Decorating walls with colorful sticky notes full of good ideas is my idea of fun. And I’m not alone. After years conducting workshops, I can confirm that even the most hardened cynics love the creativity and collaboration of a well-facilitated brainstorm. And it’s easy to see why: coming up with ideas, scribbling on Post-its, bouncing ideas around with a group, and shuffling them around feels like play.

But I’ve come to understand that the process is disarmingly seductive. The fun of brainstorming glosses over the extreme challenges associated with realizing some of those good ideas. When teams fresh from a workshop meet a setback in the execution, the effect can produce a disillusioning whiplash – discouragement grows in direct proportion to sticky note-produced smiles.

Sticky notes are just one of the tools available in the craft of design thinking.  Overall, design thinking aims to help teams and leaders develop empathy for customers to help frame problems in novel ways, and generate surprising solutions.

Yet, sticky notes are no match for the realities of business decisions and competing priorities.

Applying empathy to customer needs also works to understand the needs of clients, and informs how we can turn those clients into heroes. This can spell the difference between delivering a shiny strategic plan and successfully implementing one that can fuel meaningful change. When agencies and clients empathize with one another, the collaboration produces better work. Why? Because both sides can better understand the elements and environment that the other may be facing.

Three simple steps will tune your empathy. First, invest in empathy with the client and what they need to do internally to sell the idea, and then with customers, so you can design for their real experience. It’s a matter of understanding the “how,” as well as the “what,” while also clearly understanding early what it takes to turn the idea into reality and diligently planning for it. Second, take the time to revisit and reframe any and all questions to help develop conviction. And third, ensure your process has the necessary rigor to stand up to scrutiny and skeptics.

How vs. What

Before all else, get a pulse on how ideas in the company ultimately make it to the real world, and what the client and agency need to make it possible. You can uncover the “what” by thinking more literally: What materials, data or resources inside or outside the company will help solve this issue? What programs, traditions, or processes will be fundamentally changed if the idea is implemented? While our modern ability to collect data and optimize response rates is a form of empathy, there might be times when this ability blinds us to bigger objectives about the customer experience, the societal need or the business goal.

Then, you can focus on the “how” by dissecting the decision-making process. Who reports to whom? Who has the final say? Consider how each individual in the approval and implementation process will react to the plan, and how this strategy would impact or change their current roles. Get to know them, ask about their goals, and find out how the project can help them.

Change is hard; even the most exciting improvements to strategies or programs can create a sense of fear and loss among staff members. You’ll need them to be on board with the plan, implement it within the company, and champion it over the long term. Uncovering the organization’s strengths and vulnerabilities not only establishes empathy, but will also uncover elements and key players who will be critical to move the implementation forward.

Rigorous inside and out

Next, take a deep dive to understand and communicate the company’s climate by investing the time to revisit and reframe questions to help develop conviction and identify the problem. The problem you’re solving – is it still the right one? Investigating the issue in a thoughtful manner can help you view the original problem with fresh eyes and enable you to confront the internal challenges and pitfalls. More importantly, you can find catalysts in the form of people or ideas.

Revisiting the problem builds additional empathy by addressing pain points that can help shape how strategies will be recommended and ultimately become actionable.

Empathetic Design

Empathy lays the groundwork for successful problem identification and solution building. Applying empathy through each step of design thinking – basically designing for implementation – will help produce ideas that are actionable and will deliver meaningful impact.

At iF empathy is integral to our client engagements and a factor in our success. It was an honor to participate at Seattle Interactive Conference 2017 with colleagues from DocuSign and Concur to discuss Exponential Empathy: How Brands and Agencies Break Down Barriers to Deliver Impact