4. Empathy Helps Unlock Alternative Solutions

What happens when somebody has made up their mind?

Quite often we get tunnel vision. We get fixated on the solution before we understand the problem to solve. Empathy is a great tactic to broaden our horizons both from a perspective of Design Thinking and Relationship Management.

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Imagine the scene:  you're having your monthly meeting with your business sponsor, going through the progress reports, project deliverables, service levels, and future ideas. They say, "Well, look, we have an idea where we want to improve the experience of our visitors, and we have found software which will help us achieve that. We're talking reception, booking meetings, desks and turnstiles. It's okay; it's "software is a service", so we can manage the whole process, start to finish, with the supplier directly. We've already had discussions with them, and they've given us access to a demo account. I wanted to let you know."

So what do you do? Do you say;

  1. "Thank you very much for the information, I hope it all goes well?"

  2. "Let me check with my colleagues in central IT to see if we have anything already in place"?

  3. "Help me understand the problem you're trying to solve in more detail"?


Hi, I'm Jon, and this is a series of short articles called "Tales from a Portfolio Manager".  I help people in corporates plan technology across teams. so you could be someone who has a portfolio - of clients, projects, services or a backlog of features and you have to manage them across a wide variety of teams to achieve any number of goals. I have been doing these roles for over 20 years for many corporates and I have a few tales to tell. The best thing I can do for you is to encapsulate that experience into my advisory, online training and coaching so that you can reflect on how you solve some pretty challenging issues that you come across, and as a result,  be more successful in your role. If you like the content, stay tuned for more episodes and try for free our courses with a link in the article description.


Well, in terms of the questions, the answer I wouldn't give is the first one. I appreciate that the business sponsor has been transparent in letting me know, and I see that as an invitation to take a closer look. So I will go with the third response. Naturally, I'll be curious to understand what needs to be fixed in the visitor experience and what they want to see happening. In this particular scenario, I'm assuming that someone somewhere has done some quick desk-based research - a couple of phone calls and a meeting with a supplier and the solution has already been decided. This may be sufficient in simple scenarios; however, there are certainly far more factors to consider in corporate scenarios, especially the scale; we won't be talking about a couple of visitors, but maybe tens of thousands in a year.

Another consideration is the do-nothing option. Is there a legacy system in place already? Is it out of support, or are there new requirements it does not fulfil? What would the staff do to facilitate visitor management if there were no digital enablement of the process? Would they use index cards, Post-it notes, Excel, spreadsheets and walkie-talkies to manage the flow? The downside risk of not fulfilling a requirement in the short term may cause reputational damage and require substantial additional resources to work the process with the incumbent error and embarrassment that ensues.

So inevitably, there is a sense of urgency. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes implementing something local sooner does trump onboarding onto a corporate-wide solution later. Yet fulfilling that need with a just-in-time response may come with the expectation that a long-term alternative solution can be found and supported by corporate IT and placed on the roadmap.

I've often found that the not invented here syndrome can quickly take root. So even after a couple of phone calls, people have already decided on the solution, and as a result, they are less open to discussing alternatives. Given the pressing need to solve many other issues, I understand why the desire to get stuff done and move forward doesn't go away. On the other hand, if there is a standard solution that exists within the company, people can get offended quite quickly, simply because it hasn't been considered, or since out of the 10th features that are required, only nine of them are fulfilled, and that one feature suddenly becomes the must-have feature dealbreaker.

People tend to wrap their egos into whatever solution. THEY decide it is the best choice, and it becomes difficult to disambiguate between the ego and the solution. So if you offer an alternative, they can become offended. In this situation, I make it easy for them to adopt an alternative idea as if it were theirs in the first place. 

You can get caught up in a culture between "us" and "them", where the opposing team rallies around their idea of how the problem should be solved vs the other team and their idea. Suppose different teams in diverse parts of the organisation employ empathy to understand their counterparty's issues and way of working can help different teams. In that case, having a more rational conversation about the pros and cons of different approaches is easier. That may mean walking through the experience and, in this instance, pretending to be a visitor, receptionist, or employee looking to use the office for the day. 

I have tried to find time with people to help them understand an alternative perspective. Often, people are not in listening mode; they are in "just do it" mode. Your professional credibility is based on whether you can "just do it" rather than helping them understand the broader picture. Trying to break down culture into something more collaborative is more than a single-person task; it's a collective endeavour. So what do we do when we're faced with this issue?

If this is the situation that you are facing, then leading by example is the best way forward. So, for example, rather than only representing the corporate technology function to the business sponsor and using that as the basis of your authority, an additional source of authority is instead drawing on the empathy you can generate regarding your understanding of the business problem. Suppose you have spent time understanding the issue, walking through the process identifying with your colleagues, and understanding the opportunity and the customer journey. In that case, they can see that you are on the same page as them, so when you offer an alternative opinion after some time and consistent behaviour, they may be open to a broader debate on how to solve the issue.

So you're probably thinking right now that's all very well and good, but I can't afford the time to spend doing this walk with me empathising approach to solving business problems. I agree that the amount of time it takes can be substantial. I find that my diary gets full of meetings, back to back, hour after hour, and the time I set aside to do research or spend time with my colleagues has suddenly evaporated. These are hard choices, and it is a question of priority, but our investment will have a return. So imagine the scenario where you have exercised empathy and, as a result, established more trust; how many crisis management meetings and sudden changes in direction would you have avoided? Since we have been able to influence the decision process much earlier on in the lifecycle?

Stay tuned for another episode of Tales from a Portfolio Manager in two weeks.

4. Empathy Helps Unlock Alternative Solutions
Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter
27 March, 2023
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3. Changing gears
from a Reactive Partner to a Strategic Partner