Why Design Thinking needs to be a part of your employee onboarding program

Can you look at this list of phrases and guess what they all relate to?

  1. Email activation
  2. Desk setup
  3. Necessary documentation
  4. Company operations and organizational culture
  5. History of the company
  6. Segregation of departments
  7. Current projects
  8. Corporate culture
  9. Company products and current client list
  10. Security practices, passwords, and handing over of keys
  11. Necessary timetables and telephone numbers

Quite obviously, these are a list of conventional activities during an employee onboarding process. The first four are from the 75-step Yes to Desk onboarding process of the microblogging platform Twitter. The process begins with a breakfast with a senior employee, and ends happily with a bottle of wine kept on the new employee’s desk.

The next four are from the marketing automation platform Mailchimp, who have designated Chimpanions to take them through their paces and make them feel comfortable in the initial days. The last set of three comes from the recruitment software platform Lever, not to be confused with the more well-known Unilever.

All three organizations mentioned are 21st century companies, so they have less of the day long PowerPoint presentations of mission and vision to a room full of hardly attentive new joiners. But still, if you look closely, most of the eleven elements listed above are still about what the ‘employee should know’ instead of what ‘the employee should do’. Luckily many progressive companies are now changing this approach.

Hitting the ground running

Information is no longer at a premium compared to, say, a decade or two back. A search on the internet will easily tell a new hire (even before the date of joining) the history of the employer, products, markets, and even the philosophy of the company.  Onboarding has to go beyond ‘content dumping’ and enable the employee to experience the organizational values, culture  and develop capability to start delivering. 

Whether it is the Accounts department which has a more inward-looking perspective, or the Sales team which has a mostly outward perspective, the one thing common to them is the need to solve problems. So how do employers get their new hires into problem solving mode quickly?

The answer to this question lies in the headline of this blog. And many companies are now realising this. But first, what is design thinking?

A quick look at design thinking

At the outset, design thinking is not a quick fix tool. It is a way of thinking. It trains the mind to look at a problem from the point of view of the stakeholder, so that more ideas can be generated about how to resolve the problem, these solutions are then critically examined, a plausible solution is shortlisted, then rapidly prototyped, and basis the feedback received, the process is iterated until a human centered solution is locked in.

Design thinking was put in the right perspective by this 2015 article in Forbes that is still relevant today. The article states that with the use of design thinking, “organizations can not only address everyday business problems and challenges but also gain a competitive edge”. There is a more recent article by the Harvard Business Review which also explains design thinking well. It compares the gains from design thinking to the huge improvements seen almost four decades back by implementing the different elements of Total Quality Management.

This is why it is a smart idea to get new employees started with this kind of a problem-solving mindset right at the beginning as they are inducted into the company. Let’s understand this a little more.

Five reasons to include design thinking in employee onboarding


1. It sends a clear message: “You are expected to solve problems.”

Steve Jobs put it nicely, when he said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” A good way to drive home this expectation is by treating them like problem solvers from day one. 


2. Empathy Drives Collaboration

Tussles between the credit teams and sales teams are common in most organizations. The credit teams look at the risk assessment and the repayment capacity only. The sales teams, on the other hand, are often willing to overlook a few weaknesses in the borrower’s profile if they can score a big deal.

How about remote infrastructure delivery in the IT sector? The sales teams are often seen to make big commitments in order to crack a large deal. But the delivery team later finds that the commitments made are difficult to sustain at the price agreed to. This often leads to an unsatisfied customer, which comes back to haunt the sales teams when it is time for renewals.

Team members familiarised with design thinking would have examined those problems (need for revenue, risk assessment, optimal services delivery, pricing structures) in detail through the eyes of the ‘other’ side too. This approach more often than not, leads to win-win and sustainable solutions.


3. It helps employees overcome the “I am not creative” syndrome.

At its heart, design thinking is a problem-solving technique. However, when we frame problems as issues that need “creativity” to be solved, most people tend to recoil. Creativity is often seen as the domain of the “gifted few.” This tendency is even stronger with newly joined employees. In this Stanford Graduate School of Business article, Prof. Stefanos Zenios explains how design thinking can improve the creative process of problem solving. As the article concludes, “Creative doesn’t mean you’re Van Gogh or Picasso; they are creative in their own discipline. You can be creative in your own discipline. If you can solve problems, you can be creative.”


4. It helps employees towards being critical thinkers

The design thinking process moves an individual to divergent thinking (the creative process) and then calls on them to display convergent thinking (the critical thinking process). For instance, while the creative process may throw up a lot of options to solve a problem, design thinking calls on employees to examine those choices through the DFV lens. DFV refers to whether the proposed solution is desirable (for the stakeholder), feasible (do we have the capability to do it) and viable (sustainable in the long run). 

In this way it ensures that employees have given sufficient critical thought to a proposed solution before taking it ahead to seniors in the organization. 


5. It encourages a bias for action

A bias for action is listed as a desirable leadership behavior in many reputed organizations like Unilever. While solving problems, it is all well to brainstorm solutions and also shortlist them through critical thinking. However, unless an idea is acted upon, it is useless for the organization. The design thinking process encourages rapid prototyping to quickly try out the solution and get feedback on its pros and cons, before iterating it. This innate push towards a bias for action encourages employees to embrace a key leadership behavior.


Who else does it?

One of the world’s biggest IT giants Infosys has been taking around 16000 new recruits through their Foundation program every year since 2004, before assigning them their roles. This flagship onboarding program of Infosys includes design thinking too.

Five years back, CISCO actually closed down their human resources department for a day and asked the HR team to participate in a 24 hour hackathon in which they used design thinking to “break down and then reimagine” their own HR policies. The aforementioned article also cites the example of other companies like Qualcomm and Zappos who have also used design thinking to improve certain aspects of their HR processes. Then there is the century old IBM, who have used design thinking to improve their processes, and also implemented design thinking fuelled process improvements for their clients.

So, if you are thinking of embracing design thinking – you are in elite company.


In conclusion

The biggest advantage of making design thinking a part of your employee onboarding is that you get a bunch of problem solvers who are raring to take a shot at problems in their workplace. In the VUCA world that we live in, the more such employees one has, the better your chance to succeed as an organization.  So, go on, get your new hires to unleash their A-game. We would be happy to help you with this transformation.