Dev Pattnaik, the founder of Jump Associates (a leading strategy and innovation consulting firm) argues in his book Wired to Care that companies really prosper when they are able to create widespread empathy for the world around them. He goes on to observe how great companies from Nike to IBM have created a culture of widespread empathy for the people they serve into the core of their business.
Individual empathy is probably easier to understand but widespread empathy needs every employee to have an intuition for the people who buy their products and services. When a startup develops a shared and intuitive vibe for what’s going on in the world, it is able to see new opportunities much faster than incumbents or competitors, long before the general public reads about them in popular media. More importantly this connection with customers provides immense courage to risk a new direction and the passion to stick with it past the initial failures.
In early 1990s, when IBM was in crisis, laying off thousands of employees and almost everyone had written the technology giant off, Lou Gerstner was installed as CEO. Instead of cutting up Big Blue with a surgical knife focused on profitability, he sent 50 of his top managers around the whole world to meet at least five customers in person in what was called Operation Bear Hug. This was extended to the executives’ 200 direct reports. This led to incredibly quick redesigns, actions resolving customer problems and most importantly discovery of brand new opportunities that changed the path IBM has walked ever since.
Lack of widespread empathy again is not a matter of selfish executives focused on the bottom-line, but the lack of capacity to build such widespread empathy due to our education system. In the West, we are focused on gearing students to compete internationally and dedicate resources to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. At the school level we lack education on building creative, intuitive, trusting and collaborative relationships. At the university level, we lack business education on how to understand and empathize with our target population of customers.
Apple in its training of its Genius staff, makes it mandatory for all new recruits to pass a program titled “power of empathy” and learn to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Snowboarding giant Burton takes empathy very seriously as its source of innovation. A story that often does the rounds is of a senior designer who walked in one day with a photo of a snowboarder’s calf, covered in bruises from a long day on the slopes demanding for it to be fixed. Empathy gives insight into the problem, but more importantly, makes one care about the outcome.