Innovation Starts with Empathy

The importance of developing deep connections with the people you serve.

A few years ago, my publisher asked me to write a book about innovation. They’d read some of the articles I’ve written on the subject over the years, and they wanted more. And although I was flattered, I had to tell them no. The world didn’t need another book on innovation — there are too many as it is. I instead made them a counter-offer: Maybe what the world needed was a book about empathy.

At Jump Associates, my colleagues and I have had the chance to collaborate with some of the world’s most amazing companies. And if there’s one thing that we’ve learned in all that time, it’s that companies prosper when they’re able to create widespread empathy for the world around them. That’s why I ended up writing Wired to Care, which shows how great companies around the world, from Nike to IBM, benefit from building a culture of widespread empathy for the people they serve.

Every one of us understands empathy on an individual level: the ability to reach outside of ourselves and walk in someone else’s shoes, to get where they’re coming from, to feel what they feel. Widespread empathy is about getting every single person in an organization to have a gut-level intuition for the people who buy their products and services (the folks who really matter).

How many times have you stared at a competitor’s new product and said, “We had that idea two years ago, but we just didn’t act on it.” Well, why not? Did you think the market research wasn’t quite right? Did you become convinced that it wasn’t a good idea when you couldn’t rally other people around it? Did people get in your way with stupid or irrelevant questions that tied the team up in a state of analysis paralysis?

When your organization develops a shared and intuitive vibe for what’s going on in the world, you’re able to see new opportunities faster than your competitors, long before the rest of us read about them in The Wall Street Journal. You have the courage of your convictions to take a risk with something new. And you have the passion to stick with it even if it doesn’t turn out right the first time.

Companies with widespread empathy can even ensure the quality of what they make when every part of the organization isn’t firing on all cylinders. At Nike, people who work on running shoes tend to be runners themselves. So even if the market research isn’t that great, the shoes end up being awesome anyway.

This isn’t about market research. It’s not about the Voice of the Customer. It’s about strategy and culture. Imagine a place where every person has the same intuitive connection to the world — not just the folks in marketing and design, but the people who work in finance, too. And in HR. And legal.

The line between inside and outside the company starts to blur. Rather than seeing yourselves and your customers as us and them, you start to see yourselves as part of the same tribe. You start to think like your customers and feel confident enough to rely on your intuition. You find yourself anticipating what real people are up to and what they’re looking for from you. The effects can be profound.

Getting Face to Face

Several years ago, a group of senior executives from Daimler wanted to understand how they could make cars that appealed to young Americans. They were concerned that the Mercedes brand had become so closely associated with wealthy baby boomers that it might have trouble connecting with a new generation of drivers. They needed to reinvent themselves. They needed to innovate. With that goal in mind, a group of 20 executives set out on a trip to San Francisco to meet with experts on innovation. As part of that trip, they invited a team from Jump to join them for an afternoon.

The meetings were held at the Fairmont, a luxurious hotel in San Francisco. As the team settled into their chairs, I ran through a quick slide presentation to give an overview of Jump’s work and our philosophy, saying that what they were lacking was empathy, not innovation. I couldn’t help but remark on how the Daimler team had traveled all the way from Germany to California, only to spend most of their time cooped up in a hotel conference room. If they really wanted to create cars for young Americans, I said, perhaps they should meet some.

My teammates then opened the conference room doors to introduce 10 men and women from the Bay Area, all of whom were in their 20s. I explained that these folks had volunteered to spend time talking to Daimler about who they were and what their lives were like. The Daimler group divided into teams of two. Each pair then spent time talking with a participant. I asked each team to interview their participant and find out a little bit more about them.

After a half-hour, I asked the execs to talk about how well the interview had gone. Some felt that they had gotten to know their interviewee pretty well. Others remarked that they would have liked more time to get to know their participant better. A few of their comments reflected the shock of meeting someone who didn’t view the world the same way they did. Especially surprising was the fact that many of the participants didn’t really care about their cars. One or two of the participants even wished they didn’t have to own a car, even though they were well-off enough to afford luxury vehicles. Up until then, nearly everyone these auto executives had ever met loved cars. As we finished capturing the initial gut reactions of our guests, we announced that it was time to begin the second part of their workshop.

Each team of executives was given two hours, $50 in cash, and a map of downtown San Francisco. Their assignment was simple: Purchase a gift for the person they just met. The activity would show the executives how much they had learned about the people they had interviewed. After all, when you give a gift, it’s both a reflection of who you are and who you understand the recipient to be. As such, team success would be evaluated on one criterion: how much the recipient liked the gift.

