as the consumer services - and this requires not only engineering but design thinking.” 

What key factors are currently influencing the work environment?  The paper lists several, including organizational design, incentives and management procedures; tasks and business processes; support tools and information services; interaction between employees within the business, as well as with partners and customers; and organizational culture, communications and human resource programs. 

It then proposes six key principles to help guide the design of the New Workplace Experience (NWX): 

  • Identify real and compelling needs.  Designing the NWX requires a deep and empathic understanding of “the end-user customers and how value is created for them, and then, with the same empathy, translating that into the roles and tasks to be performed by the employees to fulfill those needs and the organizational, management, and digital systems that support them.” 
  • Focus on value and values.  “The NWX must enable the employee to understand how their role (and associated actions) contributes value to the organization’s goals, and how it creates new value for its customers; recognize that there is an alignment of values between the employee, organization, and its customers.” 
  • Design the employee experiences, not just workflows and tools.  “Design of the NWX should be from the perspective of the user or employee journey, and each and every one of the associated touchpoints that unfold over time.  The goal is simplicity.  An elegant solution resolves a complex set of activities with seeming simplicity, making the outcome natural and harmonious, rational and efficient.” 
  • Collaboration, co-creation, co-production.  Employee or user experience cannot be designed in a vacuum; “they are co-created, even co-produced”.  This requires close collaboration between front-line employees and the back-office teams that support them, as well as with the customers receiving the services. 
  • Sensory and emotional engagement.  All the elements involved in delivering a service, including the physical work environments and digital interactions will influence the employees’ experiences, perceptions and behaviors.  Thus, they should be carefully designed to evoke particular emotions and responses, as well as to stimulate creativity and collaboration. 
  • Creating a narrative.  “Managing the sequence, progression, and duration of events creates a narrative,… especially where the service involves direct end-user customer engagement.” 

Applying design thinking to the workplace is quite new.  Despite its importance, companies have been generally slow to respond to the changing needs of their workforce.  The Management by Design paper recommends that companies start doing so with a few simple steps that will contribute to a much improved workplace experience. 

  • “New service and product design processes… that [will help] enable a more integrated, interdisciplinary, and collaborative innovation process.” 
  • “[I]nformation and the information experience that support workplace operations… [enabling] greater and more effective integration of different disciplines and functions, [including] the organization’s relationship to the extended enterprise or partner ecosystems that participate in the value chain.” 
  • A physical workplace that enables “greater interaction, collaboration, and interdisciplinary working, as well as the capacity to move between the concrete or material world and the world of the imagination.” 
  • An effective management design, “applied through communication, motivation, and incentivization programs that stimulate, support, and reward new behaviors.

Companies should embrace design thinking, - not only to enhance their customer’s experiences, - but those of their workplace as well.  Given its importance in attracting and retaining top talent, as well as improving productivity and operational effectiveness, the workplace experience companies create will prove to be a significant competitive differentiator in the digital economy.


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