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Empathy Maps: We Need Them Now More Than Ever

We are all in the midst of “a new normal,” for the foreseeable future. And one thing we know as leaders is that when the context shifts -- the conditions governing the environment or experiences around the problems we solve in the world -- we too need to shift.

For these many reasons, this is an excellent time to take a fresh look at the needs, concerns, and aspirations of the people that you serve. For example, in light of COVID, I’m seeing local governments shifting funding away from projects and into human services. All organizations are putting more resources into IT in order to facilitate virtual meetings and engagement, and more resources are being provided to customer-, donor-, and constituent-facing roles in organizations of all kinds.

As markets and needs continue to evolve in the next few months, companies, nonprofits, and public agencies also will need to keep adapting. Those who are best able to weather the storm will learn how to shift into a forward-leaning position, as the military calls it.

How can you be one of those organizations that’s at the leading edge, but not leaning too far forward? Staying in touch with your stakeholders is the #1 strategy.

Here at Waterford in our stakeholder engagement advising and consulting, we use the Design Thinking framework as a foundation for our work. This framework is one way you can use to lean into the new reality.

The Design Thinking framework consists of

  1. Empathize

  2. Define the Problem

  3. Ideate

  4. Prototype or Pilot

  5. Test

Design Thinking is intended to be a looped process, with learning that happens along the way and then informs our work as we continually improve the product, policy, program, or service we’ve developed.

Today I want to focus on Step 1 and the use of the Empathy Map. The Empathy Map is a tool that enables us to conceptualize the worldview of team members, community members, or decision makers -- sometimes referred to in Design Thinking articles as the user -- or Stakeholders here, for our purposes.

The Empathy Map considers four perspectives of the Stakeholder. The questions we ask in designing the Empathy Map are:

What is it that the Stakeholder…





What’s especially powerful is that the Empathy Map helps us get out of our own heads, so to speak, and enter the world of the person or people who are potentially affected by a challenge or issue.

You can create an Empathy Map on your own, but the real power of the tool comes to life when you build the map with other teammates who are working on the project with you.

I’ve created a quick Empathy Map worksheet that you might find valuable in your Stakeholder Engagement work. You can download it here. And the key is to use it as you go throughout your work -- it’s an important resource that can guide you and your colleagues in making good choices as we all adjust to this new normal.

Reach out to me at if we can help you with anticipating, developing and implementing internal and external-facing strategies and programs that deliver on your mission-critical goals. We provide Stakeholder Engagement advising and consulting services, and we have a proven track record of more than 20 years of experience working with investor-owned companies, nonprofits, and public agencies.

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