75: How to Apply Human-Centered Design and Agile Concepts in HR

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Too much time and money is wasted on ideas that don’t work. Companies are using management tools that were built for a completely different pace of operations. Today’s leaders must inspire and collaborate, not micromanage, to drive agility and innovation in their organizations. Jeff Gothelf, an author, speaker, and executive coach, focuses on helping organizations build better products and executives build better cultures that build better products. Jeff shares a story on the perils of making assumptions. He explains what human-centric design is and what HR can learn from the concept when implementing new programs. He will challenge you to think about what people will be doing differently if a program or initiative you are working on is successful. Learn what it means to be agile and the role that HR can play in leading transformation. 
Jeff is the co-author of the award-winning book Lean UX and the Harvard Business Review Press Book, Sense & Respond. He works as a coach, consultant, and keynote speaker, helping companies bridge the gaps between business agility, digital transformation, product management, and human-centered design.
Listen (above) or watch the video (below) to catch Fred's interview with Jeff.

Key Learnings From This Episode

  • The perils of assumptions. After graduating from university Jeff accepted a six-month gig at the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros Circus as a sound and lighting technician. Jeff shared the story of the human cannonball act. The previous human cannonball had been doing it for years and had based his longevity on a series of assumptions about how to make the act successful. The circus would set up the tent, drive in the truck with the cannon, fire a dummy of similar weight from the cannon, and see where it landed to situate the net. This process worked for years. However, one night, they arrived too late into town to test the human cannonball rig the night before. They left the dummy outside overnight, and it rained. The next day, they ran their usual test - fired the dummy from the cannon, saw where it landed, and put up the net. That afternoon, in front of 4000 children, the human cannonball got in the cannon, the ringmaster fired the cannon, and the human cannonball sailed past the net. He survived but was critically injured. He went back to Florida to recuperate and his pool boy ultimately became the next human cannonball. 
  • The Importance of adjusting assumptions and enthusiastic skepticism. We’ve been successful, we’ve built something assuming that what got us here will get us there, and we stop checking our assumptions. That only works so long. Eventually, something will change. If we don’t adjust assumptions, something will go wrong, and we’ll end up ‘way past the net’. ‘Enthusiastic skepticism’ is always being enthusiastically skeptical of everything and trying to find a better way to do something – making sure everything is still making sense. 
  • What is human-centered design? In software design, the purpose of customer-centric focus is to try and figure out the customer’s problem to achieve the best possible solution. The concept has moved beyond software design all the way into the c-suite and every function. Human-centered design takes the same tools and concepts that designers use to solve problems and applies them to business problems. Situations that you are trying to improve and make better for people may not always be your external customers. They might be staff, employees, colleagues, peers, and/or executives. You want to consider the human-centric design approach when looking at the way you do your work because the measure of success for the work that we do today, regardless of what discipline you are in, is the change in behavior that you want to see in the people who you build or develop initiatives, products, and services for. We used to believe making the thing – building the product, changing the policy, instituting a new incentive – was the work. Today, the work is positively impacting the behavior of humans. Everything we do should be done with a human-centered design perspective. 
  • Jeff Gothelf Quote on HR Studio PodcastThe assumption in ‘the value is creating the thing’ is an old concept. The value is when people have changed their behavior in a way that benefits them or their organization. There is an assumption that if we build and implement systems, things will get better because the distribution channel is more modern. The reality is that we have to figure out what the best design is for the implementation to elicit the behavior we want to see for our specific organization.  
  • How do you get traction? Ask the question, ‘if this idea is successful, what will people be doing differently?’ People think about the build but rarely think about the next step. An example is the trend of giving employees in the US unlimited vacation. Ultimately, people actually take less vacation. Is this the desired outcome? You want to maximize the time employees spend in and out of the office. If employees burn out and leave the business, is that the desired outcome? Ask the question, ‘if a new policy is successful, what will people be doing differently?’ Instead of starting with, ‘let’s give unlimited vacation’, start the conversation with, ‘we want less burnout, to drive retention rates up, and to improve productivity as measured by XYZ, the measure of success is not the idea, it is the behavior change we seek. Ideas are cheap. It’s execution that ultimately matters. 
  • How can leaders support their organizations to become more agile? Agility is the goal. If agile is the policy or the initiative, the process change – the goal, the behavior change – is agility. How does agility manifest? It manifests as curiosity, course correction, and humility, to name a few.  When organizations undertake a journey in agile transformation, and HR is either directly involved or leading the initiative, the initiative stands a much greater chance of success. This is because the functions that HR provides are key to the success of transformation. An example is professional development. How do we teach people the key qualities of ‘agility’? If you are a ‘continuous learner’, what does that mean for you? Teaching people how to work in a new way is key. If you are trying to build a culture, there are hiring profiles that you want to look for – people who are comfortable with change and naturally curious and adaptive, because the pace of change can be so rapid.
  • Incent and reward the behavior you want to occur. Ask - What is the culture the organization wants to encourage? What are the values the organization wants to promote? What are the qualities in the way of working that make this a unique place to work? How do we reward and what do we reward? Some organizations have made all the right changes except changing the incentive structures. People are asked to model different behaviors and work in different ways but are being incented, rewarded and promoted the same, old ways. People go where they are going to be incented and rewarded. 
  • What is de-risking and why is it important? Outcomes can be applied over output at every level of the organization. An example is a former client, a large bank who had leaders leading an agile organization but had no agile experience. They were smart, successful bankers who thought ‘agile’ meant software. Jeff and his team coached the leaders in understanding how agile works and how to apply it as a managerial practice. The bank saw itself as a tech organization, however, they were geographically located in non-tech areas. They needed a geographical strategy that would build their tech expertise and re-balance their geographic presence. The leaders were ready to create and execute a plan, affecting thousands of people, without assessing and validating risk. 

    Jeff’s team suggested viewing the issue as a problem to solve. The goal was to increase tech hiring. The plan was to identify the risks and then work in short cycles to ‘de-risk’ a very risky idea. The most important thing the team needed to learn was atomic unit of planning – what was the smallest group of people they could not break up if they hoped to have any semblance of productivity with this re-distribution strategy? First, they needed to talk to their people to understand the smallest unit of planning necessary to avoid breaking up productive squads. 

    The initiative was led by the Chief HR Officer. She took the c-suite leaders and business heads onto the campus to talk to people about how to plan the transition. The entire perspective changed related to what the team size should be, where they could maintain teams, where they needed to grow teams, and who needed to relocate. The leaders were slowed down to make them more effective in the short term because the risks they were willing to take were too big and unnecessary. There was no need to re-distribute thousands of people based on their best guesses. They were able to nail it, then scale it. They de-risked – made it smaller, tested, got feedback, and implemented.

  • When leadership has an idea, ask: 
    • What is the most important thing we need to learn first about this idea? What’s the biggest risk? If we’re wrong about this assumption, what is it that makes the whole thing collapse? 
    • What’s the least amount of work we need to do to learn that?

Recommended Reading and References From this Episode

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Jeff Gothelf HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Jeff Gothelf HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 8:00am
Fred Bunsa
Jeff Gothelf
HR Studio Podcast