Work kinder, part 2: how empathy drives innovation

Empathy Drives Innovation

In part one of this series, we made a case for our position that empathetic cultures give rise to more sustainably productive teams than indifferent or ruthless ones can. But there’s more good news: Empathetic teams aren’t just productive; they’re also innovative. After all, if necessity is the mother of invention, then the empathy trifecta is its fairy godmother—transforming the needs of the consumer into our own:

  • See: With cognitive empathy, we’re able to spot and understand the problem.

  • Feel: With emotional empathy, we’re sensing the pain points or the longing for something better. Frustration, disappointment, lack… we feel them too, and these feelings become our guides.

  • Do: Empathic concern is where the innovative power of empathy really kicks in. We’re planted in the consumer’s shoes, where the motivation to work towards something new resides.

The trick is getting into the see-feel-do funnel in the first place. For all its power, if empathy is to drive anything, then we must start the ignition. So we turn the funnel on its head. Action first. We do.

The power of "Do"...

You’ve heard, of course, stories of visionary thinkers who, after a personal encounter with a hole in the market, developed something new that would close a gap for consumers everywhere. By chance, they had an experience that aligned with the frustrated needs of people they’d never met, endowing them with the empathy to deliver useful solutions: Three friends running a digital services agency need a way to efficiently manage their social media networks. Finding none, Hootsuite is born. A team of game developers lacks the right communications tool to connect their US and Canadian offices. Enter Slack. But those are stories about spontaneous empathy arising naturally from organic experience. And wouldn’t empathy would be a poor driver of innovation if we all just had to wait around for it to show up?

Fortunately, we don’t.

Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous’ most famous founding father, put it at its Aristotelian best when he said, “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” So too can we, the ones who chase innovation, purposefully set ourselves on the path most likely to lead us there. The empathetic path.

Reach for empathy.

In collaboration with scientists from Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, two of our team developed a decision tool to help women diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ—considered the earliest form of breast cancer) make treatment decisions with their doctors. The development process included one-on-one phone calls with patient advocates, most of them breast cancer survivors. These calls offered a window into the experience of women who’ve been diagnosed with DCIS and must select a treatment plan—no doubt a frightening, daunting ordeal. Thanks to those conversations, our team took a new approach, building something they’d never envisioned before.

"For example, instead of the typical bar charts, we spent a LOT of time developing visualizations to help display percentages as arrays of glyphs and finding just the right set of photos to convey a trusting message to the user."

- John C., Data Visualization Analyst

Not only did they have a clearer understanding of what DCIS patients might be feeling and struggling with, they felt motivated to act on that understanding, working persistently to deliver a tool tailored to the unique needs of the patients—none of which would have been possible without first reaching for the phone. Indeed, it’s there in the reach that innovation begins, not later when the data has been collected, the compassion stirred, the momentum stoked. No, empathy starts driving innovation the moment we choose to pursue it. Why? Because that choice is an investment—it’s the beginning of our stake in something, much like the desire for a social media management platform or a better interoffice communications tool.

Grasp innovation.

The end result of our teammates’ efforts was an interactive decision tool designed not just to inform and aid, but also to calm and empower, fortifying newly diagnosed patients with a much-needed sense of control at a time when life seems turned on its head. Getting there took all the usual suspects: hours upon hours hunched in front of screens, lots of coffee, and maybe even a new frown—sorry, focus line or two. But it also took a dose of vulnerability:

  • Venture beyond familiarity.
    Purposefully dipping a toe into the experience of another is a risky business. Who knows what we’ll encounter in that uncharted territory? Far easier to stay in our heads, do the hard but arguably safer, dispassionate work of thinking, researching, analyzing.

  • Invite discomfort in.
    The choice to identify with pain, frustration, or longing that’s not our own—to borrow it, so to speak—is a choice to usher in uncomfortable feelings, slight though they may be.

When trying to solve a problem we haven’t experienced for ourselves, what separates mere work from the work that leads to innovation is, ultimately, risk. It isn’t enough to want results, to apply ourselves diligently to their production. We must reach bravely for empathy and let it make us uncomfortable. Only then will we be 1) capable of seeing new possibilities and 2) bothered enough to pursue them.

And when our efforts fall short of the mark? Why, it’s that same reach, that same discomfort that shines a light on the gold buried deep within every complaint or criticism.

Empathy is the great illuminator.

When the feedback came, it seemed… well, arbitrary. Trivial. “It’s great, but the colors on the mobile interface aren’t working for us.”

Ah. The colors.

We push and stretch and try and push some more. We work creatively and passionately, continuously integrating, reviewing every line of code. We move mounds of data across dodgy mobile networks into places it’s never been before. And when all that effort culminates in something real, something new, it’s exhilarating. Even a little intoxicating. Then along comes the user who, like Oliver Twist, has the audacity to ask for more. What? We just delivered an amazing feat of software engineering and you want... more contrast? Bigger buttons? You want mooooore? They do. And we could, of course, simply deliver it. Dutifully change the color scheme and hand it over through a haze of weary, the-customer-is-always-right complacency. On the other hand, we could go all inreally make ourselves uncomfortable. 

Become the user.

Out into the field our development team went, where they stood side-by-side with our end users in the brutal Texas heat, slapping sparrow-sized mosquitoes and doing their level best to operate that feat of software engineering we were so proud of in our air-conditioned offices. Only the color scheme made it all but impossible. The interface had been designed and built indoors, which, generally speaking, doesn’t include a burning, unfiltered Southwestern sun beating down from the ceiling and casting its mighty glare on every surface within range. But out in some dusty, alligator-infested, industrial right-of-way? They couldn’t see the screens.

A humbling experience, to be sure.

The seduction of hubris is that it makes no demands of us. Offended pride doesn’t feel good, but nursing it is arguably much easier than packing your toothbrush, saying goodbye to the family, boarding a plane, and spending the better part of a week sweaty, sunburnt, and struggling with the formidable limitations of your own creation. But the pain is the point, after all. It’s empathy’s entrance fee and what rouses us to innovative action.

Find gold in the gripe.

The team came back from Texas with a hair-on-fire attitude about the mobile interface, brimming with empathic concern and itching to rethink the work we’d done. Our end user’s problem had categorically become their own. No leap of faith necessary. No contractually obligated checking of boxes required. And the result was not just a different color scheme, but an interface designed for the conditions it would have to operate in, a happy, returning customer, and a group of developers who’d created something far more impressive than a feat of software engineering: an effective solution for the end user.

When we’ve labored and toiled and labored some more and our work meets with a less-than-enthusiastic response, it is empathy that will tell us why, empathy that will spur us on, empathy that will guide us to innovation. Admittedly, though, not before it gets us good and rankled.

Do. Feel. See.

None of us can turn empathy on and off like we’re flipping a switch. Which is, in the end, rather a lucky thing. Because it’s the purposeful journey towards empathy that primes us for innovation: getting us invested, vulnerable, uncomfortable. It may feel forced or hollow at first, but if we make that call, get on that plane—if we do—we soon find ourselves experiencing the same frustrations and pain points that the consumer is experiencing. And while that’s no fun, it is illuminating. Soon enough, we’ll see both the problem and what it will take to solve it.

Innovation is rarely as easy as having a great idea and putting your head down long enough to bring it to life. It’s messy, demanding work that is less predicated on skill or talent than on persistence and humility. Both of which are fruits of empathy. Pursue that, and you’ll soon find the impetus to innovate.

Here's how.


Photo by Daria Nepriakhina