Design thinking & Human Resources


Design thinking is an extremely powerful and versatile approach to innovation. It can be used across various areas of knowledge to solve problems that require more than a simple step-by-step, easy to find, visible solution.

This is the catch, design thinking delivers its best results at the confluence of two elements: when it focuses on problems that are complex by nature and don’t have a “knowable” or “visible” solution and when those problems affect people.

And it is precisely at that intersection where most of the problems that the Human Resources (HR) function is dealing with live. They are complex and they impact people in severe ways.

HR is dealing with problems that I categorize in four important areas:

  • People problems: how to put people first and maximize employee and candidate experience? This means ensuring that people have their best experience at work, while delivering the results the organization is expecting from them. Also attracting the best talent in the market. Ultimately, putting people above processes and systems.
  • Alignment problems: how to align what people really want with the organization’s purpose? This means helping people find meaning and purpose in the work they do, and connecting their purpose to that of the organization.
  • Systems and processes problems: how to redesign systems and processes to become more agile? HR is dealing with approaches that have been in place for many decades (for example, rating-based, annual performance review).
  • Technology problems: how can HR leverage on tech applications to focus on the work that truly adds value? This means breaking down every single job that HR is doing today into pieces, selecting the transactional, “automatable” elements and use technology to perform them, while keeping and focusing on the rest of the work that adds real value.

These four “buckets” include most of the complex problems that HR is dealing with today. They have to do with the nature of work people engage with and the way they do it. And these kinds of problems meet the basic requirements for design thinking to deliver the best value.

Design thinking in HR problems

Design thinking usually has six steps: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, testing and scaling. Let’s see how each of these steps works for HR and use one (painful) example: performance management (PM).


This is the step where problems are analyzed from the perspective of how they affect people.

A design thinking team in charge of transforming performance management would begin by looking at how the current approach to PM impacts people operations. They would do so by using several tools, such as interviews, focus groups, journey maps (how the process really works beyond the ink in the paper), journaling (asking people to write down the pain points along the PM process), among others.

I am sure that upon finishing this stage, the design thinking team (working team) would find several ways PM affects people: time consuming, doesn’t drive better performance, doesn’t help people address their performance gaps, it focuses on what people didn’t do well and not on what they excelled at, among others.

This step is the essence of design thinking. Empathy means fully understanding of how a problem prevents people from unleashing their potential, finding meaning at work, giving their best self or even being happy!

Empathy has three core values: emotional intelligence; self-awareness; and active listening.


Once the working team fully understands how a complex problem is affecting people, then they move to the second step: defining what the problem is. Let me put it this way “the rating-based, annual performance management is a piece of sh…” is not a real definition. The working team must come up with something not only better, but a definition that truly captures the complexity and the intensity of the problem.

Most HR problems don’t fall in just one of the buckets defined above. Instead, they are so complex that they have content in each of the four areas. PM is just like that. It is time-consuming, costly, low beneficial, not techy and doesn’t create or add any value. So here is the trick for HR: instead of setting yourself for failure and trying to solve a complex problem all at once, break it down and use design thinking for smaller, workable pieces.

For example, instead of revamping the entire PM process, what if the team focuses on “creating a high performing culture where teams support each other by providing feedback and leaders coach and mentor their teams”? You see, I am not talking here about the tech systems to perform PM, or ratings/no ratings. I am just focusing on a small, but important piece of the problem.

Definition has one core value: synthesizing.


Now, the fun starts!

This is the step where curiosity, creativity and imagination are unleashed. The working team is free from any constraints here. They think about the best possible ways to solve the problem.

It is fundamental that in the ideation process the working team focuses just on volume and divergence, versus quality and convergence. That means that, for now, it is better to have a greater amount of ideas, even when they are extremely different from each other or even not feasible, than having a small group of ideas that are too similar. The reason is simple: you want to avoid thinking within the existing parameters of the organization. The working team needs to start the creation process anew, as if they were in a new organization that didn’t have any process in place.

In doing so, ideation becomes idea-storming. Of course, since the working team knows the organization and its current culture, they would also know that some things may be truly impossible to do. For example, “fire all managers to bring others that like providing feedback”. That won’t happen, will it?

Ideation has two core values: open-mindedness and creativity.


The fun continues!

Once the team has ideated all possible solutions, they should narrow down from volume/divergence to quality/feasibility/convergence. This means studying and understanding each possible solution and filtering them through heavy questioning to see which ones survive.

This is tricky, though, because you wouldn’t want to leave a solution out of the equation just because it doesn’t fit into the existing context. Some solutions might push the boundaries a little bit, and that’s ok.

Once you narrowed down the long list of ideated solutions into a smaller and more manageable list, you enter in a prototyping phase. This means creating a mock up (so to speak) of a smaller set of solutions selected. If the smaller piece of the “performance management problem” to be addressed is “how to foster a culture of feedback and coaching”, you may have two potential mock-ups: bringing a small group of external coaches to work with a small unit or unleash talent from within and turn them into coaches.

Prototyping should be cheap! Yes, cheap! Meaning that you won’t go all the way investing a lot of money or resources in each solution. That’s why it’s called “prototyping!”. The idea of prototyping is building something so cheap that you can change pieces of the solution over and over again without any pain. That’s iteration!

Prototyping has three core values: open-mindedness; experimentation; and iteration.


Immediately after prototyping a set of feasible and potentially valuable and viable solutions, the working team goes out to the field and test the prototyped solutions.

When the team starts the testing process they also come up with several assumptions about each prototype. This is very positive, because the testing step will give them information about those assumptions. At the end, the team is basically validating whether their initial assumptions are true or not.

The working team will learn a lot of things in the process:

  • The solutions that work and the ones that don’t.
  • The changes they should make in their original assumptions to ensure that the final solution truly works.
  • The things or ideas they have to let go (because they don’t work) to prioritize the ones that do.

Testing is the pre-final step in the design thinking process. Here, the working team decides on a final solution. Such solution could be an improved version of an original prototype, the combination of several prototypes or even a new prototype altogether, built when the original ones didn’t fully address the problem.

The end-result of testing is selecting a workable solution that can be implemented beyond the “control group” (or the pilot group) and scaled up to larger groups or across the entire organization.

Testing has two core values: letting go (don’t get emotionally attached to any prototype!) and reframing.


The last step in the process is taking the tested solution from a test to a functional, scalable package.

Scaling means taking the solution to another, higher level within the organization. At this point, the solution was validated, the assumptions were refined, and the team is ready to go for more.

As I said before, the trick for HR processes is to understand that because most problems are so complex, they need to be solved differently than, say, a machine problem. When it comes to people operations problems, the best approach is to break them down after the Empathy step into workable pieces and then work out each piece separately. This approach doesn’t have to be slow, by the way, it can actually bring about disruptive innovation to HR with solutions that truly work.

Author-Enrique Rubio is a Tech and HR Evangelist. He’s passionate about Human Resources, People Operations, Technology and Innovation. Enrique is an Electronic Engineer, Fulbright Scholar and Executive Master in Public Administration with a focus on HR. Over the past 15 years Enrique has worked in the HR and tech world. A lot of his research and work revolves around the digitization of the workplace and Human Resources. Enrique currently works as an HR Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. He’s also the founder of Hacking HR. Enrique is currently building Cotopaxi, an artificial intelligence-based recruitment platform for emerging markets. Article from social media and first posted on LinkedIn by Enrique Rubio, PMP, CSM


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