How strategic communicators can use design thinking to better engage with stakeholders

All strategic communicators have been in this situation: confined with the rest of the project team in a stuffy meeting room, going back and forth to solve a complex communications problem, one that – in one way or another – ladders up to: How do we better engage with _________ stakeholder(s) around ____________?

Often, after a spirited kick-off and enthusiastic initial efforts to come up with ideas, it becomes harder and harder to avoid talking in circles, we essentially withdraw, and we finally settle for something because we have to, not because we know in our hearts it’s the superior solution to our problem. In these situations, it’s not a lack of knowledge, experience, or willingness of the team to reach the best results, rather, it is often the way we define the problem and the manner in which we search for solutions.

Most common pitfalls when solving communication problems:

    • The problem is too narrowly defined, resulting in restricted solutions
    • The definition of the problem does not capture its core/essence, resulting in solutions that may not solve the real problem
    • Budget limitations don’t allow thorough research (i.e. focus groups, interviews, surveys, etc.) of all involved stakeholders
    • ‘We’ve always done it this way, why change it now?’ mentality
    • Favoring solutions that match existing beliefs or theories (confirmation bias)
    • Relying too heavily on one aspect of information or part of the problem/solution (anchor bias)
    • Team culture issues that give rise to groupthink
    • One or more team members’ strong opinions overshadowing everyone else’s thoughts

The key to better communication problem solving and avoiding the above pitfalls lies in defining the problem correctly and better sympathizing with stakeholders through adopting a design thinking approach.

What is design thinking?

The power of design thinking when applied to communication strategy

Design thinking is a user-focused practice originated to solve complex user experience (UX) problems, such as reinventing solar energy
 supply for rural Africa to simplifying US tax forms. It’s a non-linear process promoting a fast-paced, no-wrong-answers, blue-sky thinking style, in which we try to better understand our stakeholders’ motivators, drivers, fears, barriers, and opportunities. Once we truly grasp their point of view, we can challenge our own assumptions and be ready to (re)define the problem.

There are two parts to design thinking that are particularly helpful in solving communication problems around how to better engage with our stakeholders: the methodology of how to define the problem and find answers, and the tools we use to do that.

How better defined problems lead to better solutions:

    • Ensuring that you’re asking the right question
      The key is framing the question in such a way that better solutions can arise. For example, instead of asking: “How can we produce a better report” ask “How can we better understand the needs and desires of our stakeholders when it comes to our reporting?” Sometimes there’s value in asking a broader question to be able to see the problem from a variety of angles in different ways.
    • Breakdown the large problem into more manageable building blocks
      Once the problem is defined correctly, the next step is to break the big question into smaller questions that unlike the big problem – which is intimidating and difficult to solve – are much easier to figure out. The goal is to find many answers, the more the better. With smaller, easier questions, no ‘big ideas’ are required or even desired and all answers are good.

If we try to figure out how to better engage with our stakeholders around sustainability, the questions to ask start with attempting to get a much deeper understanding of who the stakeholders are, and their fears, desires, and barriers. Then the focus can shift to how communication can help overcome some of these problems and what methods can be used to do so. With a greater awareness of the desires, needs, and fears of the stakeholders, communicators can approach solutions with deeper insight. There is a high likelihood that these ideas will be much different than ideas developed without that understanding.

Tools for an improved process of problem solving
It’s one thing to know how to define the problem and another to create the right kind of questions, but how to work through the problem solving process is just as important. Rather than sitting around the table with one person taking notes, everyone is an active participant in the process and the meeting takes on the form of a hands-on workshop.

    • Foster a creative mindset
      At the start of the workshop, before embarking on brainstorming ideas, getting in the right mindset is imperative as it will do wonders for the outcome. A good way to do this is by starting with a few quick warm up exercises, like the resistance/acceptance exercise, whereby after first answering a simple question with “Yes, but..” an answer that expresses opportunities naturally flows by simply reframing the answer with “Yes, and…” These exercises help to create a positive group atmosphere, allow for people to get to know one another better, break down social barriers, energize and reduce any pressures, and prepare the team for a different mode of working.
    • Less More is more! – Don’t try to seek the best answer
      As to how the workshop actually plays out, visualize small groups of people each feverishly writing all ideas, thoughts, and epiphanies – good or bad – on sticky notes and pasting them on the wall, only allowing a couple of minutes per question. Organizing, categorizing, and synthesizing within the group happens next, and lastly the groups report their findings back to the larger group. This is the most powerful part of the workshop because the insights and learnings are shared but no conclusions, connecting the dots, or solutions are needed or even desired at this stage of divergent thinking. Creating choices, opportunities, and true empathic insight is the motto during the workshop.

    • Embrace equal voice
      What’s nice about design thinking is the way we engage with each other within the team. By approaching the problem from unique angles and asking questions differently, we’re naturally facilitating mindset shifts. Hierarchy, unfamiliarity with, or the sheer quantity of people in the room can be instances where creative and divergent thinking is inhibited. The design thinking process is a democratic working method that forces inclusive collaboration and it naturally renders all voices equal, allowing everyone’s ideas to be heard.

Conclusion

Deeper understanding = better solutions
Design thinking can be an impactful way to avoid common pitfalls when solving communication problems. Its disruptive process breaks open the status quo and avoids traditional ways of thinking, creating a space for the productive sharing of ideas. The experimental nature of the process forces people to embrace ambiguity, and it truly can become a catalyst for change and evolution.

Because we’re naturally encouraged to deeply empathize with our stakeholders, we are able to see their angle and create better ways to communicate, engage, and amplify impact as a result.