How to Leverage Design Thinking to Build Sustainable Talent Pipelines

sustainable talent pipeline

Design thinking:

An iterative methodology that seeks understanding through empathy and creates solutions by prototyping, refining, and redesigning.

How to apply design thinking to talent acquisition:

One reimagines the hiring stakeholders as customers of a shared experience.

70 percent of business leaders say building sustainable pipelines is important, but only 16 percent are effective at doing so.

That’s a 54 percent gap, the largest rift we’ve seen between how important talent leaders consider a recruiting activity, and how effective they are at it. Arguably, then, building sustainable pipelines is the most top-of-mind recruiting challenge that they face. In this same survey, we found that 31 percent of organizations with developed design thinking methods are effectively building sustainable pipelines, nearly double the number of leaders who are doing so without it. Clearly, then, design thinking is increasing teams’ effectiveness. That’s the fundamental reason we launched this series in the first place, and why this week, we’re sharing how the five steps of design thinking – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test – can help you find new ways to build a sustainable pipeline.

We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t acknowledge that more than ⅔ of teams are struggling to create rich talent pools – whether they employ design thinking or not. Even teams with design thinking are struggling to nail down the most effective ideas.

That’s why today, we’re revealing the five secrets to building a sustainable pipeline that we explored in our recent webinar. With the help of Quartet Health Technical Recruiter Nyala Khan, we worked to reassure other teams that you can indeed build sustainable pipelines with the right strategies and tools. You’ll find the ideas from our webinar in the ‘ideate’ section below!


Begin by reimagining the hiring managers and executives at your company as customers, and consider why they might need your help building a sustainable talent pipeline.

Hiring manager: Their hiring needs are going to change as company goals shift. Imagine that they suddenly need to launch a new product in four months, for example; they’ll have to scale their team quickly to build it. The surest way to accomplish that? Having a lineup of candidates they can instantly reach out to.

Executive: Imagine that your company has been experiencing higher attrition than usual. To ensure that culture and revenue don’t suffer, your executive will want to swiftly hire new employees from a pool that’s already teeming with candidates.

Finally, don’t forget about your needs, recruiters. You’re arguably the stakeholder that needs to build a full pipeline the most. When you do need to scale quickly for any reason, you don’t want to scramble to do it. So, next step: what exactly does “building a sustainable pipeline” mean to you?


Here at Lever, we’ve defined building a sustainable pipeline as: “constantly creating a rich pool of candidates that you can tap into, whether you’re hiring or not.” During this stage, however, we encourage you to consider what “building a sustainable pipeline” means to your team. Through turning this abstract concept into a digestible definition, you set your team up for ideation (the next step) success – as you know everyone is considering the same problem.


What should you absolutely, unequivocally do during the “ideation” stage? Generate a large number of ideas in the form of questions and solutions, and don’t be afraid to ‘go wide’ or share the outlandish concepts that enter your mind. We suggest playing “The Worst Possible Idea” game, meaning you assemble your team and ask each person to write down as many terrible ideas as possible. Then, challenge them to turn those horrendous ideas into good ones. They can either consider the ideas’ opposites, or they can look for parts of the silly ideas that could actually be effective.

Now, it’s time to share the ideas we explored in our webinar with Technical Recruiter Nyala Khan. We hope they serve as a starting point for your own ideation!

Build your employer brand early

To generate inbound applicants and engage passive talent, Nyala suggests you work diligently to create brand awareness. If a candidate has heard positive feedback about your culture or product, they will be much more receptive to learning more and more about your team.

Even if you’re a small startup, there are effective ways you can begin marketing your company brand today. First off, plaster your careers site, Instagram, and LinkedIn with photos and videos to capture your team’s personality. Candidates want to see your culture more than hear about it. Furthermore, leverage your partnerships with other companies to extend your reach. Collaborate to produce webinars, write blog posts for their websites, and sponsor their events. These are effective means to share your story with candidates who you wouldn’t otherwise connect with.

Foster relationships with candidates face-to-face

Hosting and attending meetups, conferences, and panels is a great way to engage with new candidates. While you can bring candidates into your pipeline through online sourcing, for example, you’re more likely to keep them in your pipeline if they’ve gotten to know you face-to-face.

Once you’ve developed connections with candidates, do what you can to maintain them. Check in every couple months to see how they’re enjoying their current role. Worried that you won’t remember to reconnect because you’re juggling a thousand priorities? Take advantage of our snooze feature, and you’ll get an email months down the line that it’s time to reach back out.

Source before you’re actively hiring

According to our research, 89 percent of talent leaders believe sourcing is important, but only 37 percent are actually effective at doing so. Clearly, recruiters are desperate to learn more successful candidate sourcing tactics, and for good reason. It’s another powerful way to build a sustainable pipeline. But how can you do it before you’re actively hiring?

Even when you don’t have roles to fill, Nyala recommends gently reaching out to candidates to share how excited you are about their skill set, along with a few details about your company. Then, once you’ve exchanged a few messages with them, Nyala recommends that you set up a coffee date – that way, they know that they’re still top of mind.

Tap into your team’s knowledge and network

You can’t effectively build a sustainable talent pipeline on your own. To begin with, set up a meeting with your hiring manager to learn the qualities and background of their ideal candidate. This will help you fill your pipeline with the most promising candidates. Afterwards, we suggest arranging biweekly meetings so that you know when and why their hiring needs change. In general, Nyala stresses the need to maintain a 10,000 foot view of the team, and stay close to headcount forecasts. This will signal how avidly you should be building your pipeline at that moment.

We can’t emphasize how valuable referrals are, and how quickly they can help you fill your pipeline with high-performing candidates. Find creative ways – such as referral competitions with prizes – to encourage your team to submit their referrals. Also, you’re not the only one who can source! Train your team on where and how to source, along with how they can leverage their ATS to find new candidates quickly and efficiently.

Use the right tools to dive into recruiting analytics

To increase the fullness of your pipeline, dig into what’s working and what’s not. If you know that sourcing is actually helping you attract more candidates than referrals, for example, you know to devote more time and resources to sourcing. Or, if you see that candidates are falling out of your pipeline after you exchange a few messages, you’ll know you should do more to maintain your relationship with them.

Ultimately, a great way to find the most effective tactics for nurturing your pipeline is to uncover which strategies have worked before. You can use Lever’s detailed reports to easily discover all of this information.

Prototype and Test:

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, prototyping is the making of a representation of a solution to a design problem in such a way that a user can experience it. Testing, the last step of the design thinking process, involves generating user feedback around the prototypes you have developed, as well as gaining a deeper understanding of your users.

When it comes to building your talent pipeline, we suggest thinking of the different potential tactics as prototypes you want to test. Ask your team to try employing the strategies above, for example, and give them the tools to do so. Finally, the test step will involve soliciting feedback to uncover which approaches are actually enriching their candidate pool.

To build a sustainable talent pipeline, you have to frequently prototype and test. Strategies that work for one role may not work for others. During the summer, it might be more difficult to fill your pipeline than it is at the beginning of the year. And as your company undergoes changes, candidates’ interest in joining your team will fluctuate. We promise, though, that the constant prototyping and testing can be fun.

In our last post, we shared our tips for how you can leverage design thinking to zero in on the right recruiting metrics. Subscribe to our series to see our next post – on how to you use design thinking to improve your candidate experience!