Two hours later, the teams returned with admittedly mixed results. Some teams came back with generic tourist knick-knacks. When I asked them why they chose to buy mementos of San Francisco for people who live in San Francisco, they admitted that this hadn’t occurred to them as a problem. One team came back with a bright red fanny pack, which similarly failed to thrill their 25-year-old participant.

Other teams fared much better. One group had met with a guy named Cam who, after years working for a big Silicon Valley technology firm, was gearing up to start his own business. Our execs bought him a book on entrepreneurship. They had a little money left over, which they tucked inside the front cover as a bit of seed money for the new venture. As they described why they thought Cam would like it, it was clear that they had come to know him surprisingly well. They described in detail what it felt like for Cam to struggle with the uncertainty in his life. A few of the other execs snickered at the extra twenty bucks inside the book, but the team insisted that, when you’re starting out on your own, every little bit helps. Many of the other gifts turned out to be nice little encapsulations of the empathy that the teams had developed in a short period of time.

The point of the workshop was fairly straightforward. First, we wanted the Daimler executives to meet some real-life Americans. Second, we wanted to get them out on the streets of a major American city, absorbing information through all of their senses. But most importantly, we wanted them to start to think differently about the cars they made. You see, on some level, a great product has to function like a great gift. It’s a physical manifestation of a relationship. It’s both an embodiment of who the giver is and what they think of the receiver. When you get a great gift, you can’t help but feel like the other person knows you. When you get a lousy gift, you wonder if they even thought about you. The same is true for products. A great one makes you feel like someone out there gets who you are. A lousy one makes you wonder what the company was thinking — or whether it even thought at all. Maybe the company was just re-gifting something that was originally intended for someone else. Our auto executives needed to make their cars into thoughtful gifts if they wanted customers to care about them in return.

The trip to San Francisco gave the Daimler team a short glimpse into the lives of the people they wanted to sell to. But the team also walked away with personal memories of why it was important to pursue this business opportunity in the first place. Such memories can act as a guidepost throughout the course of a long project as trade-offs need to be made. Companies driven by empathy stay focused on what’s important to their customers in the face of overwhelming pressures. Their so-called sensitive side gives them their courage and strength. A closer look at how our brains are wired may reveal why.

Creating a Corporate Limbic System

The human brain is the result of millions of years of evolution, and its structure is a reflection of that developmental process. Think of your brain as if it were an apple. In the center is a hard core. It gathers information from the most basic senses: sight, touch, pain, balance, and temperature. It also makes sure that your lungs keep breathing and that your heart keeps beating. This reptilian brain tells us when we’re hungry, produces the sex drive, and even contains the most primitive of all emotions: fear. Modern reptiles, including snakes and iguanas, are rightly regarded by people as cold because they have no other brain. Thankfully for us, human brains are much more than an apple core.

The outer peel of the apple is what we call the neocortex. The neocortex was the most recent part of the brain to develop. It’s responsible for all higher-level thinking. In lower-order mammals, such as mice, the neocortex is rather thin, not unlike an apple peel. In humans, it’s a whole lot thicker, accounting for 80 percent of the human brain. Its intricate folds of gray matter hold systems for language, symbolism, abstraction, analysis, and deduction. The neocortex is what makes humans so darned clever.

These two brains represent two extremes. The reptilian brain is dedicated solely to survival, whereas the outer neocortex hosts reason and higher intelligence. In between these two, however, lies the sweetest part of the apple: the limbic system. It’s a collection of processors and hormone controllers that govern memory and emotions. The limbic system also enables us to interpret the emotions of others. It is the part of our brain that allows us to care. All mammals have limbic systems, including humans, horses, and hamsters. The limbic system allows us to travel in herds, bond with our mates, and nurture our young. Paul McCartney’s neocortex is what allowed him to pen the words to “Yesterday.” Our limbic system is what allows us to be moved every time we hear that classic Beatles tune.

The limbic system draws together many different elements of the brain to form an overall structure for handling emotional information. Among these are two regions that have particular implications for understanding how we learn to care about other people: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is devoted to processing our emotions and those of other people. The hippocampus is essential in the formation of long-term memories. Together, these two regions serve to help us form lasting emotional connections with other people. As it turns out, the more emotionally charged an event is, the more vivid it feels to our amygdala, which then helps our hippocampus to hold on to the event for the long haul. That’s why our most emotional memories are also our most vivid ones: Our brains literally encode them more forcefully than they do other data.

Humans are a social, caring species. Our limbic brains make us curious about the feelings of other people and animals. That ability to empathize is what separates us from lower-order creatures. It allows us to communicate and collaborate with others. And it allows us to read between the lines to glean information that may not be explicitly stated.

By this standard, most companies are corporate iguanas — ethically neutral beasts, focused on self-preservation. They’re not immoral; they’re amoral. They lack any sense for the impact that their actions have on others. And that goes back to how they’re structured. They have a reptilian brain to act. They have a neocortex to think. They just don’t have any way to feel. Without a limbic system, companies lack any sense of empathy or courage.

Modern capitalism has systematically sought to suppress our need to connect with other people. Managers and economists alike encourage businesspeople to look at the data, not the people. When we show up for work, they ask us to check half of our brain at the door. There are tangible costs to this. Through our focus on data and provable facts, we may have accidentally created an entire generation of assistant marketing managers who think that if they have five interesting bullets on a PowerPoint slide, they understand their business. They’ve lost sight of the fact that their real business doesn’t exist on paper; it exists in the real world. This terrible trend can be summed up in the familiar phrase: “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

That’s a strange way to describe an activity that takes up so much of our lives. It’s also not true. All business is personal. People, not machines, steer the engine of capitalism. And people, not machines, actually buy and use products and services. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling teddy bears or aircraft engines, your company could benefit from a deep intuition for customers that transcends explicit data.

Operation Bear Hug

In the early 1990s, IBM was in crisis. The organization was laying off employees by the thousands as its profits and revenues collapsed for the first time in its history. Most experts agreed that the company as it had been — a technology integrator with its hands in everything from giant data centers to consumer printers — had to go. In fact, by the time Lou Gerstner was installed as CEO, just about everyone believed his job would be to divide Big Blue into a dozen Baby Blues. Everyone, that is, except Gerstner, who believed the company needed to survive.

To figure out how to make that possible, he sent his top 50 managers into the world to each visit at least five customers in person. He called it Operation Bear Hug, a culturally appropriate name for an empathy program at one of the least emotionally demonstrative companies in the Fortune 500. The managers weren’t supposed to sell product in those meetings. Instead, they were to listen to customer concerns and think about how IBM might help. Those executives’ 200 direct reports then had to do the same thing. Bear Hug immediately led to quicker actions to resolve customer problems, as well as greater attention to new market opportunities.

That empathic connection to real-world customers helped managers to see whether a particular decision added value for customers or destroyed it. It also revealed some major opportunities. Managers discovered that large corporate clients were fascinated by the Internet but unclear about what they should do about it. Beyond selling product, IBM realized that it could make a major impact by providing the infrastructure needed to help large enterprises leverage the power of the Web. The resulting e-business initiative was wildly successful and helped put IBM on the path to long-term growth.

Over time, the dogged attention Gerstner gave customers started to shift the company, making it less insular, less arrogant, and more outward-looking. By his second year at IBM, the company was back in the black, setting off a decade of uninterrupted double-digit revenue and earnings growth. Its leaders had the courage to take on that challenge because they had seen their customers face-to-face.

The Power of Firsthand Contact

The response of our limbic system is stronger when it’s triggered by face-to-face interactions. Daimler and IBM wouldn’t be the successful companies they are today if they hadn’t made a sincere commitment to learn about people firsthand. Direct contact provides the human context that allows the limbic system to carefully weigh the impacts of a decision the neocortex wants to make. The biological mechanisms that determine long-term memory and personal associations simply can’t get too fired up about numbers without the human context needed to interpret them. Few of us get inspired just by reading data on a page. We need to create a fuller picture of the people involved for the benefits of emotional memory to make a difference.

Yet, as sophisticated as our neurological systems for detecting the feelings of others might be, we’ve created a corporate world that strives to eliminate the most human elements of business. Companies systematically dull the natural power that each of us has to connect with other people. And by dulling our impulse to care, corporations make decisions that look good on paper but do real harm when put into practice in the real world. They behave like incredibly bright but unfeeling iguanas. They make clever but selfish decisions that ignore possible impacts on other people. Fortunately, people inside companies are not iguanas. They have feelings, and they’re wired to care for one another. They just need to have that response triggered by human contact.

Especially in tough times, empathy is one competency that companies can’t afford not to develop. It can help them to move more quickly, make better decisions, and create new businesses that can fuel their growth. It can even secure the future of their organization. And all that innovation can start with empathy. People are wired to care. Isn’t it time our companies were, too?

Dev Patnaik is a founder and principal of Jump Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies innovate. His book, Wired to Care, was published in 2009.

The Meaning of Business

About

In light of the economic crisis, companies have a historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products and services. With this special series on “The Meaning of Business,” design mind invites business leaders from various industries and disciplines to explore new, innovative models of value creation.

A New Era of Meaning - An Introduction
By Tim Leberecht
Chief Marketing Officer, frog design

Articles in this series