Monday, May 04, 2020

Innovation skills that are critical now: empathy

I'm writing a series of posts that discuss some of the most important traits and skills that are needed to support innovation now, in the midst and in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic.  I've written about beginner's mind and why that skill will be vital.  I've also written about being comfortable in ambiguous settings.  Today I am writing about another rare capacity - the ability to have empathy with prospects and customers.  These traits follow from research I conducted and published some years ago, in which we examined the skills and traits of some of the best innovators.  You can find the white paper supporting these traits and others here:

Unusual skills in a business setting

If you've followed along, or even if you've just joined the blogging thread, you'll note that beginner's mind, comfort with ambiguity and empathy aren't typical business skills or traits.  For the last two or three decades, we've focused on cost-cutting, improving efficiency, reducing risk and variance, which means looking at problems with a fresh perspective, or finding comfort operating in uncertain environments are not skills or traits that have been emphasized.  In fact, these and other skills or traits have been pushed to the periphery, if they exist in many businesses at all.

Today we are going to talk about empathy, which many design thinkers incorporate in their approaches, but empathy has for many years seemed a soft skill in a hard nosed business world.  But in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, businesses which can demonstrate real empathy, and find people with the ability to listen to and hear consumers' needs and wants from an empathetic standpoint are much more likely to be successful.  And this is a skill that is difficult to fake.


The textbook definition of empathy is:  "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another".  This means being able as an individual to listen to another person, understand how they feel and then share their joy or burdens.  True empathy is rare in many people.  While we are often trained to understand the feelings of others, we most often do this from an objective viewpoint, not wanting to get involved or tip our hands or show emotion.  Empathy is for the caring professions, not for business or science.  At least that's the way it was.

To really understand a customer, you need to do more than research their needs, more than listen to their complaints.  You need to walk the same walk in their shoes, share their challenges, fully grasp their needs, burdens and barriers.  Most people don't do this well, so it is a given that most companies don't do it well, and they will need to radically increase their ability to listen and respond with empathy as COVID winds down.

People, consumers and prospects, are going to be exceptionally sensitive to companies that don't listen or don't hear their needs and complaints.  When patience and money are tight and nerves are on edge, which will be true for quite some time, people will resist new purchases and will do a significant amount of research before buying.  Companies with a take it or leave it mentality will not be successful.  Trying to create new products, services or business models in this environment will be exceptionally difficult - unless you can demonstrate that your team and your product or service was designed with the customer and the customer can see that empathy drove the identification, development and deployment of the solution.

From push to pull

For years, marketers have described the transition between companies and their customers as either a push or pull model.  Previously, companies would push products and technologies into a market and customers would accept them - the "any color as long as it is black" thinking.  We've matured from this to a balanced push/pull model, where customers increasingly pull products they like into the market.  But the more technical the product, the more "push" there is from the producers.  Still today, many products are created based on corporate research or insight little informed by consumer behavior, and even when consumer needs or behavior are taken into account, it is at best a surface understanding.

When, as after COVID it will be true, consumers are uncertain, uneasy, lack excess funds and need products that meet not just technical needs but social and emotional needs as well, empathy in discovery, research and product development and rollout will be vital.

Which people in your organization have the ability to listen deeply, discover unmet or unarticulated needs and fully emote with your prospects and your customers?  These capabilities are needed in product development, service development, customer interactions and support and in marketing.

Finding people with empathy

For years, businesses have operated on a new "any color" model, except it's no longer color that is limited, it is price, service and engagement.  Big box stores and Amazon have taught many businesses to care about offering the lowest cost product, not the service or solution that meets all the requirements and needs of the consumer.  Therefore, empathy in the workforce is in short supply.

Finding people with empathy in our organization isn't that hard - look for the people who constantly worry about customer reception and interaction.  Look for the people in your organization who are consumers of your product - what are their concerns?

Try out some true ethnography - go spend time with your customers and prospects.  Experience what they experience.  Struggle with what they struggle with.  Don't correct or explain, just participate, listen and learn. 

Find third parties that can help.  Sometimes, operating at an arm's distance can help.  People who are not vested in the current products or services won't try to make inadequate products work for the customer.  Instead, they may try to discover with the customer what is really needed.

The people we need in times like these

In the aftermath of COVID, when we will face entirely new circumstances, entirely new operating models and business models, very volatile and uncertain conditions, and a customer base struggling to understand the new realities, traits like beginner's mind, to look at problems with a fresh perspective, and comfort in ambiguous settings will be valuable.

But perhaps no skill or trait will be more valuable than empathy, truly understanding a customer's challenges in a way that goes beyond hearing and understanding, to deeply grasping at the same psychological, emotional and physical level.  Do you have people who can do that?

If you need help or would like to discuss, please contact me.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:57 AM


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