Empathy and Innovation

Check out this talk by Jeremy Rifkin:

I’ve talked before about how innovation needs to be empathy-driven, and Rifkin’s talk illustrates why. We are inherently empathic – and many ideas spread not through persuasion, but through copying. This point is made emphaticaly by Mark Earls in his terrific book Herd.

Earls talks about what this means for marketing. Many of the hot new ideas in marketing, like Word-of-Mouth marketing, are really just things that we naturally do. We naturally talk about things that interest us. We naturally copy people that we respect. Marketers talk about tapping into this, but Earls argues that we can’t really do this (to our great relief!).

What does this mean for innovation?

There are a couple of key points:

  • Getting our innovative ideas to spread is a critical part of the innovation process. If we use empathy to drive innovation, it is easier to set up pull processes to get our ideas to spread. John Hagel, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison talk about this in their new book The Power of Pull.

    It’s an excellent book, and in it they discuss ways to construct networks that will pull people and information to you. They argue that this is a more successful method for getting your own ideas to spread than push models, where you try to force people to pay attention to your ideas. But we can’t build pull models without empathy, because to pull people in, we have to understand what they value. And we have to understand how our great ideas build value for them. This is challenging.

  • Using empathy to drive innovation helps us deal with the fact that not all innovation is good. We are more likely to create ideas that enrich people if we use empathy – it’s a skill that we all need to try to build.
  • If ideas spread through copying more than persuasion, this is another argument for the importance of empathy in innovation. Dev Patnaik makes an interesting point about this:

    The line between inside and outside the company starts to blur. Rather than seeing yourselves and your customers as us and them, you start to see yourselves as part of the same tribe. You start to think like your customers and feel confident enough to rely on your intuition. You find yourself anticipating what real people are up to and what they’re looking for from you. The effects can be profound.

    When you develop these deep connections with the people you serve, the ideas that you give them are more likely to spread.

We are naturally empathic. This has enormous implications for how we innovate, and for how we do business. Developing an understanding of these concepts is central to using innovation to build an organisation that will be sustainable over the long term.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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