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Design thinking. The art of employee (self)engagement

Design thinking allows you to see employees in a different light and unleash their creativity. If you are looking for innovative internal communication tools, this method may well be a perfect fit for your needs.

Design thinking is a universal approach to developing innovative products, services and even business strategies. The method relies on experimentation and the involvement of multiple participants, who present their views on a given issue and creatively engage in resolving it. Participants in design thinking sessions test their hypotheses on either new or modified products and develop prototypes based on new solutions. The key to design thinking is to focus on users and understand their needs, also those that are unrealized.

Efficiency saves time

Many communication experts admit to have extensively used design thinking for their work before they even realized they did it. In fact, the method can be employed to combine scattered diverse ideas to build a coherent strategy. Design thinking was first approached systematically in the 1990s, its main principles put forth by Prof. David. M. Kelley of Stanford University. Since then, this innovative method has been winning over successive supporters, gaining popularity in the business world. It has even found devoted followers among those professionals who consider innovation and creativity as central to their work. Today, design thinking is used by companies of various backgrounds that offer a wide range of products and services. General Electric applies it to manage performance and teach managers to “work less hard” and remain “on task”. The financial group ANZ has internally deployed a mobile application that enables its workers to manage their working time, facilitate collaboration with others, and even plan their holidays.

How is it done

Simply put, design thinking enables one to see a given service or product from the user’s perspective. It helps examine users’ reactions to the present reality and encourage them to share ideas for possible changes. Design thinking workshops focus on empathy. The point is to stand in the users’ shoes and realize their needs and expectations associated with a given product. No complex tools are needed to achieve this and help the participants share their views. Simplicity is key. All one needs for a session is markers and paper. These are used for drawing and writing to map and reflect individual experience. They track historic experience from start to finish, whether it concerns products or relations with workmates. Session participants are encouraged to brainstorm and told that anything goes other than judging other people’s ideas. The premise behind design thinking is that there are no wrong paths to outcomes or wrong beliefs in tackling problems. What counts is the free flow of ideas in a team of a few to a dozen plus people. Criticism is the least desirable response. The ideas that arise in the debate need to take shape but not necessarily be complete concepts. They may be prototypes whose value lies in reflecting people’s aspirations and desires. Design thinking does not require time-consuming and labor-intensive refinements. Commonly, the process produces multiple solutions. This gives you the benefit of being able to handpick the best ideas when the time is ripe. And this is all there is to the technical side of the approach.

Changing perspectives

A remarkable thing about design thinking is that, used to solve a specific problem (and make an improvement in a company), it can generate additional benefits, many of which may be essential for communication. To better understand an employee, manager or executive, invite them to a design thinking session. This will provide a valuable learning experience also for you, helping you understand their perspective and approach to their jobs. Importantly, design thinking will not only help you improve a product or service based on user experience, but also evoke positive emotions in the concerned employees. Team building in design thinking sessions happens spontaneously, inspired by a setting that is conducive to creative collaboration.

A perfectly involved partner

Design thinking is almost a model way of engaging employees by eliciting their most authentic responses and their most genuine views. Once we have accepted that workers are not merely passive recipients of messages but can actively help formulate them, a handy tool is available to enable them to do just that. Those who agree that internal communication is mainly an engagement enabler will find design thinking very useful. Design thinking stimulates workers and allows them to express themselves in ways that best suit their nature. It enables all parties: employees, managers and communications experts, to step outside of their traditional roles of message senders and recipients (the sender being a communications expert, the recipient, an employee). The method can work in companies that strongly value modern communication that is open to new solutions. For communication professionals, design thinking can be a universal tool for studying human interactions and worker preferences and designing new ways of communicating.

Design thinking in the digital age

Design thinking makes an ideal tool for the professionals who engage employees to actively use new technologies at work. Use it to reflect on whether the intranet, the company website, your newsletter template, or company events are actually fit for purpose. Do they inspire their audiences and users to respond favorably? Test this in a design thinking session. Before hiring an external company to fix things, test your intuitions interacting with employees in a design thinking meeting. This will improve the company’s chances of avoiding apparent innovations. Design thinking is likely to help you learn to use mobile devices for increasing engagement and improving communication in your company. Employ the method to use a mobile application to build relationships in the company. Design thinking will come in handy every time you plan to adopt truly innovative and perhaps even revolutionary solutions. At a time when the digital transformation trend can no longer be ignored, design thinking may well become your chief method for communicating at work. Or at least one of the most stimulating options.

Steer clear of rocks

To make sure that design thinking generates desired outcomes, make sure to use it capably. While the method is commonly applied to step off the beaten track and think out of the box, if a design thinking workshop is to take us where we want to be, it must not be a wild experiment. A common mistake in employing the method at communications workshops is to fail to ensure the support of people experienced in its use. Remember that although design thinking has a huge potential, you need to prepare well by reading and/or consulting experts.


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