Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Learn from observing human behaviour using an 'empathy map'

I picked up this piece from the Harvard Business Review blog - Three Creativity Challenges from IDEO’s Leaders Link to HBR blog

All three of the creativity challenges are good; I know about mind-mapping and already use it regularly but the other two were new to me.  Of most interest was the third challenge - 'Learn from observing human behaviour'.

Why is this of interest?

I learn a lot from watching and listening intently to what is going on around me everyday.  In my coaching work, in particular, I pay attention to the social data emerging in the conversation. In my professional development as a coach a lot of emphasis was placed on paying attention in any conversation to what is being heard, what you see the other person doing and how all of this is making you feel.  The parallels between this and the empathy map were instantly clear.

I’m interested in observing all aspects of talk including things like pace and tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and use of humour. I then use this social data to provide detailed observational feedback.  And in turn I have had consistent feedback about how useful this approach is.  Perhaps it's because it helps an individual to make a connection between the interaction-in-that-moment in the room, to parallel experiences happening elsewhere. 

Why it is important to management learning?

This quote from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid describes something that reflects my own experience of management learning:

Most conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers. 

As I have discovered through observing managerial work, if everyday workplace practice is placed centre-stage, in other words endorsing actual practice over abstract knowledge, then what you get is lots of context-rich learning: about what actually gets done; practice that is good and bad; practice that shows what's 'in' and what's 'out' through what people talk about; practice that pays attention to who does what and how.

The 'Empathy Map'

The Empathy Map is a practical tool that can help structure the observational process.  

Here are the instructions, copied from the IDEO blog

TOOL: Empathy Map

PARTICIPANTS: Solo or groups of two to eight people

TIME: 30-90 minutes

SUPPLIES: Whiteboard or large flip chart, Post-its, and pens

  1. On a whiteboard or a large flip chart, draw a four-quadrant map. Label the sections with “say,” “do,” “think,” and “feel,” respectively.
  2. Write down each of your key observations from the field on one Post-it note and populate the “say” and “do” quadrants. Try color-coding, for example, using green Post-its for positive statements and actions, yellow for neutral, and pink or red for frustrations, confusion, or pain points.
  3. When you run out of observations (or room) in those quandrants, begin to fill the “think and” and “feel” sections with Post-its, based on the body language, tone, and choice of words you observed. Use the same color coding.
  4. Take a step back and look at the map as a whole. What insights or conclusions can you draw from what you’ve written down. What seems new or surprising? Are there contradictions or disconnects within or between quadrants? What unexpected patterns appear? What, if any, latent human needs emerge?


Whether your interest is in IDEO's use of the empathy map as an aid to creativity or as a tool to capture different aspects of everyday practice, my sense is that it offers a practical method to help pay attention to what is going on.  And from which new ideas might emerge or provide the basis for feedback.  Experience-based learning can sometimes mean taking people out of the workplace to experience different environments, e.g. learning expeditions and project assignments but it can more simply be about learning from what's going on right now in situ.  

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