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What's your problem?

by Max Applin
7th November 2018

Answering this simple question is something that big organisations often fail to do. In this blog I explore how to identify, map and resolve systemic problems that your organisation is facing.

In reality, the gap between what you think your problems are, what your team think your problems are and what your users think the problem is for them are wildly different. Yes, problems with organisations exist in different instances and can be exclusive to particular groups but factors exist that are shared across all contexts. Solving them can impact your business, the people within your organisation and ultimately, the end user.

In my role, I am often tasked with solving our clients’ most complex problems. An organisation will say ‘we have problem x’ but following respective immersion and a discovery phases, the problem that they have identified is often a by-product of more systemic problems that exist within the organisation. 

No-one is talking and animosity is rising…

The gap between a problem’s perception and its reality is sometimes so vast that internal tensions between departments, and external tensions with users reach breaking point.

This is what I call the ‘problem gap’ that designers can counter by creating systems and processes that allow cross-organisational connections and relationships to flourish. Ultimately, this can improve customer outcomes.

How did you get here in the first place?

This can be due to numerous intangible factors but more often than not it’s in direct correlation to the communication structure of your organisation – also known as “Conway’s Law” which states that:

"organisations which design systems... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organisations."

This is symptomatic of linear thinking and comes down to a handful of issues:

1. Siloed ways of working in organisations

This creates an inability for different departments to communicate with each other effectively – irrespective of modern technology’s advantages or opportunities. The lack of a cross team approach aligned to one goal and set of metrics means that teams or individuals end up working autonomously with low levels of governance.

They end up producing work that either has low relevance to other departments – essentially creating more junk to maintain. Alternatively, it duplicates effort where two departments are separately receiving budget and go-ahead to achieve similar goals.

2. Unhealthy internal competition

The competitive nature of individual business units trying to out-perform each other can cause friction results from placing unit KPIs ahead of organisation-wide performance. This is compounded by a lack of communication between teams.

Fortunately, competing team leads can unite. For example, I have witnessed occasions - during workshops - where said leads have aligned goals and created effective strategies having understood one another’s business ends.

3. There is no clear responsibility or accountability

No one really owns ‘digital’ which can lead to a low standards and a failure of govern digital assets, including: the technology stack used to implement projects, design guidelines that are not fit for purpose and a general lack of understanding of who is actually responsible for the management of such things. Is it Marketing, Brand or IT’s responsibility?

4. A lack of embedded user testing practices

Where is the feedback loop? How do organisations know their products/services are doing what they expect and/orwant them to do? Unless a culture of user testing is created and nurtured, the same problems will rear their heads again and again.

5. There is no unified strategy or vision for digital customer experience

One of my favourite questions to ask an organisation is: “What would you do if you had unlimited budget and resource?” or, similarly: “What would a well-funded start up do?” These questions often illicit a chuckle and the lamentation of legacy systems – but it is this kind of thinking that allows you to see beyond what is in front of you and design for a new future that is truly user-centred.

All of which lead to ill-thought-out but well-intentioned projects being undertaken in silos, with no understanding of how this action may impact another team, let alone the overarching business strategy.

So, how do you get to the bottom of your problems?

There are a few tools that you can use to address the problem gap – some I have identified below:

Empathy mapping

Empathy mapping is a great way of closing the problem gap. Once an understanding of the user is created, businesses can compare their own business objectives with their users’ wants and needs. This includes mapping out your teams’ wants and needs as well as your customers’.

Through empathy mapping, businesses can also track and analyse what their users see, hear, think, say, and/or do. This type of mapping also identifies practical aspects that must be achieved such as emotional and societal goals. However, if too much focus is allocated to practical outcomes, emotional outcomes can be overlooked and subsequently impact the process and outcome negatively.

Experience mapping

To start - map out, step by step, what the user is doing when going through a process, think through their thought process, document real-life experiences and then work collaboratively with those users to identify pain points.

Ask yourself:
  • Are there inefficiencies in the tools they use to do the job?
  • Is there an over-reliance on an individual’s knowledge?
  • Should repetitive tasks become automated?
  • Where does the design interaction lead to - are we taking the user down a dead-end?

Once everything is mapped out, problems can be defined and ultimately resolved.

Defined problem statements

By combining the results of empathy and experience mapping you can begin to group the problems identified into themes - from data management, fragmentation of tools and processes, to communication barriers and management issues. Once grouped, businesses can begin to highlight the reasons why these themes are problems and what impact it has on the user and organisation alike.

With these core components mapped out, we can better understand how to address problems and begin work on our vision for a better future. One method we advocate is the Proof of Concept (PoC).

Using PoCs can minimise organisational stasis - through catalysing change that is required to kick-start a new wave of thinking within your organisation. This can help organisations gain conviction.

Building on this and tackling problems systemically can help you to understand the impact of change upon your organisation. From here, it is possible to build companies that are governed, autonomous and work effectively together and create better outcomes for everyone.


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