A few weeks ago I was preparing a workshop with the transformation manager in a company. At the end of the meeting she said: “The next thing we need to work on is Slack. Our teams are asking for better communication and we need to improve collaboration”.

Individual people in the teams were talking about the advantages of Slack as reported by friends in other companies or as they read in trend studies and press. The teams got inspired by the advantages, started asking for it too and felt increasingly frustrated with the current situation. At the same time top management had put the objective of better collaboration across functions onto the agenda. The conclusion was to analyze various collaboration tools for implementation.

This situation reminded me of many other times when companies or teams decided to implement a solution based on a need identified via market studies, surveys, trends, new tech solutions available on the market, etc.

The art of “forgetting” the solution for a while

What frequently strikes me about these situations:  the depth of the identified problem or rather the lack of it. Quite often the problem is quickly pasted on top of the solution idea in order to justify it, using a more or less generic need. The need is usually logical and rapidly comprehensible, it’s easy to agree on.

Later, once the solution is implemented, it does not live up to the expectations. In some cases the new solution, innovative product, service or changed process is classified a failure.

Let’s take the example of mobile payment wallets. Some years back many corporations as well as startups invested millions into solutions which allow consumers to leave their old leather wallets at home and pay with smartphone apps. Trends, market studies and surveys were pointing to this great opportunity. Strategic consultant calculated enormous business potential. Most of the solutions are closed down and written off by now. What went wrong? Had the customer need not been identified correctly and validated thoroughly?

This example talks about a customer need. However, the similar examples can be shown for consumer products, B2B services, internal application users and people in processes. Due to education, experience, culture or other reasons, we tend to move to solutions rapidly. It’s an art to “forget” solutions for a while and ask for the WHY before moving on.

In a recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review it’s put it in a different way: “There are few management skills more powerful than the discipline of clearly articulating the problem you seek to solve before jumping into action.”.

At the same time it’s hard to formulate a clear problem statement. The MIT article  even states that problem formulation is the single most underrated skill in all of management practice. Why?

The article continues: “psychologists and cognitive scientists have suggested that the brain is prone to leaping straight from a situation to a solution without pausing to define the problem clearly …. when making change, neglecting to formulate a clear problem statement often prevents innovation and leads to wasted time and money.” People address problems in two different ways: either via conscious processing or automatic processing. As automatic processing is faster, the brain rapidly jumps to a solution from past experience. However, in a changing environment this often is not the right answer.

Even if a solution idea is around, the crucial step of putting it aside for some time and validate the problem first is easily overstepped.

Thinking in experiences instead of solutions

Another point I often find in the above mentioned situations: the perspective of the identified problem is too narrow. As the focus is rapidly on the solution, the insights are limited to a specific task. We are lacking the context = the before and the after of the key moment.

Once the solution is in place based on a copy-paste approach from some best practice, it might not live up to expectations. It turns out that the solution is not isolated from its context, that the before and the after in the next company or team are different, that the people are different. It does not fit into the end-to-end flows in the new environment. People are disappointed by the experience.

How to make sure that a new solution is optimized for its context in an end-to-end experience? Whether with customers, colleagues or partners: people value efficient, clear and enjoyable experiences with fluid links and and efficient flow.

The big question: how to identify profound needs?

Products, services or processes are more successful if they respond to real user needs – which might be easy to identify or hidden and difficult to articulate, root-causes might not be visible.

Needs, pains, problems, opportunities, …. call them as you like, are often treated superficially with trend analysis, surveys, market studies, expert analysis, etc. To drill down to the underlying needs and problems, empathy tools are of great value. As already said Albert Einstein:  “Don’t listen to the person who has the answer; listen to the person who has the questions.”.

But how to ask the right questions? In order to get the depth we are looking for, the toolkit of Design Thinking can help. It’s tools, techniques and the mindset help us to eliminate guesswork or superficial insights.

The renowned design firm IDEO offers the following definition: “Design Thinking utilises elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.”.

The importance of empathy

From the designer’s toolkit I would like to stress “EMPATHY”. It’s the starting point to identify real in-depth needs of people. Empathy is also an important skill in the digital era. It puts the human being at the center.

When I talk about empathy in conversations most people typically tell me: “Of course I know what empathy is.”. However, often I find out that there is a lack of understanding how to use cognitive empathy in business.

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts or feelings of another. To feel empathy, it’s not necessary to share the same experiences. Rather, empathy is an attempt to better understand the other person by putting yourself into their shoes.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories.

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.
  • Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share the feelings of another person.
  • Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can.

In the context of business innovation and Design Thinking we are looking for cognitive empathy. We want to step into the shoes of other people and take their perspective in order to understand their pains, problems and needs.

How to take the other perspective? Design Thinking offers numerous tools in the problem identification phase using empathy. Here are only a very few examples:

Mapping out experience journeys (critical user moments)

It is key to understand the objectives and tasks that people are trying to achieve by using a product, service, app or process. End-to-end experience mapping in iterative stages allows to understand the current situation, identify opportunity and design the future desired experience.

Interviewing for empathy

To understand a person’s thoughts, emotions and motivations, empathy interviews help to mirror choices and behaviors and identity root-cause relationships. Interviews or observations allow to put yourself into the other’s shoes or immerse into their reality. It’s a key element to identify hidden needs and design to meet deep needs.

Inclusion of all stakeholder

Designing the NEW involves many stakeholders and all of them should contribute based on a common understanding of needs from true voices of the user. Stakeholder maps are a useful tool to clarify necessary perspectives and create the multidisciplinary team.

Final remark

A few weeks ago, when I was talking again to the transformation manager after the workshop, we were asking these questions. What does better communication mean for these teams? What is wrong and frustrating today? Why exactly? In which cases? Can you tell me about the last time this happened? We started mapping needs and put them into a journey map. Very quickly we found many white spots and the answers were not easy to get. This brought us to the conclusion that a better understanding of the pain points were required and we started defining a user discovery approach based empathy from the Design Thinking toolkit.

Design Thinking and the importance of the questions and empathy is crucial in the context of product or service innovation, internal user applications as well as processes lived by employees. This article mixes these perspectives and I believe that one can learn a lot from different disciplines. Innovation often happens at the intersection of various perspectives that have not been crossed before.

Related posts