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Blessed Are the Mapmakers: The Business of Wayfinding

Doug Collins - Monday, February 13, 2017

In a recent article, I observed that the modern-day organization prizes certain cultural traits. We seek to foment a culture of innovation. We seek to foment a culture of quality. We seek to foment a culture of sustainability. And, a culture of safety.

The successful organization comes to mirror the well-rounded individual whose sense of self-worth rests not on a singular character trait but on a connected set of values that link to one another, naturally and intrinsically.

The question then arises: by what means does the organization foment these desirable cultural attributes—the ones by which it sustains itself through thick and thin?

What I have found in visiting a number of large organizations—organizations with thousands of employees—is that each organization has within it agents of change. Sometimes these agents are designated to effect change on behalf of their peers. Sometimes these agents are self-appointed. They have the proverbial day job. They approach that day job in a way that effects change, however. It’s in their nature to express their personal brand of leadership in that way.

The cultural fomentation takes many forms and adheres to a number of practices.

Some of the change agents refer to themselves as lean practitioners. They feel called to help their organization seek change by applying the practices of lean to the critical value streams the organization supports from the client back into their supply chain.

Some of the change agents refer to themselves as customer experience professionals. This group, relatively new to the scene, has coined a nice shorthand for their work: CX. The CX professional. A professional society of CX Professionals exists now to guide them.

Some of the change agents refer to themselves as design thinkers. Inspired and emboldened by the thinking of the school of design sponsored by Stanford University in California, this group works to persuade their peers that, by putting themselves in the shoes of the customer, the path forward for the organization will come into focus.

I feel certain that I have yet to encounter and make the acquaintance of all the tribes that have taken up the mantle of authentic change on behalf of their organization. A new group of natives wave to me from the shore as I pass each bend in the river. My encounters to date have been both inspiring and enlightening, as they have afforded me a front row seat on where the hard, hard work of change is being done.

These visits of late, done in rapid succession, have allowed me to see a couple of similarities across the practitioner tribes. I make note of them here.

First, there is a desire—a visceral need—to identify the problem worth solving. The reason for this need is obvious: problem solving often turns into a time-consuming, frustrating exercise in trying, failing, learning, and trying again. At some point, the people engaged in the work look at one another and, quite naturally, ask themselves: Is it worth it? If the group finds that they are, in fact, not solving the right problem (insert your definition of right, here), then the answer is either a sheepish or angry, “no.” Careers have been won and lost on this question.

Second, there is a desire—a visceral need—to convene the interested parties—the term “stakeholders” is often used to connote this group—in problem solving. The lean practitioner convenes the people who touch the critical flow to map out the value stream. The customer experience professional does the same. The design thinker hosts workshops.

What I find is that these programs, once they are up and running, host a staggering number of these interventions: hundreds or more each year. Each one requires the time of multiple people before, during, and after the event, proper. Some require a considerable amount of travel: the costly flip side to our globalized economy.

What I also find is that few organizations make a clear, explicit link between the cost of intervention events and outcomes.

That is, if you were to ask the CEO of a mid-sized services company how much her firm spent on design thinking in 2016, she would likely be hard pressed to tie her employees’ travel expenses for the last year to the practice.

Is there waste in how organizations remove waste from their processes? Most likely. Physician: heal thyself.

Third, there is a desire—a visceral need—to visualize the full scope of the problem. Once the agents of change have everyone in the room, they naturally—if they have thought through their outcomes ahead of time—want each person to contribute to understanding the problem and then coming up with ways to solve it.

Savvy practitioners learn over time that the best way to waste people’s time and their organization’s money is to convene a group of people, then have them sit in a room, bearing mute testimony to someone else’s presentation. Webinars or, better yet, an email attachment with a polite request to review same best serves that purpose, today.

On this third point, each practitioner tribe has come up with its own version of seeing the whole: some form of mapping. Mapmaking is the signature stock in trade that each of these practitioner groups ply.

The lean practitioner facilitates the creation of a value stream map.

The customer experience professional facilitates the creation of a customer journey map.

The design thinker facilitates the creation of an empathy map.

Each map serves a different purpose, as prescribed by the bounds of the respective practice. Yet, of late, I have come to understand how fundamentally similar each map is in helping stakeholders achieve desired outcomes.

Specifically, each type of map serves as a means of making meaning and reaching a shared understanding of the current state. Each type of map serves as a means of identifying roadblocks or opportunities to improve some aspect of the current state. Each type of map serves as a jumping off point for ideation: How might we address some of the thornier problems that the map we have created reveals to us?

Interestingly, I find of late that the practitioners specifically call out the need for what they, in their own words, call “transformative ideas”: ideas that hold the promise of offering step-level improvement by re-envisioning completely the current state. Practitioners tell me that they seek these types of ideas for two reasons: their practice is mature and, thus, the low-hanging fruit by way of improvement ideas has already been harvested, and they see, somewhere on the horizon, a competitor rewriting the rules of the game for them and, thus, they must act now.

What does the future hold for these cartographic agents of change?

From my recent visits, I envision a couple of shifts.

First, each group seeks a more inclusive form of convening. Convening around the problem to solve. Convening around the current state. Convening around the challenges to overcome. Convening around the ideas to overcome the challenges.

Satisfying this need makes sense when one considers the cost of focusing on the “wrong” problem to solve or focusing on a less than optimal idea to solve the problem.

Seeing the whole fails if the whole fails to see.

Second, each group seeks greater persistence in their practice. One of the dirty little secrets of each practice is how much knowledge and expertise goes to waste, over time, in facilitating the interventions. People would admit to me that they had closets full of swim lanes or value stream maps in their closets: all artifacts of the costly act of getting people in the room and getting them on the same page. Nobody owns the maps. Nobody takes responsibility for their evolution.

My sense is that the asset utilization in these practices is disarmingly low which may explain in part why the practice leaders tend to come and go—or be let go. It’s hard for them to justify their existence when they can’t point to value because it’s locked in someone’s closet, somewhere.

Third, as noted earlier, each group seeks greater transformation in their practice—more transformative ideas, specifically. Their leadership team expects this outcome from them and from their investment in the practice. The change agents know this fact to be true when they are met with the declaration that, “but we already know this—or already tried this one before.” These outcomes are not without value. The savvy practitioner then has an opportunity to probe further as to why the organization struggles with transformation. Transformation is prized and ultimately required, however.

Lastly, looking further ahead, I could imagine a time when these practices undergo a synthesis and reconciliation perhaps through a group such as The International Forum of Visual Practitioners (IFVP). It’s not clear to me that the practitioners in each camp have succeeded in drawing the best from one another. That time will come, I suspect, given that the practitioners are wired to look outward and challenge themselves to improve. 

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