How ‘design thinking’ can transform your talent development strategies

Design thinking is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives. Read on to know how HR teams can use it as a tool too.


Ever wondered what goes behind creating the new innovative products – such as those of Apple? Thanks to design thinking, we have these amazing offerings at our disposal. However, are you aware that this process can also lead to radical transformation in talent-development strategies? Case in point is Nike.

Design thinking is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives. Nike CLO, Andre Martin and his colleagues decided to use this approach to overhaul talent development in the company. Two reasons led to this decision.

The first was a belief that Nike’s HR operation should model how the actual business works. Therefore, Martin’s team borrowed the design thinking principles from merchandising and product design.

Second, Nike is in a competitive market for talent. Martin believed that its differentiation should come from his team being closer to its key consumers – Nike’s managers and leaders.

The HR team wanted to focus on the employees while developing design-talent solutions, to unleash their full potential. While approaching this challenge, the team considered the shifts in traditional learning and development thinking that are critical to developing leaders of growth.

According to Martin, “The ability to see ourselves as product designers, rather than HR leaders, has changed the conversation.” The team now thinks smarter about how it moves from insight to innovation.

Design Thinking Guru Justin Ferrell will be leading a series of open enrollment workshops on 10-11 December in Mumbai, 13-14 December in New Delhi and 16-17 December in Bengaluru. Click here to know more.

“We create more credibility for the function as we speak the language of our leaders,” he added. “We now spend less time selling because we are serving clear and pressing needs. Uptake is almost automatic.”

Nike and a handful of other forward-thinking organisations have begun to see the advantages of viewing their employees as customers. They are applying design-thinking principles to internal processes so that their organisations are re-calibrated for a fast-changing world.

These efforts require leaders throughout the business who can think and act more like designers. Martin has collaborated with design-thinking faculty, Justin Ferrell, to roll out design-thinking workshops in various formats at Duke Corporate Education, where they work with Global 1000 firms to build the abilities good designers must possess. Three of them are as follows:

Design Ability #1: Act with Empathy
We are born egocentric. This was a finding identified by neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute. We use ourselves as a yardstick to formulate opinions and project our emotional state on to others. As leaders, experience often creates comfort in applying our yardsticks, which is problematic in a fast-changing world. We need to test our assumptions and be curious about the experience of customers and employees. Empathy has to be practised and relearned.

Design Ability #2: Successive Approximation
It is tempting to elongate analysis and prepare to make ‘one big final decision’. Many were trained to operate in such a way. This is another learned skill that needs an overhaul. Leave this approach outside your organisation. Instead, consider iterating and co-creating with others in real time. This requires us to study, frame, act and adapt our solutions in shorter intervals.

Design Ability #3: Integrative Thinking
Author and consultant Graham Douglas introduced this concept in 1986 as the ‘process of integrating intuition, reason and imagination to address a problem’. The data we get from direct experience and closeness with users, coupled with more imagination, is what is needed to generate a unique insight into today’s challenges.

Most of our clients are reshaping their organisations to be more adaptive – faster with better engagement. Having more leaders who ‘think and act like designers’ can accelerate these efforts to turn problems into possibilities for all our stakeholders.

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