by: Idris Mootee
I attended a small gathering this evening at the Rotman DesignWorks with visiting author Dev Patnaik, Founder of Jump Associates, Author of “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy”. The topic was “How Your Business Can Prosper When You Create Widespread Empathy”. He is an advocate of empathy for business people as it helps them discover unseen opportunities when they develop a personal and empathic connection with the world around them.
For individuals, that means developing the ability to walk in other people’s shoes. For companies and other large institutions, that means finding a way to bring the rest of the world inside their walls. A very simple idea… very difficult to make it happen in the corporate world. Definitely an important personal quality for those who work in marketing, human resources, brand, design and customer service or arguably even in strategy and planning.
Does empathy equal growth? I think that connection is a little too simplistic. There are a million things we intuitively believe are good for business but never easy to draw a direct link. Corporate social responsibility is the best example. The author believed that human beings are intrinsically social animals. Our brains have developed subtle and sophisticated ways to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Simply put, we’re wired to care. I think that's true.
Intuition is great and be able to have a sense of what’ going on out there is important while many organizations reply too much on analytical data and have lost touch with their customers. Marketing people need that, designers need it, but the question is can it use to transform large organizations?
Empathy has to be an evolutionary attribute; without it, humanity would not have survived as long. It is not just rational thinking that separates humans from every other animal species on this planet—it’s empathy. It is virtually impossible to think of a world in which rational thinking could be pragmatically implemented for the benefit of human society without empathy being present. This is common sense.
In a piece of writing entitled “Some Thoughts on Empathy,” Columbia University psychiatrist Alberta Szalita stated, “I view empathy as one of the important mechanisms through which we bridge the gap between experience and thought.”
One obvious setback present in contemporary, postmodern society is the lacking empathy that has manifested itself as objectification (or depersonification). Objectification deliberately gives humans a convenient method of avoiding the discomfort of empathy by helping to avoid feelings of guilt or shame associated with the breaking of self-proclaimed personal and social values. The objectification of others—for any reason—allows an individual to be unkind to others without suffering the repercussions of an empathetic connection.
When people are deemed disadvantaged in comparison to a perceived archetype of normalcy, those lacking empathy can distance themselves, both to protect themselves from empathetic feelings and to avoid the guilt manifested by not helping to end the suffering they perceive.
No questions many of the world’s best innovations come from a deeper level of customer and market understanding. They go beyond what current customers say they know or need. They solve problems that customers either don't realize what the problems were. These innovations create needs and performance gaps only once customers start using them and get turned on to these possibilities. But this is only one baby step. It is not enough.
The customer voice is important, in order for any innovation to be successful, we need to create the balance between the technology voice and the business voice. Business need to know that there is large enough sufficient market and that they have the mechanism to capture value (unless you’re Twitter), the product/technology needs to make sure they the features and performance are properly prioritized. The ability to balance the three voices is the key to successful innovation. This is where B-school meets D-school happen.
Many products today are part of a larger system and it is key to be able to understand how a product fits within the ecosystem. You need to look at the industry dynamics, structure, value chains/networks and capital flow. It is not as simple as “I’ve got an idea!” Particularly in high technology products where shaping user behavior and channel power are often the bigger key to success.
Empathy can only do so much to improve product on a usability level, you need big vision to create industries of tomorrow. Visionary leaders are the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. They work with the power of intentionality and alignment with a higher purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically. In an ideal world, you will have an empathetic visionary!