Time for Humanised Organisations

Time for Humanized Organisations

Institutions and organisations across the globe are struggling with leadership issues and teamwork issues, and human beings are expressing an aversion to being dictated to.

When working with teams I repeatedly hear of irritations at a lack of leadership.  Equally, leaders and managers express frustration at a lack of engagement of employees.  Employees confide that they feel boxed in and unable to share the fullness of their capabilities. 

In this post I introduce human-centred design, and empathic competencies, as a way to address this organisational quandary.

I share some of my thoughts on this topic and invite you to share your comments, experiences and insights. 

Are we seeing the demise of the expert?

We live in a world where objective knowledge has become king, with a striving for more and greater expert knowledge.  Leaders are expected to represent knowledge and to manifest solutions.  Followers implement or make use of prescribed solutions.

All along the leader – follower continuum, however, humans struggle with a swathe of unmet needs.  Levels of burnout and depression are high.  People change jobs frequently.  How to encourage staff to engage is a frequent topic in business journals and at conferences.  A European colleague of mine described how he experienced a sense of emptiness in a manager he was working with, as though the person was operating on auto-pilot. He felt as though the authentic person was not there.

Hierarchical systems, in which experts are able to define a path, and influence its follow-through, seems to be losing traction.

If systems were designed that reshape the hierarchical chain of command methodology on its side, would people be inspired to achieve greater creativity?  Would they be able to bring their authentic selves to work?

Enter human-centred design

It is timely that human-centred design enters the business arena.  

This is an approach to systems, service and product design where the guardianship of knowing shifts from the designer of a product, service or system, to the team of designer and user.  

The interest in human-centred design coincides with an interest in servant leadership.  Each represent a shift of power and influence from a hierarchical top-down emphasis to an across-the-board distribution.

The traditional approach to design is led by technological and expert know-how.  An organisation acquires technical expertise which leads to design. 

Human-centred design takes as its starting point a holistic understanding of the interests or needs of humans who will receive or use the product, service or system.  

The role of the designer is not to come up with the expert knowledge, but to tap into the knowledge of the user and to align their expertise to a shared emerging picture of what is needed in a product, service or system.  The designer and the servant leader thus require the expert ability to facilitate knowing in the recipient or user. 

Designing humanised organisations 

Human-centred design is in service to humanised organisation and aims to co-create environments for all human beings to flourish.

Most people working in organisations would benefit from designing for the deeper needs of users. To do so, however, requires an ability to reveal and integrate the needs and motivations of all parties concerned.

The designer no longer assumes the role of expert and uses their expertise to determine what is good, right, or necessary.  And then makes use of methods to convince the user that this is so. 

Coca-Cola Global Business Services, in partnership with The Design Thinkers Group, provides an inspiring case study.  

They decided to take a fresh approach to their offering of financial, HR and IT services to Coca-Cola employees.  The designers at Global Business Services put themselves in the shoes of their employees, as if they were customers, to understand the services they required.  They learnt that their future workforce would bring with them consumer expectations based on great on-line experience. The design results were streamlined end-to-end customer-centric business services based on digital, mobile-friendly communication tools for the employees.

The heart of human-centred design: Empathy

Designing for human-centred organisations is built on a foundation of empathy, enabling the integration of heart with mind.  

I consider empathy to be a dynamic process of interaction between two or more people with the purpose of gaining an understanding of the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of one or both in the interaction.  

Designers applying human-centred design require skills to inquire about the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of their users.

Empathy is a dynamic process of interaction since there is no single objective reality of one person available as knowledge by another person.  Rather a sensitive exploration between two or more people enables a creation of meaning and a realisation of knowing about the reality of the other.

It is interesting that in human-centred design, where the aim is to understand the deeper needs of a user, that the user very likely is not fully aware of those needs.  And most probably not able to articulate them.  Skills to help a user find meaning amidst conflicting and confusing expressions are essential. 

With empathy a designer co-creates meaning with a user of an on-going, unpredictable stream of experience.  This helps to identify cues that are significant, so as to understand motivators related to the needs and pain points of the user.  Understandings are applied to design systems, services and products to address the needs.

I identify five competencies essential to empathy in human-centred design.  They are applied to the human-centred design process whilst researching the users’ needs, consolidating the research and prototyping new products, services and systems.  

Competencies for empathy in human-centred design

  • The ability to create an enabling environment 

The deeper needs of users are usually veiled in a plethora of surface expressions, many of them contradictory and confusing.  They are unarticulated even to themselves, and not neatly packaged for communication to the design researcher.

At the outset it is important to be able to create an environment conducive to surfacing deep and unmet needs of users, and to enabling a process to co-create meaning of the needs.

  • The ability to be aware of and challenge own assumptions

When we observe or interview other people our perceptions are always coloured by our own assumptions.  When surfacing the deep needs of users, we may be enticed by the projection of our own unmet needs.  To identify the user’s needs requires that the design researcher is aware of, and able to challenge their own and the users’ assumptions.  In the interaction between self and the other person, we encounter bias, assumptions and prejudices, accumulated during the lifespan, that influence our perceptions and interpretations.

To ensure the needs we perceive are in fact those of the user and not our own requires that we are aware of self and of the other person in relation to self, aware of and able to name assumptions, and able to untangle the effect they may be having on our perceptions and interpretations.

  • The ability to maintain and resume coordinated interaction 

Coordination occurs when we synchronise our bodily and facial gestures, and tone of voice with the person we are interacting with.  It enables greater shared understanding between people and is conducive to creating an enabling environment.

As a human-centred designer you are able to maintain coordinated interaction with users and co-designers, and to resume coordination if it becomes interrupted.  

  • The ability to co-create a common picture

A common picture is a shared meaning of a context in bite-sized format.  It represents the deeper thoughts, feelings and motivators associated with the need of the user.  

In a carefully structured interview, conversation or series of interactions, the design researcher invites deeper levels of content from the user through allowing, probing and deep mirroring, to co-create a common picture.  

  • The ability to imagine the experience of the other 

The ability to infer the perspective of the user is essential in human-centred design.  This requires being able to shift perspective from one’s own to the perspective of the user.

These five competencies can be learnt, and with practice can become a normal and natural way of being.  Empathy as a skill-set can be learnt.  Its application in human-centred design enables a designer to facilitate the articulation of the deeper needs of the users. 

Insights acquired during the research phase, are synthesised into concepts and frameworks and form the basis for prototyping of products, services and systems.  

Applied to organisations human-centred design and empathy ensure the design of structures, processes, routines and systems aimed to meet the needs of the human beings using them.  As these methods become integrated into business design, so we might co-create humanised organisations where people are inspired to contribute their full expression to the organisation.


My next post The Heart of Human-Centred Design explores, in more depth, the five core competencies for empathy in design.

For workshops on empathy and design thinking visit Design Thinkers Group, South Africa and Design Thinkers Academy  


Katherine Train, Ph.D., writes about, consults to organisations and facilitates workshops on empathy and human-centricity in corporate, NGO and the public sector. She has a specific interest in human interaction in organisations in South Africa, where cultural and resource diversity and a history of social upheaval provide rich opportunities to research and cultivate empathic understanding and humanised organisations for all.

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