We’re solving problems for (sometimes with) people. In the realm of design and innovation, especially within the context of the work Overlap does, the role of people cannot be underestimated. They are not just observers but active participants in the process of change. People mapping emerges as an important tool that helps to align, engage, and empower the individuals and groups who can influence and be influenced by the solution.

A note about the term stakeholder

If you’re looking for other tools and resources around people mapping, you might be more familiar with the term stakeholder. A stakeholder map is a key tool in the designers toolkit—and recently the term stakeholder has been causing harm. It’s important to recognize that and adjust your language accordingly. What’s wrong with stakeholder? The issue with the word stakeholder is that in a colonial context, a stakeholder was the person who drove a stake into the land to demarcate the land s/he was occupying/stealing from Indigenous territories and peoples.

So, what do we say instead? I’m going to suggest you can just say people. What we’re talking about is mapping the people involved in a problem—either directly or indirectly—and understanding how we should engage them in our work.

Understanding Design-Based Problem Solving

Design-based problem solving is a holistic approach to designing and orchestrating change within organizations, systems, or communities. It goes beyond product or service design to reimagine and reshape entire ecosystems. Design-based problem solving seeks to create meaningful and lasting change by addressing complex, interrelated challenges. This could range from redefining a company’s business model to revitalizing an urban neighborhood.

Crucially, design-based problem solving is not a top-down process imposed by a select few; it’s collaborative and participatory. It recognizes that people, both internal and external, play a pivotal role in the success of any problem solving initiative. It’s the reason we put such a big emphasis on facilitation—your ability to work with a group of people and support them through a process is a critical skill.

The Problem Ecosystem: People

In design-based problem solving, people constitute one of the most vital components of the Problem Ecosystem. But what exactly is the Problem Ecosystem? It refers to the comprehensive set of factors and elements that demand our attention when addressing a problem we are committed to solving. There exist various tools to explore and dissect these components, and it’s immensely valuable to recognize their interconnections.

When examining the People component within the Problem Ecosystem, it becomes apparent that it comprises a diverse array of individuals and groups, each possessing distinct perspectives, interests, and roles. These groups might include:

Internal Employees: From frontline workers to top-level executives, everyone within the organization can be at play.

Customers and Users: Those who interact with the products, services, or systems affected by the solution.

Suppliers and Partners: External entities that provide essential resources or collaborate in the value chain.

Government and Regulatory Bodies: Often wielding significant influence through policies, regulations, and approvals.

Local Communities: Especially relevant for initiatives that impact a specific geographic area.

Competitors: Their reactions and strategies may influence the success of your solution.

NGOs and Advocacy Groups: Especially pertinent for socially responsible or sustainability-driven solutions.

The Role of People Mapping

People mapping serves as a navigational tool in design-based problem solving, allowing designers and change-makers to:

  • Identify Key Players:

People mapping helps in identifying and categorizing individuals based on their level of influence, interest, and potential impact on the solution. This categorization enables teams to prioritize their engagement efforts.

  • Understand Perspectives:

Each person brings a unique perspective to the table. Through people mapping, designers can gain insights into the motivations, needs, and concerns of different groups. This understanding is crucial for crafting solutions that resonate.

  • Foster Collaboration:

Design-based problem solving thrives on collaboration. People mapping identifies potential allies and areas of shared interest among individuals and groups. It helps in building coalitions and alliances that can drive change collectively.

  • Manage Risks:

By identifying people who may pose challenges or resistance to the solution, teams can proactively develop mitigation strategies. This minimizes risks and disruptions during the implementation phase.

  • Customize Communication:

Effective communication is key to engaging people. People mapping guides the tailoring of messages and engagement strategies to suit the preferences and expectations of different groups.

  • Ensure Inclusivity:

Design-based problem solving is rooted in inclusivity. People mapping ensures that voices from all relevant quarters are heard, preventing the marginalization of any group.

  • Measure Impact:

As the solution unfolds, people mapping provides a basis for evaluating the impact of the changes on different groups. This data-driven approach helps in making necessary adjustments and improvements.

The Iterative Nature of People Mapping

Design-based problem solving is an iterative process, and so is people mapping. As the project journey progresses, the people landscape can evolve. New players may emerge, and existing players may change their positions or priorities. Therefore, continuous monitoring and updating of people maps are essential.

People mapping is the compass that guides design-based problem solving. It’s the tool that helps designers navigate the intricate web of interests, expectations, and influences that surround any transformational endeavor. By understanding the significance of people and employing people mapping effectively, design-based problem solvers can increase the likelihood of achieving meaningful and sustainable change within organizations, systems, and communities.

Are you ready to give this a try?

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