Human-Centered Design Involves All Stakeholders – Not Just the Customer

Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts

Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts

I totally dig the Stakeholder Theory taught by one of my favorite Darden professors, Ed Freeman. Ed explains it well here, but at its basic it’s the notion that businesses exist to create value for customers, suppliers, employees, communities and financiers—and that you can’t look at one of these groups alone; they co-exist. However, despite theories like Ed’s that put all of these groups at the heart of value creation, stakeholders often do get overlooked when designing innovative businesses or services. The group most often missing from these innovation conversations, especially social innovation conversations are employees.

As a group, employees (of mid-to-large size organizations) are often viewed as cogs in the machine—a necessary but unconsidered part of the organization—and are therefore left out of many conversations around impact, change and innovation. Rather than considering employees for what they are—a group of value creators, the business world is currently obsessed with the entrepreneur, the individual, and the change-maker. All singular.

But time and time again, as our firm supports its partners in standing up new services and innovations, each project inevitably boils down to employees. Why?

  • Employees create the experience for the customer. The concierge checking you in at the hotel. The nursing assistant who takes care of you each day. The sales clerk in the retail store.  These individuals can make or break the experience you deliver to your customers.  And as customers, we all remember the time when they didn’t deliver and the time that they did.
  • Employees know your customers better than you do.  They are in the trenches with your customer. They know needs of your customers because many times, it a need or a low-point that they have, too. And because they are so connected to your customer, they’re likely pretty excited to try and discover a better way to solve their problems.
  • Industries in need of innovation often have un-empowered employees.  Teachers, certified nursing assistants, caseworkers, transportation agents, retailers – these folks, and many others, do a great deal and care a great deal and don’t get a ton in return.  It’s hard to create meaningful experiences for others when you’re not feeling supported or inspired yourself.

So, if you want to create a better experience for your customers, first think about your employees’ current experience. And bring them in on the conversation. Innovation rarely happens at the top so get closer to ground with insight from your employees. Want to learn more about how to think about the customer-employee encounter?  Gallup’s HumanSigma is a great start!