Design Thinking: 4 Ways to Embed Empathy Into Organization Design

When designing anything, we all know that it’s important to put your customer front and center. The same holds true in organization design. As stated in AlignOrg Solutions’ book “Mastering the Cube,” there are no “off-the-shelf” organizations. Whether it’s an internal business partner or an external customer, the better you understand the needs and motivations of your target audience, the better you can design your organization to meet those needs.

At the heart of that understanding is empathy. Having your target audience in the room as you’re designing the organization is ideal, but not often practical. This is where design thinking techniques are highly effective. They help teams by creating a mindset of curiosity and an openness to empathizing with your internal or external customer.

1. Interviews

The goal of interviewing is to learn how to see things from the interviewee’s point of view. Often, it’s helpful to have a third-party perform the interviews. Interviewing is a skill which takes practice, and those within the organization have a curse of knowledge that can lead to biased interview questions and results. A few tips for interviewers:

  • Prepare in advance by creating an interview guide while still allowing for spontaneity during the interview.
  • Use open-ended questions and get to the heart of the interviewees’ comments by asking “why.” Phrases like “show me” or “tell me more” or “can you go a little deeper on that” increases the success of the interviewing process.
  • Avoid talking too much and minimize your presence. Interviewers who want to show how knowledgeable they are on the topic at hand sabotage the interview. It is essential to remember that the objective of the interview is to understand the customer’s point of view, not for them to understand yours.

The most important part of interviewing is to be genuinely curious. This may be hard at first, but you can start by turning your judgements into questions. You will be surprised by what you learn. In my experience, interviewing has never failed to deliver important and previously unknown data points.

2. Persona Profiles

With the information from the interviews and other data sources, you can start to build persona profiles. Persona profiles bring the customer you are designing for to life. It is not just “the customer “or “the department,” it is a person with a name, goals, challenges and motivations. A typical persona profile is one page and includes representative information such as:

  • A name and photo, which will humanize the target audience
  • Background and skills
  • Responsibilities – consider a “day in the life”
  • Aspirations, goals, and key motivations – think about what success looks like to them
  • Pain points – consider their key challenges, obstacles, and disruptors
  • Quotes from the interview

One compelling persona I experienced was one created for a team of field service technicians. It was developed through a series of surveys, interviews and focus groups. The organization’s perception was that this group of road warriors were difficult and even churlish. What we learned was that their motivation was focused completely on solving a customer’s problem. They were entrepreneurs who saw their service truck as their own small business, managing the inventory, the tools and the customer satisfaction. Their biggest concern was looking unprofessional, in both skills and appearance, in front of their customer. Lastly, they saw HQ as an interference to achieving their goals. Uncovering these latent needs and attitudes and sharing them via a persona profile is a great design thinking technique to communicate them to the broader organization.

3. Empathy Exercises

With the persona profiles ready, you can now facilitate empathy exercises. These allow for more than just the interviewer’s experience by taking into consideration your target audience’s perspective. Empathy exercises help us to look beyond our assumptions by putting ourselves in the shoes of our target audience, creating a visceral sense of another’s experience. The best way to accomplish this is to directly immerse yourself in being the customer for a day. While not always practical, I encourage you to get creative and identify how you could do this or something comparable to it. For a group exercise, a recommended approach is as follows:

  • Discuss the persona profile to create a shared understanding amongst the group and together map out the customer journey, identifying moments that matter.
  • As a team, identify pain points and group them into meaningful buckets of opportunities.
  • Translate them into capabilities your organization requires to meet the customer’s needs. Prioritize those that will matter the most to your customer and to your organization through a series of high involvement and facilitated trade-off discussions.

The objective is to gain compelling shared insights. These insights illuminate what people really need and want, they should motivate you to act, and they should stick with you.

4. Storytelling

Storytelling is an important design thinking method to amplify your insights across the organization and to rally an organization in an impactful new direction.

A story that stuck with me was about the managers of those same field service technicians. They would come in the office very early on Monday mornings, sit on the floor, and separate the papers into stacks for each field technician to pick up before getting into their truck for the week’s work. This was combined with a photo of one of the managers sitting on the office floor surrounded by stacks and stacks of papers. In this age of digital technology, that story was alarming and galvanized the organization to do better to meet the needs of those field service managers.

Using design thinking techniques such as interviews, persona profiles and empathy exercises combined with storytelling will allow you to design a better organization, an organization that is not just “reshuffling the boxes of the organization chart” but rethinking the target audience’s most important needs and organizing to deliver on those needs. 

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