By Caitlin Townsend, Creative Strategist

Empathy drives innovation—not only as a foundation from which we can ideate, but as a discipline that both defines and expands our creative possibilities. This perspective defined the conversations at the Culture First 2019 Conference in San Francisco, and it shaped a prototype design thinking workshop at the Stanford University d.school that I was able to attend with my colleagues. Together, these experiences taught us something powerful about the human experiences that can fuel or hinder innovation in the workplace. Here are a few of the lessons we took away from leaders in organizational culture, purpose, and engagement about why every innovation project should begin with—and be continually grounded in—empathy.

How might we add value to people’s lives?

At Culture First, this human-centered design question inspired everything. Each speaker illuminated a different aspect of the relationships that drive the world of work: relationships with our customers, employees, managers, and ourselves as professionals.

Chinedu Echeruo and Oshoke Pamela Abalu took organizational purpose from the abstract to the human with a presentation centered on a concept that’s gaining traction in organizational design: the idea of human caring as the source of innovation. Co-founders of the Love & Magic Company, they envision and help build organizations where people work together as a symphony, each contributing uniquely to the ultimate wellspring of innovation: the beloved. The beloved isn’t an idea. It’s not a product. The beloved is your community: the people whose needs you’ve committed to meet and whose challenges you’ve committed to solve.

“Meeting your customer’s unmet needs is the truest innovation there is.” – Love & Magic Company

What does caring about people have to do with innovation? Everything.

At August Jackson, we think a lot about putting purpose into practice, so we took careful note as Simon Sinek spoke about the importance of committing as an organization to a “just cause”—a reason for being that transcends the race to get a product to market or beat a competitor. A just cause is always human: it’s about knowing whom you serve and what you offer them, and always pursuing new, smarter, better ways of delivering on that purpose.

A great example of a just cause in action is Microsoft’s cultural reinvention since CEO Satya Nadella came on board. Today, Microsoft is transforming the way people access technology with innovative products like SeeingAI, a free iOS app that harnesses AI to serve the low vision community by using device cameras to describe people, text, and objects. Innovations like this are good for business, as they make more Microsoft tools available to more people—and they serve a purpose that Nadella considers core to the company’s “soul.” As a maker of platforms with which others can create, Microsoft innovates from a central commitment to the lived, physical experiences of users interacting with their platforms.

Microsoft has embedded more and more innovative accessibility solutions in its product suite, including Eye Control that enables users to type using only eye movements.

“Empathy is at the core of all innovation.” – Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

The just cause in service of the beloved is what distinguishes between innovation and mere invention. SeeingAI is an invention, but the measure of its success as an innovation is whether it adds real value to people’s lives.

Innovation isn’t actually about blue-sky thinking—it’s about a relentless focus on making experiences better for people.

Design thinking is a rigorous process for envisioning, prototyping, and bringing to life innovative products and experiences. The Stanford d.school is one of its originators and remains a titan in the industry, so we were excited to have the chance to participate in the d.school’s new design thinking workshop as it was beta-tested on campus.

We began the workshop with a deliberate exercise in empathy. Working in pairs, we first listened as our partner described the ups and downs of their day. Before touching pen to paper to create anything, we were asked to dig deeper. Our mission was to uncover where they experienced friction or pain points. We were equipped with a single diagnostic tool: the question, “Why?” Each time we asked, we got closer to the heart of the problem—and closer to our partner’s lived experience.

My partner in the workshop started by talking about an overwhelming proliferation of tasks she needed to complete to support her aging parents: shopping, cooking, doctor’s appointments, and household maintenance. She described friction in her day as she tried to ease her parents’ burdens while respecting their autonomy and handling the frustrations of memory loss.

The more we spoke, the more I understood that the pain she was experiencing wasn’t just about getting things done. The vision we were working toward wasn’t a spotless house or a checked-off to-do list. It was about time and human connection. What she really wanted was for the time she had with her parents to be meaningful. That core insight enabled us to paint a new picture of what innovation could do for her: in this picture, she sits side-by-side with her parents, having a heartfelt conversation and enjoying one another’s company. The innovation we needed was anything and everything that made that vision possible.

Empathy and focus give creativity its fuel.

The first paradox of innovation is that it demands limits. Creativity thrives on boundaries: they provide the outlines of the space in which we can freely play, explore, and invent. The discipline of asking “why” in response to each new insight in our design thinking workshop took us to deeper levels of understanding—and, in doing so,opened up new possibilities for meeting more fundamental needs in more innovative ways.

Solving the task of getting groceries home from the store opens one small array of possible interventions: perhaps grocery delivery, perhaps online shopping tools. Had we stopped there, our “innovative” brainstorming session might have ended early with a few technical hacks that slightly improved the grocery shopping experience for my partner.

But asking “why” brought us new horizons. The world of potential solutions grows wider and richer the more fully we understand the lives of the people we serve. We ended up discussing everything—seamless, connected apps to mobilize other family members to volunteer their help, accessible kitchen design, smart appliances and utilities, and memory aids. We talked about safer sidewalks and service animals. Every time we got closer to my partner’s “why,” we found new entry points for creativity and design.

Empathy can be learned and practiced.

“It’s clear that you love Sacramento.”
“I guess I pay attention.”
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
– From Ladybird (2017)

The second paradox of innovation is that it isn’t about speed; it’s intimately tied to the discipline of slowing down to pay attention. Like meditation, the practice of empathy is one of focus and centering—and like meditation, it’s a skill that can be strengthened with practice. That’s good news: it means that innovation, too, can be taught, cultivated, and improved.

Asking “why?” is just one of several tools we can use to focus our thinking and uncover the real problems we’re working on. It’s a tool that remains available to us at any point in the creative process. As our Stanford instructor reminded us, design isn’t linear. As we move from brainstorming to prototyping, and even as we begin to bring real solutions to life, we are never too far from the source of our innovation—our beloved, our just cause, the person we serve—to go back and ask again if we’ve added value to their life.

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