How empathy sets the ground for collaboration.
It’s been 8 years now that I tapped into the world of development aid. It was by coincidence that a good friend pulled me into a project for the German GIZ to help him with the setup the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Egypt right in the midst of the spring revolution. Later on I would find out that I was one of the first people bringing human-centered design aka DT to the country. It seemed natural that you would want to create empathy with the people for whom you are trying to solve a problem, prior to actually designing the appropriate solutions. This approach seemed very innovative and revolutionary to everyone else. When we redesigned the workshop-breaks according to the praying hours in an Arab country our western colleagues had a revelation: “Oh, what an amazing idea!” – “Really!? You had never even thought about accommodating the predefined western schedule to the local day structure and the needs of local workshop participants?”
But the lack of mutual empathy and understanding became obvious also between people of the same country. Rwanda is a small hilly country -many compare it to Switzerland- and it became popular because of its excellent presidential digital strategy. Some years ago I had the chance to advise young engineering graduates in Kigali, Rwanda, on how to rethink the social media campaign of their irrigation solution while having the farmers in mind. A quick “A day in the life of..” exercise extended by an empathy map led them to the idea of bringing the religious leaders into the equation, as well as the local radio station. Yes, their elderly fellow citizens from the countryside had little touchpoints with the social media campaign of the young urban students. This was a surprise to the 20 year old tech savvy students born after 1995. Besides reconsidering their social media campaign, the young entrepreneurs also decided to involve the religious leaders as partners in the maintenance business of the irrigation facility.
For a workshop in Bogotá, Colombia, that aimed at facilitating the multi stakeholder dialogue in the area of green economy- we designed dialogue and space to create friendships between local farmers, social workers, representatives of ministry, state agencies, private sector and donors. We managed to overcome irony and cynicism towards a specific state agency by asking a high representative to come by for an interview. It turns out that throughout a proto-persona exercise the participants had made a caricature of the man that was sitting in the lobby waiting to be interviewed. A diplomatic disaster was going to happen if he would walk into the workshop room to see his face representing the persona that all people in the room seemed to hate. We covered his picture and during introductions we asked everyone to tell the story of a frustrating and an uplifting day at work. The participants went first, so by the time the invited representative was going to introduce himself the participants had had the stage to verbalize all the complaints and frustrations within a simple exercise without attacking this man personally. And they had shared with him positive stories, too. This created the space for this high official to pour his heart and tell everyone that he was frustrated by the exact same things like his counterparts (in general corruption and nepotism). Everybody felt seen and understood and a safe space for meaningful exchange was created. The interview could go on tackling deep technical issues and fearless new ideas. By the end they had all exchanged private contact details to overcome bureaucracy and took selfies.
As pointed out in the three examples above from Cairo/Egypt, Kigali/Rwanda and Bogotá/Colombia mutual empathy and understanding between different cultures, languages, urban-rural realities, age or gender is rarely a ‘given’.
Investing all the time and effort necessary to set this common ground prior to any project that involves behavioural change will definitely pay back in the implementation phase. It’s like having a solid and adaptable background architecture for any ambiguous frontend situation in a software development project.
Can you take team empathy to the next stage?
What I’ve experienced earlier this year in Washington, D.C., was by far the most impressive effort of mutual empathy and understanding between competing implementers that were running for the same project of a worldwide renowned development donor.
First I have to acknowledge that this workshop was a team effort by 14 Design Thinkers and the same amount of technical advisors on the client’s side. So anything that worked out in this case was not due to a single stakeholder’s effort. Therefore there is no quick win in copy pasting methods or tools. This blog post is aimed at inspiring others and structuring personal reflections. It is not a ‘how to…’ piece of advise.
1. TEAM EMPATHY
Any group of people who come together to work collaboratively and reach a common goal, needs dedicated time to build trust and empathy. We dedicated an entire day to this goal and the results were visible in the last two days.
Key ingredients: Talk to me about… – bubbles, Interview Cards, Wall of Fame, Speed Dating, Organizational Capabilities Mapping
Feedback: “I was very skeptical if we really needed so much time for Empathy building. This is a small world and we all knew each other. But I have to acknowledge it really was important to take that time.”
