Innovation begins with a heavy dose of empathy

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By David White, Founder and CEO, Fostering Great Ideas; Associate professor, Clemson MBA

In the marketplace, many of us want to innovate, to come up with a new concept that will land us on the cover of UBJ. I’m envious of those who do, and I’ll assume you wouldn’t mind the publicity or prestige, either. To innovate requires energy, skill, some dumb luck – and, before anything else, empathy.

Huh? I didn’t see that one coming.

Isn’t empathy the domain of do-gooders from Pope Francis down to Father Pat, and every charity director in between? Who has time to walk in another person’s shoes, and why should we? I’m too busy innovating!

I agree. Or rather, I used to agree. Then I became a Clemson associate professor for MBA students in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program. Clemson asked me to teach about “social innovation,” an entrepreneurial approach to changing the world for marginalized groups. They gave me a Clemson Orange tie and said, “Duke, Harvard and Stanford MBAs are all looking at changing the world, too.”

Apart from Duke, I felt we would be in good company. (My brother went to Duke. I couldn’t get in. Not that I’m bitter). My students and I haven’t looked back. In fact, we’ve looked all around. We’ve gone to places of immense suffering and watched human interaction in emergency rooms, dilapidated elderly residences, housing shelters, prisons, you name it. What we’ve seen has spurred us toward innovation that might relieve such glaring pain and deliver, in some cases, marketable proposals that could help marginalized populations thrive.

Social entrepreneurship work is difficult and that is why it offers such rich learning for all of us. This semester, Clemson MBAs went behind the scenes at Goodwill Industries and discovered innovation based on a clear understanding of client needs, operational metrics the envy of any large corporation, and mission clarity deserving of a cover story (hint, hint).

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Charities see their customer’s pains and hear dreams for freedom and dignity. Speaking about leadership from the civil rights movement, L.R. Byrd, the first black teenager to enter Carolina High School during desegregation, inspired all of us. Each MBA student shows a strong capacity to respect these stories of struggle and use the learning for their own business pursuits: How can our company focus on dignity, freedom of thought, and employee engagement, while also being mindful of the bottom line?

How can you increase empathy – and by extension, innovative thought – in your company? Consider your culture. Is empathy heavily developed into your company’s DNA? Does the question “What does the customer think?” come up weekly?

Make a conscious effort to choose empathy. Walk in someone else’s shoes this week. Leave your comfort zone. Watch a difficult customer, or a new one, or a marginalized employee navigate your store or your factory, or the business meeting. Ask the question, “What does this person see, hear, feel?”

From there, think in terms of finding a solution to his or her problem. You may end up with a marketable idea. At the very least, you’ll end up with a sense of compassion for others, and inspiration to change your world.

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