ATD Blog

Design Thinking for Talent Management

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It was the morning of day two of the annual graduate onboarding event when she got the call. The chief human resources officer of one of the biggest technology companies in the world sat wide-eyed as she was informed that 50 of the 300 learners wanted to go home. The onboarding experience hadn't met their expectations apparently. So, she flew in a day earlier than planned to meet with her new, mutinous charges.

They thrashed out a deal. The group of 50 had to design a new onboarding experience that would not only satisfy them, but also receive the buy-in of the other 250. “You better get a move on” she said, before leaving. “I'll be back this time tomorrow.”

Today’s war on talent means that companies need to look at any conceivable edge to maintain and nurture their most precious resource. As the opening vignette demonstrates, established companies can no longer count on their own brand luster to ensure loyalty and engagement. In our work in Barcelona, we have found that design thinking can be a useful tool for helping talent management leaders give their organizations a must-needed edge.

Design thinking is about finding a better way. Not just a better product or service but a better way of satisfying human needs—and today’s workplace may benefit greatly by becoming more human. Here are a few ways we’re working toward more human workplaces through different design areas:

Environment Design 

In a digital world the physical still matters, perhaps more than ever. Physical artifacts and visual aids may be used to improve the workplace experience and also nudge employees to more positive productive behavior. Companies such as Google are experimenting with their workplace environments within the area of behavioral economics to improve health, wellbeing, and productivity. Much of this approach is powered by data analytics and observation, a key skill in the designer’s armory.


Consider Accenture’s Global Innovation Center in Dublin, the smartest building in the world with more 5000 sensors. Its ongoing data collection enables the company to continually tweak the environment to better satisfy the needs of the workers. And the workers themselves can design their environment on the fly. Each employee has an app which allows them to change the heating and lighting wherever they are. 


Leaders need to manage in a more empathetic manner. At the end of the day work is still work. Employees must maintain professionalism and understand their responsibilities, yet the employer has to take their duty of care seriously. And this duty of care must encompass the whole picture, including home and family life, as well as notions of health and wellbeing.


Such liberal paternalism allows diagnosis and preventative action before full-blown crises occur, including the best talent walking out the door. Empathy, a key tenet of design thinking, relies on observation and communication. As a leader, are you paying attention to the signals in your team and able to hold an empathetic conversation? 


Design is a process. The iterative loop (traditionally covering problem definition, gaining empathy, concept generation, and validation) helps to accelerate learning and progress. Experimentation and the acceptance of failure are central and may be leveraged within the talent management context.

Top talent need to be able to express themselves; they cannot be confined by company checks and controls. Self-expression leads to learning, both for the individual and the organization. Failure helps in the learning process, as long as failure doesn’t occur in a mission-critical context. Design thinking helps us create the space for experimentation and failure.

Environment design, empathy, and iteration may not have averted the onboarding crisis described above, but these elements can help develop the talent management strategy in an organization. What’s more, this strategy re-design will help ensure the best talent stays in the enterprise and allows it to flourish.

About the Author

Dr. Steven P. MacGregor is founder of the Leadership Academy of Barcelona and a professor at IE Business School in Madrid. He is the author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015), and his new book, Chief Wellbeing Officer, was published June 2018. You can follow him on Twitter at @spmacg.

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