UNLEASH World speaker Danny Seals from Accenture: Every HR function should use design thinking
Jon Kennard talks to Accenture’s Danny Seals about designing for the human – yep, that’s us.
Why You Should Care
Ever wondered what design thinking is, and how HR can use it to its full potential?
UNLEASH World speaker and Accenture Innovation Manager Danny Seals is here to tell us all about it.
It’s an abstract concept for many but design thinking could be the key to unlocking your workforce’s potential, and innovation specialist and UNLEASH World speaker Danny Seals is here to explain it all.
Watch the video or read the transcript beneath, which has been edited for clarity.
Jon Kennard: I’m delighted to be joined today by Danny Seals, one of our speakers at the upcoming UNLEASH World event in October in the Paris Convention Center. We’ve got an incredible lineup, people from all sorts of different industries. And one of your specialisms Danny, is design thinking. This is a term which has been around a while, but I’ve never really quite got to grips with it. And I’d love to know a bit more about it, and also how you can work it into HR for the benefit of the business.
Danny Seals: Sounds good, Jon. So, one of the things about design thinking is it isn’t new. It’s not something that someone’s just created right now. In fact, I think the first person to come up with design thinking was back in about 1969 actually. Herbert Simon, I think his name was, and he came up with this term of design as a way of thinking and that’s kind of where design thinking stemmed from. And actually, you can go even further back in time; with Kellogg’s, there’s a story around how they came up with the cornflake. And when you look at how they came up with that, they were just doing design thinking. They didn’t know it as a term. But ultimately, you know, it was around understanding the people, the audience, and your people’s pain points.
In a nutshell, design thinking is ultimately an approach to understand and co-design a solution. That could be a whitespace solution, it could be creating a chocolate bar, it could be coming up with a solution on how to redesign your onboarding. But ultimately, what we’re trying to do is put that human front and center of the reason behind what we’re trying to design for.
And there are many different ways. I think last time I checked, I think there are 19 different ways to do design thinking. There’s different models and methods of how to do it, but you tend to see it put into five actions, which are: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.
I think IBM use an infinity loop to sum it up. But what you are really coming down to is putting the person front and center of what you’re trying to come up with solutions for, really understand their pain points, and then do some divergent, quite wide, expansive thinking, and then come back into accountability. Then, narrow down your thinking and use that to create something unique.
Applying design thinking in HR
JK: So in terms of how you could deploy that in HR, obviously by the nature of what HR professionals do, the human is – or should be – front and center. So how can you bring design thinking techniques into that then?
DS: if you ask me, every single HR function should be using design thinking because when you think about HR, the goal is human, it’s right there. But, it’s been renamed and rebranded and called ‘the people function’ or whatever. But the human is always at the center of that. And I think when you look at human-centered design and design thinking, the humans are at the center there as well. So it makes perfect sense.
When you think about how it can be applied to HR. But the best way I try to see this, you’ve got two archetypes or two groups of people. You’ve got the explorers, right? And this is someone who often works in the new white space for new innovation, creating random things together and creating something truly innovative. And that can often be a new product, a new service, or a new experience. And these people tend to fall within like the R&D (research and development) functions of the business.
And then you’ve got what I call the detectives, right? These are the people who will be in the functions of learning, HR, talent, and employee experience, an 90% of their role from a design thinking point of view is sense-making; Understanding the current world, understanding what’s going on, and really trying to really get under the hood to see where these pain points are, creating experiences and then testing out new internal solutions.
So for me, for an HR function using design thinking, 90% of their time would be actually trying to get under the hood. Really trying to identify the pain points. And coming up with new solutions for the current world where the explorers then handle the big radical thinking, new products, new services.
So you’ll bounce between the two, but if I was to sum it up HR would fit in that ‘protected’ bucket, where you’re using design thinking to really understand the pain points of people currently in the organization, and really trying to come up with some new solutions and really identifying the root cause. Often, what we tend to see is, whether you’re in HR or learning or whatever, we tend to go straight into solution mode. And the problem is, if you don’t care about your people’s problem, they’re not going to care about your solution later on down the line. And that’s ultimately why design thinking and human-centered design are really important to do in that HR function.
JK: So another term that maybe overlaps with this, or is possibly a subset of this is human-centered design. Are these similar things? Or are they disciplines to work well, together? Tell me a bit more about human-centered design if possible.
DS: Yeah, definitely. So HR and human-centered design go hand in hand, right? In theory, it’s a match made in heaven. The best way I try and describe human-centered design and design thinking…let’s use the analogy of a house. If you were to create a house, the slates and the bricks of that house would be the areas which we work in, okay.
And the wooden frame, what we build around that wooden frame is human-centered design. That’s our framework, what we follow. And then the bricks and the builders and all that stuff, they’re the approaches, the mindsets, the tools we use to build that house – design thinking is more of a mindset as to what we use to build a house. And what we’re trying to build around is this human-centered design, it’s at the core, it’s a theme that we build around.
Now, often, when you hear human-centered design, again it depends on which space you fall into. If you fall into whitespace innovation, human-centered design tends to be like a Venn diagram. So you’ve got desirability, feasibility and viability. And the idea is that human-centered design, is in the center, the sweet spot, right? When we’re thinking about desirability; four questions, what we’re trying to really ask is actually do people even want this because we can create the best thing in the world, the new products, the new solution, the new talent, the new reward system, or whatever.
