Becoming Person-Focused

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  • (08-Dec-2014 Author’s note: The book is finally at the press! It will be out within weeks. In the interim, I decided I’ve been silent too long on this blog, so here’s an empathy story to carry you along.)

    Walking in someone else’s shoes gives you understanding about where this other person comes from—what experiences he’s had that shape the way he thinks and acts. Understanding several other people gives you insight into the vast spectrum of perspectives that exist out there. This kind of understanding is ambiguously referred to as “empathy.” It works in understanding your customers, and it works in collaborating with your peers at work.

    Here’s an example story, with components stitched together from many realities.

    Savi is the director of User Experience at a large insurance corporation. This is a new role at the organization, and she was hired 10 months ago to build and lead a new internal team providing customer research and strategy. How Savi makes her role into a success is based on carefully understanding the thinking of the people around her. For her internal work, she adopts the same philosophy she uses to understand customers. She stops focusing on her own goals and endeavors so that she can grasp her co-workers’ goals. This is how empathy can be harnessed: deliberate understanding of all the kinds of people involved in your work: customers and co-workers. This kind of empathy is about making the space for new insights to emerge. The insights might be tiny things you already knew, but didn’t pay attention to, or they might be significant revelations. These insights allow you to re-frame things so that you can support people better.

    Savi & Her UX Team at BigInsuranceCompany


    Pretend this is Savi and her team. (In reality it is a group of students from General Assembly SF, summer 2014. Some of them might become a Savi one day.

    As an organization, we’re going to become more customer-centric.” Saying that is one thing. Making it happen is quite another, as Savi knows oh-so-well. So far she feels like she hasn’t made any difference.

    In the first few weeks after coming on-board, Savi defined what she wants her group to provide to the organization: not only review, testing, and tweaking how customers are supported with current products, but also more strategic stuff. She wants to help the company understand what people are up against in their lives, and what their thinking is right before they turn to insurance. She knows there’s more to understand, and better ways to support customers. It’s just that, right now, upper management isn’t listening to her. Even though they agree about the customer-centric goal, and they hired her and gave her a budget, they are reluctant to give her a seat at the table. Savi has tried to show them how her group will be able to make a difference. She has invited senior management to presentations about her goals, but if they even attend, they just nod and apologize for having to rush off to their next meeting. She asked her boss for time to make her presentation at two of the quarterly business meetings, but both her requests got denied. The message from the highest decision-makers seems to be, “What you aim to do sounds good. Go do it.”

    The problem is, without explicit instructions to do so from upper management, none of the other divisions in the organization think to include Savi in their work. So she attends their meetings and offers recommendations. She asks what areas people need to know more information about. All she has heard in return is empty praise of her goals, but no concrete requests for knowledge. Her recommendations are met with distrust, because she is new to the insurance field. Savi figures if she can get some kind of change made that results in measurable success, then the others will start reaching out to her. It’s just getting that first success to happen which is hard.

    Also, there is the problem of hiring people to work on her team. Within eight weeks of starting her new role at the insurance company, Savi had interviewed a few candidates and hired one. Luckily the company headquarters office is based in a popular area, so finding a few candidates wasn’t as hard as it could have been. Just the same, Savi recently learned that competition for the good employees is strong. The person she hired resigned last week, citing better opportunities to actually engage with customers and get some research done at another organization. So now, Savi has to start the search for candidates again. It’s just one more setback contributing to her sense that she hasn’t accomplished anything.

    Savi knows she needs to make the higher-ups pay more attention to customer strategy. But recently she read some articles and watched a few presentations which made her reassess her approach. The theme is about understanding other people at a deeper level. Usually the focus is on customers, but Savi is thinking she will turn her energy toward understanding the people around her at the insurance company. If she understands what’s driving upper management, then perhaps she can support them better without clamoring for attention. If she understands where the distrust comes from in the other teams she’s supposed to be collaborating with, then maybe she can provide them something that speaks to it. Perhaps her own words “make them pay more attention” need to change to “pay more attention to them, myself.”

    So, Savi embarks upon a fresh path, making room in her daily schedule to go listen to someone for 30 minutes or so. If she’s going to be the person who coordinates the focus on customers, then she had better be in touch with all the other people involved. She had better understand what thinking is going on and how decisions have been made. She had better understand the people she hopes to coordinate. She listens to her boss, and to his boss and more of upper management. She listens to the leaders of various groups throughout the company, and some of the team members. Sure, the logistics of a 30-minute appointment with so many different people fails a lot of the time, but the sessions she does manage schedule turn out to be exactly the rich source she expected. She walks into each meeting simply with the intent of understanding what’s been on this other person’s mind recently. The conversation goes where it will, as the person grows accustomed to Savi and begins to describe the way he weighed a decision, or how he realized when he didn’t know enough about something, and how he filled in the blanks. She goes into each meeting without a personal agenda. She doesn’t try to explain anything or persuade—she simply listens to each person’s concerns and digs into the details to understand more clearly.

    Out of five days a week, Savi gets to listen to about three people, on average. After a month of this, she begins to see patterns in the ways some people think, and differences. One pattern is that the people who have been with the company a long time really understand the products, and the legal limitations of what the company will do for a customer. They are concerned that the customer wants to bend rules and make exceptions when filing a claim. So this is the first topic she pursues in her research—while also keeping up the 30-minutes-a-day scheduling. Those meetings she will never give up, since they are such a strong way to keep on top of what the people around her are thinking.

    Savi’s research gathers all the exceptions the company has made for a claim in the past, as well as all the exceptions that customers asked for (exceptions which were documented—many were not) but did not receive. She listens to a few customers tell her their reasoning process behind asking for an exception in their particular case. She synthesizes this data and finds patterns, which she then shares with people in a series of small working sessions. She doesn’t come to these sessions recommending ideas—instead, she asks people what they see in the data, themselves. She asks if anyone has different interpretations. She asks if the ways things work now is sufficient for typical customers, or sufficient for particular sub-types. And always, invariably, someone in the room makes a suggestion. The suggestion may be a big idea or a small idea. Most likely it will get changed as people discuss it and poke holes in it. But Savi is pleased even if the idea dies entirely. The groups she is working with are willing to look at life from the context of a customer—they’re able to shift their perspective enough to squeeze past the seemingly unsurmountable mind block of the legal restrictions. This way of building trust and collaborating in a way more supportive to people’s concerns is working. Rather than the narrower domain of “customer-centric,” Savi has broadened it to a “person-centered” approach which includes decision-makers and team members at the company, as well as customers.

    Savi’s success depends upon ongoing sessions with individuals, and upon bringing findings to small groups for discussion. It’s a core part of her role. Now that people at the organization feel her support, they want more and more information from her. They know she’s not going to force ideas upon them; they can trust her. They know she listens and prioritizes across the topics she hears. They reach out to her when they find a hole in their understanding about customers—and they’re less reluctant to acknowledge that the hole exists. No one is to blame, and Savi always comes up with knowledge to help them make better decisions and move forward. No one apologizes about having to leave to get to another meeting, because these are the meetings that feel the most productive. People participate. In fact, it has gotten to the point where Savi has to regretfully put some requests on a waiting list; she has hired another person to help gather the knowledge, and now she realizes she’s going to need to hire a second person to help out.

    What Makes Savi’s Story Different

    The story demonstrates a shift in attitude away from fighting for internal attention and toward including people you work with in the same philosophy that you use to understand customers. This more outward-focused attitude is something you might call the empathetic mindset. It’s a mindset that you can practice anywhere, taking short little forays into this style of finding out what the other person is thinking.

    One Response to “Becoming Person-Focused”

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