What It Means to Design for People

workforce team working business people in motion motivation for success.

In our last post, we explained why the only way to achieve competitive advantage in today’s world is to design for people. This is the grand, overarching theme to the New Business Playbook (NBP), and the most critical way it differs from the Old Business Playbook (OBP). It is a system of thinking and a way of being that completely upends a century and a half of business theory and practice. It might require you to unlearn years of advice from textbooks, professors, consultants, and bosses. So it’s worth spending some time elaborating what it really means to design for people.

As previously discussed, after you have envisioned to define the goal and strategized to create the plan, you must design how you get people to work together to execute the plan. The OBP says you should structure the design for the business, first by breaking up the work the business needs into neat boxes with standard specifications, and then slotting people into this pre-defined design.

Designing for people is almost completely opposite in approach. You create a design that from the very outset is optimized for what the people in the organization are like—their passions, talents, beliefs, and biases. Designing for people means deliberately thinking about how to reduce confusion and threat in the workplace so that people in the organization are operating with maximum creativity, agility, and judgment. That is the only way companies will differentiate themselves in a world in which information, analytical tools, and algorithmic work have all been commoditized.

To understand how to do this, first recall that the leader of the organization originally envisioned an opportunity based on their passion and talent. In order to capture that opportunity the leader must now make the same thing happen for everyone else in the organization. A perfectly designed organization is one in which everyone is doing something that is at the intersection of what they find meaningful and compulsive (their passion) and what they improve at fastest with practice (their talent), and doing so in a way that is accretive to the organization’s goal. This is where the magic happens; where people are most creative, resourceful, and resilient; where excellence and competitive advantage are born.

But here’s the rub: most people simply don’t know their passions and talents, at least in the professional arena. And they don’t know how to find opportunities that best capitalize on the unique mix of passion and talent they bring to the table. From early childhood, our system of education emphasizes standardized learning that develops knowledge and skills, not learning and development of one’s unique passions and talents. This emphasis on knowledge and skills continues for the most part in the typical workplace. Employers look for standard skills and experiences, so most people treat each job as a big scavenger hunt for resume prizes like “proficient in AutoCAD” or “created a 5 year pro-forma budget.” Those resumes are then used to secure a spot on a bigger scavenger hunt. And so it continues.

This fit quite well into the OBP world where each organization was structured into jobs with standard specifications that expected interchangeable people to be plugged into the design. But designing for people means helping people discover and develop their passion and talent, and find the roles and situations that will bring out the magic in them. There are many ways to do this, but most involve some form of allowing people to run productive experiments to help them explore different situations and learn specific new things about themselves.

One of the simplest and most common ways of enabling productive experiments is through corporate rotational programs, whereby employees spend structured time in different areas of the company. GE, for example, is well known for a set of rotational programs for early and mid career professionals. But these are often “design for people” halfway houses – a way for people to find their niche within largely OBP designs.

Some organizations, however, integrate many of the principles of designing for people more fundamentally into their DNA. W.L. Gore, best known for manufacturing the Gore-Tex line of fabrics, has dispensed with traditional job roles, organization charts, and chains of command altogether. Instead they have a flat organization where people are free to organically form teams around opportunities that interest them and commit to projects matching their strengths. Leaders emerge naturally based on contributions and followership, and people are assessed through a system of peer ratings. As such, work is done is through continuous chains of productive experiments and feedback loops, leading to better fine-tuning of the design to match the passion and talent of each associate. Gore has driven innovation after innovation through this way of being.

Wegmans, an East Coast supermarket chain, has designed the company around a fundamental belief that employees should be equipped and empowered to explore and develop their passions. Cross-training, lateral learning, and ability to move around across job functions and locations all encourage productive experimentation to help people find their passion and talent. And the company invests in nourishing these when found. As The Atlantic reports:

A fish salesman raved about the exhausting standards of the company’s distributor in Alaska. A butcher said he had visited the ranch where a steak came from in Montana. And Maria Benjamin, a 38-year Wegmans veteran, started running a store bakery after managers loved her homemade Italian cookies.

“They let me bake whatever I want,” said Benjamin, one of 1,015 people employed at the company’s 135,000-foot flagship store in Pittsford, New York. “They’re really down-to-earth, wonderful people.”

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants lives and breathes an almost religious belief that every employee should be fully encouraged and absolutely empowered to surprise and delight guests in the best way they are uniquely able – to “serve guests from the heart.” This is just another way of saying that people’s contributions to the goal are maximized where their passion and talent lies. Take this story related in a Great Place to Work Institute report:

Jenne Neptune, General Manager at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle, shared another example of exceptional guest service from her property. The hotel’s concierge learned that a guest was going to arrive with Bilbo Baggins”—a dog named after the Hobbit in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. To delight the guest, the concierge, who was also a Lord of the Rings fan, bought a doghouse, used papier-mâché to fashion it into a Hobbit Hole, and even created an elaborate welcome letter for the dog on a scroll of paper. Not surprisingly, the guest was overjoyed. Said Neptune, “It was awesome to see how excited [the concierge] was about it. I never asked how much it cost. He just followed his passion.”

Companies that have integrated elements of designing for people into their fundamental way of being are immediately recognizable from their peers. The designs of their culture and work are not the staid, static models of yesteryear, but are vibrant, pulsating, evolving symbols of what is possible. It is not a coincidence that these companies consistently show up towards the top of “best places to work” lists such as the one compiled by Fortune, or that they enjoy the highest levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty in their industries.

And truly designing for people is not a matter of coming up with a gimmick to put in recruiting brochures. It requires an unwavering commitment to a way of being that flies in the face of traditional wisdom. It requires crafting and continuous clarification of the culture—the behaviors and outcomes that are rewarded and punished. It requires tolerance for experimentation as they discover where people can best create magic. It requires building of trust among employees that you can be who you are without feeling under threat. It requires a willingness to recruit, pay, incentivize, and train people consistent with this way of being.

But there is simply no other way that businesses can create and sustain competitive advantage in a world that has dramatically and irreversibly changed.

Leave a Reply