Focus on the People, Not the Process by Working with Empathy Mapping

Rafael Morante
August 21, 2020

We can draw from experience working with different size organizations within a wide range of industries, and as enriching as this can be, surely most of us can pinpoint what similarities and differences many of those industries & organizations have, depending on where they sit on the size vs. industry spectrum. The larger the organization, it seems that there's a tendency for a more prescriptive structure, policies, and processes, while smaller ones overall seem a bit more flexible in these areas.

The Traditional Take: "Focus on the process, not the people"

Surely we've all heard this mantra before, typical from traditional styles of management on optimization of predefined and repeatable tasks that usually have a minimum and tolerable degree of risk. The rationale behind the concept of addressing processes instead of people stems from the perception – not necessarily mistaken within the right context – of complex organizations behaving pretty similarly to complex systems. Both benefit greatly from dissecting how all the cogs fit together and trying to optimize the processes that facilitate that cog-to-cog interaction to create an output. People not being the focal point isn't necessarily a bad thing under traditional paradigms. One could even argue that in a sense, this rationale tips the impact scale away from workers and more towards strict processes, usually defined and approved in the higher command levels of organizations.

The problem with all of this is that in almost any context you can think of – especially nowadays – value-creation and the rise of innovative products, commodities, and services all are human-centric endeavors. The world is filled with creative people with great ideas, entrepreneurial spirits, and wishes to push the boundaries on whatever is the norm today. Organizations have found that in order to stay relevant and thrive, they have to keep innovation in the front and center of their priorities. That's not easy to do unless you empower people to do things: to be better, to experiment, to be creative, and to think outside the box. It's a powerful thing to shift focus to people while making sure that processes are enablers that organically support what people do to create value.

The Rise of Agile and Its Organizational Challenges

With the rise of organizational agility, many organizations already have key members that could help them better define the organization's focus, focalize what types of outcomes are being pursued, and help management at all levels to promote a more significant and impactful Agile transformation.

In Scrum, one of the most popular Agile frameworks out there – and our preferred framework for complex product creation at Sophilabs – people are at the core of the value-creation cycle. Everything stems from people's ideas and a development team building a product iteratively out of feedback from users and customers. Scrum teams are empowered – and expected – to do the right thing with openness and transparency.

That being said, many organizations struggle with adopting Agile principles and reaping the benefits of its practices, undergoing a true cultural shift. The reasons for that might vary, but they are usually related to lack of faith in a servant-leadership model that trusts people to do the best they can and do the right thing, no matter how hard it might be.

The Scrum Master's Place Within an Organization

Scrum Masters are the perfect proponents and advocates for true agility. They can be effective as long as organizations are willing to commit to a transformation process. The most common position for Scrum Masters in companies is often limited to working with specific teams in order to help them unlock their potential, but beyond that, it usually feels like an internal endeavor that doesn't percolate to the rest of the organization.

As servant-leaders and agility proponents, Scrum Masters can do so much more than that by acting on three different levels:

  • Within Scrum Team, serving the Development Team & the Product Owner
  • Building relationships with peers from other teams
  • Supporting the entire organization's cultural shift towards improved agility

Scrum Masters are well-suited to help their peers become better versions of themselves; remember, it's all about understanding what makes people tick in order to empower them to do well. Contrary to common misconceptions, Scrum Masters aren't the "Scrum processes police," "Project Managers," or "Team Auditors"; Scrum Masters aren't there to solve all the problems a team or an organization may have, or to smack someone on the head with the Scrum Guide when things aren't done "by the book". There's no book! There's knowledge, collaboration, and commitment to grow as individuals and as team members with the help of a Scrum Master who guides people, navigating these challenges until they find what works for them. They are meant to be the teachers, coaches, mentors, facilitators, and change agents for continuous improvement.

Empathy Mapping: an Effective Tool for Scrum Masters Working in Multiple Levels of an Organization

All of this makes us ask: how can a Scrum Master do all that? Serve the Scrum team and help cross-team coordination while replicating the values of agility and Scrum towards organization-wide adoption? In actuality, there's a wide range of tools that a great Scrum Master can use depending on the specific level and situation being addressed.

For the purpose of this article, I'd like to focus on one often ignored tool, Empathy Mapping. I find Empathy Mapping to be quite powerful because of its versatility – apart from its original purpose for facilitating conflicts, it can be used with individuals from different levels: Upper to middle-tier managers, Scrum team members, stakeholders, users and even hypothetically when working with personas. It's a tool that offers you a great way to focus on people, to get to know them better, understand what moves them, and thus help you help them! Here's what an Empathy Map looks like:


To do a quick, simplified recap of how an Empathy Map works:

  1. Start with the Goal section, by defining who will be the subject of the Empathy Map and what you want them to do. This should be framed in terms of new and observable behavior.
  2. Once the goal section has been covered, work your way clockwise around the canvas, until you have covered See, Say, Do, and Hear. The purpose here is to follow observable phenomena as close as possible in the point of view of the person we're empathizing with, providing the opportunity to find insights into their experience and feelings.
  3. Finally, after you have completed the previous elements, you can focus on what might be going on inside the person's head. The head represents our assumption of the person's inner thoughts in terms of pains and gains. The whole idea here is to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head.

The outcomes of performing good empathy mapping can reveal a lot and can give you the insights you need to develop meaningful relationships with your peers and help them do their best work, better align with your organization's goals, and explore their full potential.

"Focus on the People, Not the Process by Working with Empathy Mapping" by Rafael Morante is licensed under CC BY SA. Source code examples are licensed under MIT.

Photo by sophilabs.

Categorized under agile / research & learning / people & culture.

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