June 18, 2018

Why empathy matters in innovation

Now that the internet and smartphones have taken over the world, it seems that people have become too busy to spare some time to truly understand a problem. In an age of Google, the answer to every question is just a click away.

There’s no longer any need to rethink and investigate a problem to find solutions, many people seem to believe. However, there was a time when, for every question, we had to go to the library, read books on the subject, or talk to experts in the area we were investigating.

When it comes to driving innovation, we need to understand that it takes a lot more than a search engine and a few clicks. First and foremost, we must understand the people we intend to serve before we can even delve into the problem-solving process.

Unfortunately, our understanding of problems has become superficial and our solutions have been reduced in value now that everyone with internet access seems to have a solution for every problem. Knowing the answer is one thing, but true understanding of a problem lies deeper and has a greater impact on finding the best solutions.

What is required is the time and passion for finding the right solutions — a deep interest in investigating to understand the motives, values and human needs behind a problem, and the environment and external factors contributing to the problem.

Many experts and the world’s greatest thinkers spend their lifetimes seeking solutions that benefit all of humanity through great inventions, while the rest of us just skim the surface looking for quick solutions.

So, what impact does this growing superficiality and dependence on the internet to answer every single question have on your business?

First, since there is a common belief that we can find ready-made solutions with little effort, we may have lost our habit of working hard to truly understand problems and develop real solutions by ourselves.

Second, we may be looking for quick answers without considering whether we are in fact asking the right questions to begin with. The problem is, most of the time we are not.

If you dig into both of these points, you realise that the root lies in easy assumptions. Assumptions that lead you to take situations and circumstances for granted, judge problems on face value, and rely on solutions based on someone else’s opinion.

So, how do we change our approach to understanding problems and to finding solutions?

The answer is empathy. Assumptions begin with a lack of empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Without empathy, we are always making assumptions about what the problem is and what the customers want.

A lack of empathy assumes problems that doesn’t exist and builds solutions that nobody needs. Empathy helps us to peel back the layers of a problem, to move past stereotypical assumptions, and discover deep underlying problems that have real value if we can fix them. The more empathy we practise, the fewer assumptions we make.

As Dr Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, once said: “Empathy is a function of design. Design is a function of empathy.”

The quality that underlies successful empathy is passion. It’s difficult to empathise with someone you don’t care about. This passion for understanding drives people to dedicate their lives to finding answers and drives entrepreneurs to solve the problems that they care deeply about.

If your business has lost touch with its customers and lost the passion to understand and serve, maybe it’s time you rediscovered empathy. Great inventions come from hard work and relentless passion to make things better for people. But don’t mistake convenience for rigour, online search and random chat for effort, or data for insight.

Spend time with your existing and potential customers — share their experiences, stand in their shoes, observe, listen and inquire. And it doesn’t stop there — when you start working on solutions, involve the customers early; employ the culture of “show and tell”, and get prototypes in front of them early to see if you’re on the right path.

It’s your customers that have all the valuable answers, not Google or your competitors. You just need to care enough to ask. As Barack Obama once said: “Empathy is the quality of character that can change the world.”

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. She can be reached by email at arinya_t@new.seasiacenter.com or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa

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