But actually, if your people don’t want it, you can put all the money behind it, but if it is not desirable by your customer, it’s an absolute waste of time.
When I’ve worked with some clients in the past, they’ve overlooked accessing desirability first, and they go straight into viability and feasibility. Actually, desirability is the first thing we should be testing. When we think about viability that’s more around actually is this going to be profitable for us? Does this link out into the structure of business?
And then feasibility is okay, people do want it, we’ve tested desirability, now, is this something we should do? Do we have the right capabilities to do it ourselves? So you know, when you start thinking about human-centered design, you’ve got design thinking, experience design, service design, all wrapped around human-centered design. It’s probably the best way I can describe it.
Leave it to the professionals
JK: Got you, I think. So the next question is, so now we’ve got an overview of how it works. Is it possible that anyone can embed these techniques in their HR strategy? Is it something best left to the professionals? Are there tips that people can take to do it themselves or is this really a consultancy type thing?
DS: This is a bit of an unpopular opinion. My background, originally, was employee experience and learning and development. And then I started to ask the questions, surely there’s a better way to design for these pain points. And that took me down the path of the design discipline. That led me into service design, human-centered design thinking, and ultimately things like system thinking.
Now on paper, I’m sure I could have done five years at university and then another five years somewhere else and validated it. We live in a world where we can get knowledge, and we can find knowledge by a simple Google search. So yeah, anyone can do it. The only caveat I put to that is in order to do design thinking, you need to understand the mindset, the behaviors, and the capabilities behind it. You can’t just pick up a book and go, oh great, that’s a thing. Let’s do that. Design thinking is something you’ve got to do in the day-to-day.
So you can understand the mindsets and the difference between really stepping outside the comfort zone and being provocative in how you come up with solutions and how you challenge your customer and stuff like that. And that’s great.
One of the issues we’ve got right now with design thinking is we have this bias for creating playbooks. Everyone wants to create a playbook. Hey, here’s the design thinking playbook.
Here’s a set of tools where you can run and go for it. And that’s all good but if you don’t have a depth of knowledge, knowing when to pivot, which tool is actually going to give you a different result and when to use it, it’s a bit of a risk. You end up going in and designing for something that isn’t even a problem.
So I think what we’re seeing at the moment is there’s this commodity approach now what’s happening with design thinking, it’s more like a cookie cutter, I think it’s fine. As long as you invest that time in that mindset and those capabilities first. Design thinking has some flaws, right? It has some booby traps, if you like. And if you can identify them, then it becomes a really tricky situation. And you end up doing design thinking on a problem that probably didn’t need it, or actually, you’ve not really dug under the hood enough, so you’re only really fixing a superficial problem.
So yeah, it can be done. It’s an investment in time – if I think about how long I’ve been doing it, I probably do it for about eight years. Every day. I think it all comes down to that beginner’s mindset. Ultimately, I think as soon as you start thinking design thinking fixes everything, you become one of these gurus or thought leaders where your solution fixes every single problem in the world. And it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s better ways to approach it.
JK: Good to know. Proceed with caution is what I’m hearing.
DS: Exactly. And I think, when you think about the flaws in design thinking, sometimes it misses the bigger system, especially in organizational design. Sometimes you get so blinkered, you focus on this one slight problem, and you overlook the service that underpins it or even how this thing operates in the wider system. So yeah, I think proceeding with caution is a very good wrap-up, for sure.
UNLEASH World preview
JK: Just to wrap up the conversation, we’re not going to do go too much into this, but I’d really like to hear a little bit about your talk on this world. It’s titled, ‘The Theater of Work’. So tell us a little bit.
DS: I’ve been playing around with this concept that, when you think about it, work is a form of theater. And, if you think about it, you’re the lead in that play, that show. And ultimately, it leans on my evolution of how I design actually. So basically, what I’m trying to say is actually when you come up with design thinking, when you come up with a design, you need to think broader than just design thinking, you need to understand the backstage and front stage of the work, but this play of work ultimately.
So for my talk, trying not to give too much away, is I’ll be looking at how do we design for the human, how do we design for the experience of the employee? But actually, how do we look at the system? And how do we look at the service that you need in order to make this play come together?
And the analogy to use is, if you go to a show, you get to watch the front stage show. But actually, it’s things behind the scenes that make that thing come to life. So it’s about actually how do we create this theater of work? And how do we start to design better experiences? If I was to ask those to go out to 10 people right now in a certain company and say what it’s like to work at ‘X’.
They won’t tell me about processes. They’ll tell me about their experiences. And I think that’s our value, right? It’s how we measure employee experiences, how we share stories, and how we talk about them.
JK: Great stuff. Well, in a time where I think employees are demanding better experiences it’s a really good point to start thinking about what these experiences are going to look like and how people are going to interact with them, so yeah really looking forward to it I’ll see you in Paris we’ll meet face to face hopefully!
DS: That’d be great. Thanks very much.
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Editorial content manager
Jon has 20 years' experience in digital journalism and more than a decade in L&D and HR publishing.
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