Monday, March 12, 2007

The Empathy Gap

I was listening to NPR on the way to work early last week and heard a segment on Barack Obama and his ideas about what America needs. One idea in particular caught my attention - his concept of the empathy gap. Obama suggested that there was an empathy gap - simply not enough empathy for people who have less, earn less, have fewer educational opportunities. I did not get the chance to hear the whole speech, but his proposition was that we in America need more empathy for others.

Not long after hearing that, I attended an excellent forum of innovators run by the Center for Creative Leadership. A number of people who are leading innovation in their firms got together to talk about innovation in a corporate environment, and the successes and failures of their initiatives. One word that seemed to get used quite a bit, to my surprise, was empathy. Not what you'd expect from a bunch of business people seeking new products and services to provide to customers, with the ultimate goal of revenue and profit growth. Being somewhat slow on the uptake but never one to miss a pattern, I decided to look a little more closely at empathy as it pertains to innovation.

So I looked up empathy at www.dictionary.com:

the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Empathy means being able to understand what other people think, what they need, what their attitudes are. In this light, empathy can be a very useful capability for innovators.

Generally we think of empathy as something that is exhibited when others are sick or hurting in some way. We may think of nurses or caregivers as empathetic. How often do we think of product managers or product designers as empathetic? If we are to create interesting and valuable new products and services, wouldn't it be helpful to identify with our prospects feelings, thoughts and attitudes? When is the last time you hired someone in your innovation team for the empathy skills?

Too often, we take as a starting point our current products and services and seek to change them slightly to "differentiate" them. What an empathetic firm can do is get under the skin of their prospects and understand what really matters to those customers and prospects and create something incredibly different. What we need in new product and new service development is the ability to understand, in a much deeper way, what our prospects and customers want, care about, desire and feel. Market research, trend spotting and some other capabilities can tell us what is likely to happen, but not why people think and feel the way they do. Perhaps we should look at a new measurement of skill beyond KAI or Myers-Briggs to see how empathetic a new employee can be.

This skill is especially important as many of our regular "wants and needs" are really already filled. What people want now is less about filling a physical need and more about completing an experience. People are seeking products and services that not only meet their actual needs but also meet their psychological, spiritual and emotional needs as well. Getting beyond the hard data to the empathetic insights may make all the difference.



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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:37 AM

28 Comments:

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1:41 PM  
Blogger Freudian Slip said...

America badly needs more empathy. Is america ready to pay attention more? That's the problem!
Matt

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