Design thinking goes outside the box

Five-stage model can improve employee effectiveness
By Trish Maguire
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/20/2017

In our VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), it’s refreshing to see design thinking has finally come into the mainstream for many companies such as Google, Samsung and Apple, to name the obvious.

Design thinking was introduced in 1969 when Herbert Simon outlined the first seven-stage model.

At a recent SCNetwork event, Mark Leung, director of Rotman DesignWorks, introduced a five-stage model: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Leung’s challenging case study question for the audience was “How might we redesign the workplace culture to improve employee effectiveness?”

Having practised his process at the event, I have a different challenge question for HR: “How can the design-thinking process accelerate your HR team’s ability to build compelling HR strategies and programs that will profoundly enhance your employees’ experience in your workplace?”

I strongly encourage every HR leader to think about how they could apply and practise the five-stage model. For example, if your HR team learned to use the first stage — empathize — and started to more fully observe, engage and empathize with employees, how much more could they understand employees’ needs, experiences, issues and motivations? Moreover, how could that improve your workplace conditions and culture?

Now, envision what would happen if your HR team actioned the second and third stages — define and ideate. The goal could be “to determine conditions, functions, programs and any other factors that would enable your HR team to solve problems more resourcefully.” The ultimate goal could be “to enable employees to resolve issues for themselves with the minimum of difficulty.”

With the introduction of the ideation phase, the aim would be to gain as many ideas or solutions as possible for the above goal. Using any “ideation technique” — where the most popular ones are still brainstorming, mind-mapping and storyboarding — your team would create alternative ways of viewing the defined problems.

Without using design thinking, what do you think is the possibility of your HR team falling into old habits and comfort zones and using a preceding solution? And what’s the possibility they apply the same actions, stock information-based decisions and “HR in the box” solutions for predictable, similar or recurring issues?

The final two stages — prototype and testing — involve experimentation, investigation and identification, sharing and testing. By involving other departments or teams, proposed solutions can be accepted, rejected, improved and reconsidered.

How many times has your HR team rolled out strategies, programs and practices based on quantitative and rationale analytics, and fallen short of the objective? Best solutions are not always instantly apparent with solely linear and logical problem-solving models.

What makes design thinking an essential tool and a choice model for HR? Fundamentally, the stages help you to conscientiously introduce, discover, share and apply human-centric techniques to solve problems in creative and innovative ways. And the processes can be learned and practised by everybody, and applied equally to products, services, customers and employees.

Because the model is flexible and non-linear, it can operate as a perpetual loop where each stage can be conducted simultaneously. Each stage can be integrated or repeated in any order by any team.

Consider the greater impact an HR team could achieve by adopting design thinking as their customary practice for developing meaningful HR strategies that support building a great workplace.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *