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Use Design Thinking to Better Your Career

The beauty of design thinking? You don't have to know what you want.

A tablet with question marks on it and a cup of coffee on a wooden table.

​It took six years and four jobs for Mo Chanmugham to realize he was in the wrong career. So he quit his practice as an entertainment lawyer, took a legal recruiting job at Robert Half and volunteered as a career coach for a non-profit association.

After a short stint in recruiting, Chanmugham found a niche working in career services at three different law schools. He is currently the senior associate director of career services at New England Law in Boston and is also building a career coaching practice called MGC Coaching.

"People get frustrated because they don't know what they want to do," Chanmugham said. "This lack of clarity leads to a lot of time spent thinking and not enough time spent taking action."

To help students and clients overcome that career block, Chanmugham advocates design thinking, a practice also known as human-centered design (HCD).

"The beauty of the design [thinking] process is that you don't have to know what you want. It gives you a path to follow that allows you to explore your career options. You can never really get stuck because in every moment there is something to test and learn from to keep you moving," Chanmugham said.

HCD has five key mindsets:

  • Curiosity invites exploration.
  • Reframe to root out core assumptions and biases.
  • Have a bias to action.
  • Explore possibilities through rapid prototyping or experimentation.
  • Collaborate.

The overarching goal of design thinking is coherency. A well-designed career is one where you can connect the dots between who you are, what you believe and what you are doing. As the work world changes and evolves, traditional career advice may no longer be sufficient. To build a satisfying and successful career, learn how to think like a designer.

In Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (Knopf, 2016), authors Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, two Silicon Valley veterans and Stanford University design professors, apply the principles of design thinking to the challenge of building a career in a world that is constantly changing and requires forward-thinking action in the face of uncertainty.

They view the challenge of designing a career as a "wicked problem." In HCD parlance, a wicked problem represents a complex social or cultural challenge that is difficult to solve for a variety of reasons, including constantly changing requirements, incomplete information and multiple stakeholders.

Follow Your Curiosity—Not Your Passion

Evans and Burnett debunk the popular advice to "follow your passion" as a "dysfunctional belief" because it is not actionable for most people. They cite research showing that 80 percent of people do not have a singular passion to follow.

Passion is the result of good life design, Burnett said in a podcast, not the source. It comes after you discover something you like and develop mastery.

The authors question the assumption that there is one right or perfect career choice for each person, arguing instead that people have multiple options. Nor do they believe that every step in one's career should be planned out. In HCD, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible and experiment with a variety of options.

"Lean into your curiosity," Evans said in an interview with SHRM Online. "You can't think your way into an answer. You have to try stuff."

Practice (Self) Empathy

To design a meaningful career, you need to understand your own needs and motivations, as well as those who will be impacted by your decisions--employers, employers, co-workers and family members.

When you can articulate your work view (your personal philosophy of your purpose in work) and your life view (your philosophy of your purpose in life), you gain clarity about what you are likely to find most meaningful. You can use that information to build a future that makes sense for you.

"While you may not always know exactly where you're going," Evans said, "you can always know whether you're moving in the right direction."

"It is challenging for people to let go of old belief systems and life patterns that are no longer working for them," said Chicago psychotherapist Joyce Marter. "Unrealistic expectations or beliefs cause stress. If we change our thinking, we can decrease our stress."

Marter remembers feeling torn between competing desires to build a larger group practice and start a family. She gained clarity when a career counselor suggested that she needed to plan her career in the context of her life, not the other way around.

"We all need to create a work/life that promotes and supports a life/life," Marter said. "For many, that entails doing work that is aligned with your talents and strengths and also [is] meaningful on a deeper level." 

When she founded Urban Balance, a Chicago-based group therapy practice, her goal was to promote work/life balance in her own life as well as in the lives of her staff and clients. She set up her business model so she could to work from home when she wasn't seeing clients. Urban Balance has subsequently grown to a staff of 80 therapists in eight Chicagoland locations. Many employees are parents who have flexible, part-time schedules.

As Marter grew her business and raised her two daughters, unexpected opportunities emerged. She began blogging for the Huffington Post and is currently president of the Illinois Counseling Association.

Developing an understanding of what you really want out of life takes practice. At the University of Wisconsin, students learn how to build their empathy by designing careers for one another in professor Dee Warmath's "Designing Your Career" workshop. They gather information, brainstorm ideas, and present their recommendation. After getting feedback on their ideas, they continue to tweak and refine their suggestions.

Building empathy and stretching their worldviews are practices HR professionals may want to consider incorporating into their jobs. Warmath, a former retail marketing executive, believes that HR professionals run the risk of becoming too insulated inside their own organizations.

"It's important to broaden your view beyond your organization by developing empathy for other HR professionals in different organizations and industries," Warmath said. "When you find great examples of other HR departments, [they offer] you a different perspective on the HR role. Then you can find effective ways to move in that direction."

Finding the Right Problem to Solve

Many people expend vast amounts of energy trying to solve the wrong problem. They try to find their passion, for example, when they really need to cultivate curiosity and explore interesting possibilities.

"It's not a problem if it's not actionable," Burnett said. The key is to define the problem in a way that invites action.

Stefan Bielski, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Career Design and Professionals on Purpose, thinks the usual definition of the word "problem" is the most challenging part of design thinking. Instead of looking at problems as obstacles, he advises "finding a problem to fall in love with, that is fun to solve." For him, that's helping people find meaningful work. 

While working as a corporate trainer at Accenture, health-conscious Chicagoan Liz Traines found that her hectic travel schedule made it hard to eat healthfully and exercise regularly. To solve that problem, she created a wellness program that helped her and her teammates develop healthier lifestyle habits on the road. She later left Accenture to start a holistic coaching practice.

Explore the Options

Rapid prototyping is central to design thinking. Trying small, low-risk experiments allows you to reality-test your ideas to determine what you like, what you're good at and what's available.

"Never go with your first idea. It's always the worst," Burnett said. "It's the idea that your brain served up because it doesn't want to work hard on the problem."

Evans recommends starting with "interesting, high-energy ideas" that you are motivated to pursue. This allows you to make progress early on.

Play with the possibilities: Initiate a new project, volunteer for a cross-functional team, take an online course, teach yourself a software program, join a professional group or attend a professional conference.

Bielski, a former journalist, tried blogging—and abandoned it because it didn't excite him. He's currently developing a podcast called "Pirates on Purpose" to share stories of people who made bold career changes.

"It's an iterative process," he said. "I want to see whether it's a good medium for me and whether there's a market for it."

You can even experiment with ways to expand your existing roles or job descriptions. While working as a personal assistant for the Buhl Foundation in New York City, Meredith Morales hit a plateau. When the foundation's HR generalist left, she saw an opportunity to launch an HR career. Because her boss was reluctant to give her up, she volunteered to add the HR job to her existing role for the same salary.

She used a similar strategy while working as a corporate recruiter at DePaul University in Chicago. Initially, she was hired to help restructure the department. After the school received a mandate to develop a diversity recruitment strategy, she led that initiative while continuing to help rebuild the department.

Incorporate Life Design Interviews

Life design interviews are another form of rapid prototyping. By interviewing people who are doing work that interests you, or who have accomplishments that you admire, you can learn from their experience.

You can see the value in this by examining Morales' story and paying close attention to those themes that have been central to her success, namely: her abilities to recognize and seize opportunities, build strategic partnerships and risk failure.

Morales has a talent for what she calls "gapping." While working as a senior diversity recruiter at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, she identified gaps in the bank's national diversity strategy and took the initiative to write a proposal laying out a unified approach. The rollout of that program became one of her signature accomplishments.

She also looks for gaps in her own skills and experience and seeks out assignments to eliminate those gaps. As the North American recruitment manager of diversity and campus recruitment at PeopleScout, she added global experience and campus recruitment to her resume. She is now diverse talent manager at U.S. Cellular in Chicago.

To round out her life, she has two small children and serves on the executive board of the Chicago Society for Human Resource Management chapter, where she is responsible for diversity recruitment.

In 2015 she was named to Diversity MBA magazine's 2015 list of Emerging Leaders in Diversity—100 Under 50."

Her story fits Evans' description of a well-designed life: "Your life is not a thing, it's an experience; the fun comes from designing and enjoying the experience. Life is all about growth and change. You're building something that never existed before."

Radical Collaboration

Burnett and Evans urge people to build a personal design team. Rather than focusing on finding people to help you who already have the right expertise, they recommend finding people who have the right intention and the right presence.

The key is to look for ways to make the process more social. If you're not comfortable working in groups, try one-on-one conversations. You can schedule a series of coffees with trusted friends or mentors and run your ideas by them one at a time to gather support, feedback and ideas.

At Stanford University in California, the popular "Designing Your Life" course always has a waiting list. But students who take the course are often so excited about what they are learning that they teach the process to their friends. The university's career services department developed a corollary course called "Designing Your Stanford" to help freshman and sophomores apply HCD to their education.

"Getting others involved one way or another is going to be fruitful. Some discomfort now and then just means you're growing," Evans said.

Design Thinking in HR

Want to apply design thinking on the job? See this excerpt from the 2016 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report listed design thinking as a key trend: 

Where Companies Can Start

  • School HR in design thinking: HR should move away from "process design" to "human-centered design." This means studying what employees do, visiting their workplaces, and observing their behavior. Based on these insights, solutions and programs can be designed that improve productivity, boost engagement, and increase employee satisfaction while also providing training or other HR services.
  • Learn from design thinking in customer service: Many companies use design thinking in developing their customer service programs. To gain understanding, HR should visit great retail stores, restaurants, or universities. By examining satisfying experiences outside of work, HR can use these examples in HR design.
  • Prototype, pilot, test, and learn: New programs should be prototyped and then piloted with a small group. By understanding what this group loves and what it dislikes, HR can improve the end-to-end employee experience. 

Bottom Line

With its focus on people, HR leaders have an opportunity to be designers, creating a more engaging and effective HR solution. Applied correctly, design thinking is a rigorous, disciplined method of problem-solving. It represents an opportunity for HR to reshape how it works with the organization and to redesign its own procedures, using technology to ensure positive employee interactions.

Done well, design thinking promotes a virtuous cycle, generating higher levels of employee satisfaction, greater engagement, and higher productivity for the company. In their new role as designers, talent leaders should ask: How can HR take the lead in crafting and shaping the employee experience? How can HR design overall experiences that engage employees at all stages, from candidates through alumni? Equally important, how can HR help build and reinforce design capabilities throughout the organization? 

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is

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