2. UNPACKING THE PROBLEM- COLLABORATION
Much in line with the discourse theory and the assumption that language is power and perpetuates structure and existing realities, we asked the participants and donors to collaboratively analyze the worlds behind the ‘problem statement’ they were trying to solve. As Wittgenstein said: “The harmony between thought and reality can be found in the grammar of the language”.
Key ingredients: Semantic analysis – This exercise can be run over and over again and provides the best opportunity to negotiate meaning and reach a shared understanding between multiple stakeholders. The mapping of contextual events and relevant stakeholder further provides great opportunities to negotiate meaning in context and regarding actors. It reveals a huge amount of tacit knowledge and makes it visible to all participants that each reality is a matter of perspective. Meaning that there is no right or wrong, therefore enforcing tolerance and patience when confronted with a multi-stakeholder environment.
Many gaps regarding the desired outcome could be addressed and plenty of tacit knowledge was made explicit with the generous help of endless color coded post it notes, discussion rounds, sketches and prototypes.
Feedback: In some groups the participants decided to adapt the workshop design in a way that they could run this semantic analysis over the course of two days with each and every ‘deliverable’ and ‘problem statement’ in order to make sense of what the donor really needed. At the same time having the donors collaborate with the participants in this exercise helped them clarify what they really meant by the results and deliverable they were expecting. It became clear very quickly that in a working culture of co-editing googledocs over long periods of time with various writers, the outcomes might be difficult to understand by new players.
Co-creation is the best way to use creativity and playfulness and simplify complexity by using means of prototyping. Artifacts and visual representations are a great way to show instead of telling and to receive precise feedback on a certain topic. So the workshop ended with a science fair that gave everyone the opportunity to see what everyone else thinks of possible solutions, implementation of these solutions or general questions and problems that arose from the unpacking of the problem. Any group could prototype whatever they wanted to get feedback on. Creativity and playfulness helped overcome hierarchies, fear of failing or having a silly idea. Participants who on the first day had asked for specific instructions to follow, would now take over the lead and make the workshop facilitators become obsolete.
Actually the last 1,5 days of the workshop had little structure or timings and allowed for the participants to take ownership and feel confident to create with others whatever they wanted and needed feedback on.
So, what are the most important things?
1.EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY – DARE TO BE FLEXIBLE!
This workshop worked mostly because the agenda was not yet set just before we started. The high amount of flexibility provided by the facilitators allowed for the workshop to constantly adapt and serve the participants. Because the client had to operate under strict legal procurement guidelines our lead designers were extremely accommodating and embraced uncomfortable situations and uncertainty.
2. TRUST THE PROCESS: Repeat it, set expectations – DARE TO LET GO!
We made sure to set expectations about the squiggly line of Design Thinking. The key to setting this expectation was repetition. We made sure that every morning participants would come together in plenary and see the squiggly process line to get a sense of how far we had made it. Like a good movie, it all comes together in the end. We knew it but participants needed to get reminded and reassured that even if they felt lost the plot makes sense. Not only is any DT process a squiggly line that makes sense in the end, but so is any kind of work in complex environments. Especially in the development sector it is crucial to trust your process over years and make sure that your process is adaptable and trusts you, too.
3. EMANATE CONFIDENCE and – DARE TO LEAD BY EXAMPLE!
The key ingredient that sets the unique flavor to any wicked project is having confident and uplifting project leaders, sponsors and facilitators. Your passengers should never have the feeling that you are building the plane while flying it, even if that is the case or you even tell them that that is the case. But they can’t ever ‘feel’ it. A co- creation and radical collaboration project (just like anything that involves change, variable contexts and humans) will be unpredictable no matter how many best practices you might have read or how many similar projects you might have ran. Actually the more experienced you are the more you know you cannot control the full success of such an endeavor. But what you can control is your attitude to it and the way you make participants feel about flying high on a plane that is being built as we go.
The Development Sector is being measured often by its impact on behavioural change. Unless the organisation itself becomes the site of introspective empathy work, cultural change and sustainable transformation it cannot facilitate change elsewhere in the world in an authentic way!
Want to read more about this project? Check out DesignThinkers Group USA.