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Power to Your People: Engagement Lessons from Design Thinking


Design Thinking is a People-Centric Approach to Business

(February 3, 2017) – More than 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie laid out an approach to inspiring and attracting others in what became one of the best-selling self help books ever written: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Among his core principles were several related to understanding others:

  1. Arouse in the other person an eager want: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angles as well as from your own.”
  2. Become genuinely interested in other people: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
  3. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders: “No one likes to take orders … Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the persons whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”

listening to employees

And yet, 80 years later, many businesses still operate from a command-and-control perspective that ignores these principles. Products, services, programs, and even internal workforce initiatives are still often dreamed up behind closed doors by a small part of the workforce and delivered to an audience of users, buyers, and employees. When what’s delivered doesn’t interest others or arouse an “eager want,” products sit unsold on shelves, services go unused, and employees ignore initiatives and programs intended to help them, resulting in a lack of productivity and motivation to move the business forward.

Design Thinking is the antithesis of that approach. Borne out of the beliefs that (1) people tend to support what they have created and (2) it’s better to research and meet an audience’s needs than to make assumptions about what they want, Design Thinking is an approach to innovation guided by the same people-centric principles championed by Carnegie.

Those Who Create Tend to Support

By focusing on the end user throughout a project (who the finished product, service, or initiative is for) and consulting with them to understand their problems, needs, and perspectives, Design Thinking helps guide organizations toward making the right thing, taking the right approach, and involving the people who ultimately make or break the success of the project.

Design Thinking focuses the work of creating new things on studying problems before jumping to solutions, gathering as many ideas as possible about how to solve the problem, and building prototypes to see how people use them before committing to a product, service, or initiative. The idea is that by the time a solution is finalized, the audience is already invested. They see themselves and their point of view in what was made. They not only want to support the end result, but are genuinely helped by doing so.

As an example of the power of involvement, think about the last time you drove a rental car. Did you wash it? Check the oil? Park it at the outskirts of the parking lot to avoid dings? Chances are you didn’t. (I once went 2,208 miles in a rental car with the check engine light on.)

Now how do you treat your own car? When you put your hard earned money into a car that fits your lifestyle and spend your time cleaning and maintaining it, you’re more motivated to give it the care it needs. You may even be proud of what the brand, color, style, cleanliness, and/or performance says about you.

The same principle applies across many facets of life—including the workforce.  When your employees can see themselves–their perspectives, ideas, and contributions–in how you make your products, deliver services, and enact workforce initiatives, they are more motivated to support them and your business as a whole.

The Big Two: Engagement Lessons From Design Thinking

If you are tasked with engaging your workforce, you can incorporate the people-centric approach of Design Thinking with some simple changes to how you approach building engagement:

  1. Listen to as many of your employees as you can. The goal is to both express your genuine interest in them and come to understand their perspectives. In some workplaces, this is easier said than done, but technology gives us a “Hail Mary” here. If your workforce is remote or asynchronous, digital conversations and messaging can be just as effective as in-person conversations (and have the added benefit of imposing more clearly defined time and topic constraints).Consistently send your employees questions that get at the heart of who they are, what they believe, and why they have chosen to work for you over your competitors. Find out how they feel about how your organization does business, your current initiatives, and needs they have that aren’t getting met. Understand who they are and what they need before embarking on new initiatives. (If you aren’t sure where to start, consult our list of suggested questions.)
  2. Invite your employees to be creators, not just consumers. Some of the most popular and engaging products today invite their audiences to be creators, not just consumers. According to Pew Research, more than 70% of adult internet users are members of Facebook (now valued at more than $300 billion)–a platform whose entire content repository is user-generated. Additionally, 67% of smartphone owners say they use their phones to share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their community, with 35% saying they do so frequently. When given an outlet for contribution, people jump at the chance to create.

Regularly ask your employees to contribute to the things your organization is making whether it’s improvements to processes, new initiatives, or even helping a new leadership team transition to leading the company. Ask employees to share what they think you should know before you make changes, give advice on the direction of projects, and provide suggestions for things that need to be addressed. Remember that people prefer questions over direct orders. Give your employees an outlet for contributing and you will be surprised by their willingness to help you make your initiatives a success.

Better understand your employees and gain their support by creating a more positive internal experience. Check out our solution page to learn how to invite employees to join the conversation. 

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