It's been a long time since our last update. To be honest, part of me felt unsure exactly how to continue our conversation now that the book is out and the tour is over. Questions like "Do people care to know more about the project?" or "Am I just filling their inbox up with unnecessary junk?" ran through my mind. It was only recently that I came to the realization that most people who don't care would have unsubscribed from the update by now. :)
So on to the update!
1) Insight 1: Most of our conflicts stem from misunderstandings, and that misunderstanding is only obvious in hindsight.
More than merely updating you on what's going on with realizing empathy, let me share two insights I have acquired after the tour. Here's the first one.
It seems that companies that start off really small (i.e. 2 people) experience struggles as they grow. *DUH* right? On the surface, this is probably not so earth-shattering. We all intellectually know that organizations experience growing pains. But after the tour, for different reasons, I've been able to take on the role of a consultant immersed inside different small organizations (i.e. 30 people max) for at least a couple months at a time. These organizations were all started off by 2 people, and have since grown larger in size. As they grew in size things started to change. People got busier, and new employees came on, and without explicit management of their culture, the climate had become significantly different from what it used to be. But! From the founders' perspective they thought everything was the same. This seems to be a fairly common pattern.
So in this context, I've had the privilege and luxury of observing and hearing the intimate details of the kinds of struggles the people inside these organizations were having. But what surprised me most was less the kinds of things they struggled with, and more the contrast in the stories told by different people coming from different perspectives.
What's become quite clear to me is that, regardless of the gender or status difference inside organizations (I'm talking about both male and female in C-levels aged 60+ years well as a brand new employee in their 20s), the people I've met were all trying their best to:
a) not get hurt,
b) not hurt others,
c) do not do things that they perceive as a waste of their time and energy,
d) do things they believe is "right."
But when these simple constraints are put in a complex web of relationships, we get all sorts of happenings that we (or at least I) could never have fully anticipated. In some instances I saw this leading to gossiping, blaming, and accusing. In other instances, I saw this leading to repressing, disengaging, and grudging. In one instance, I also got to observe how quickly someone developed a prejudice against another person based purely on gossip and no direct interaction or understanding of that person. In another instance, I also got to observe how someone who was perceived as a bully eventually became bullied by other people in the company, so much so that he left the company out of fear of further repercussions.
Fortunately, I was also able to help resolve some of these tensions by facilitating various forms of empathic conversations. And in basically all of the cases, it turned out that at the heart of the tension was a misunderstanding. Nothing more nothing less. What exactly was misunderstood was only obvious in hindsight, but they were misunderstandings nonetheless. Some of the "a-ha" moments for the people involved were truly inspirational for me. For example, I got to see some employees connect with a senior exec on a human-to-human level when the exec told the story of how she has come to realize that the source of many misunderstandings was her unwillingness to show her weakness. I sincerely cherish these moments of courage, because I think they speak volumes to the human condition which lies at the heart of all these organizations. At the same time, I won't claim that the end result of the resolution was always a happy ending, because they weren't. For example, in more than one instance, people left the organization (on good terms), because they realized that they were not a good match for the company. Up until the misunderstanding was resolved, s/he thought s/he was being ill-treated, but it turns out their expectation was significantly misaligned with what the organization was willing to offer.
2) Insight 2: Designers need more empathy for their clients.
Prior to the journey I'm on now, I've worked as a design consultant to fortune 500 companies. And after spending nearly a decade in that industry, I was fairly jaded. In numerous occasions, companies were spending millions of dollars on consultants, yet many of the designs we delivered either never saw the light of day, or came out butchered. I don't think I'm alone in thinking that designers not only measure their success based on their designs, but also the impact their designs have on the world. In this case, I was more than satisfied (in fact, often ecstatic) with the designs, but the impact was fairly abysmal.
After spending a year and a half learning about the kinds of unnoticed or repressed conflicts present inside organizations, I've come to realize that design consulting has to be done differently. How differently? I don't know, but it has to allow for far greater empathy for the clients. That's right. Clients. Not just users. Clients as well. I hope we have already learned how important it is to have empathy for users. I also hope that I don't have to say again how important it is for us to have empathy for the materials we work with. But, for whatever reason, we've been neglecting empathy for clients. By clients, I don't mean just one person. I mean the entire organisation that our client belongs to. If you ask me when's the last time I spent as much time doing ethnographic research into the lives of my clients and their environments as I have done with my users, I would have to say that it is only within the past year and a half. And this is profoundly changing the way I think about design, and life in general.
One domain I've ventured into is that of structured coaching. For example, in one of the projects I'm working on I've had to implement a new employee training program. It's something I'm continuously developing based on feedback and results. Typically speaking, this kind of project is a major luxury, and only possible because my client's company is too small to have an HR dept. So I'm taking this opportunity to make the most of it.
Through the program, I've thus far been able to help a new employee establish a far more intimate and dynamic relationship with the other people in a significantly shorter amount of time than how much it would have taken otherwise. I've also been able to help a new employee become significantly more aware of how it is she can acquire insights in everyday interactions, and translate that to light-weight innovations for use within the company. I've also been able to help a new employee think more reflectively as opposed to resorting to blaming, judging, and criticizing.
While the direct link between structured coaching and design may be blurry to some, the experience I had in art school tells me that people are more likely to be productive when there is greater empathy in the various relationships they have, whether it is with their materials or with other people. Not only that, but the chance of insight and innovation goes up in those relationships when they are given the space to reflect. And finally, through this process they are also able to realize empathy with themselves, which brings about a greater sense of identity and subjective well-being. So my hope is that if design is simply a means to better lives, structured coaching is bound to have a significant relationship to design.
Thank you all once again
Alright, I think that's enough for one update. It's been such a long time, and because I've learned so many things in the meantime I'm probably feeling over-zealous. Thank you for listening. :)
I still remember the intense feeling of gratitude and excitement that came with the kickstarter project. That was in large part in debt to your support. I also remember the intense feeling of uncertainty, shame, and guilt that came with asking people to support the project in monetary ways. As difficult as that was, I'm partially convinced that without having felt at least some amount of that uncertainty, shame, and guilt I would not have been sufficiently transformed through the process. So I thank the process in general and to all those who partook in it.
Thanks once again everyone!
Seung Chan Lim
Project Director / Realizing Empathy
Founder & Principal Meta-Designer / Forks & Bridges