Perhaps empathy sounds like it should stay safely tucked away in the realm of friendships and counseling rooms. What does it have to do with innovation, anyway? Isn’t innovation about big, industrial, life-changing leaps forward like electric lights, antibiotics, and automobiles?
What does it have to do with innovation, anyway?
Innovation, by another name, might simply be called “responsiveness.” The ability to adjust, sometimes even fully pivot, based on new information is at the heart of innovation. But what type of new information? What’s fueling our innovation? Is it a desire to try something new? Trends we see in society? A strong hunch?
Understanding the Needs of Others
What if the best innovation was actually motivated and guided by our ability to understand the needs of others? Enter the concept of empathy.
An important aspect of empathy is accurately seeing others – their feelings, needs and perspective. Empathy starts by acknowledging the inherent value of another person’s lived experience and recognizing that it's not our own. This sounds simple and in some ways, it is. But it also runs completely counter to our natural tendency to be the center of our own universe and easily forget that not everyone sees things like we do.
How clever would it be of God to wire the world in such a way that some of the best advancements, the most meaningful pivots for our organizations might sprout when the seed of our pride falls to the ground and dies. When we acknowledge the value of the other and admit that, actually, we don’t know how to best serve them, but we sure would like to learn more about them. Serving others well is inherently tied to knowing them.
So practically, what does it look like? Human-centered design continues to be an invaluable tool in the innovators tool box. If you are familiar with it, you know that it starts with “empathy gathering.” In this phase, the goal is to observe, interview and listen to your end-user (think: audience) in order to better understand their needs. This understanding provides motivation and guidance as you create ideas and solutions that are anchored in meeting those needs. This listening posture continues into the prototyping phase where new ideas are tested by end-users who provide feedback on how well the prototypes address their real-life situations.
The successful innovator is the one who listens and iterates based on the feedback provided.
Seeing empathy worked out on a personal level is one thing, but let's expand to think about what empathy might look like at an organizational level. The discipline of market research is a significant way that organizations can practice empathy. This might feel like a surprising assertion because in many contexts, market research can and is used in purely selfish ways. It allows organizations to manipulate and exploit its audience’s needs solely for their monetary or strategic gain. By contrast, a truly biblical approach to empathy allows an organization to see their audience, recognize their shared humanity and then move towards them in a redemptive way. Insights gathered from research should be stewarded carefully, but play an important role in charting a course forward including efforts in innovation.
What is driving innovation in your organization? Is it empathy for your audience?
If you are stirred towards empathy, what might your next steps be? We would suggest that you start with reflection. Really consider this question: What is driving innovation in your organization? Is it empathy for your audience? Do you know their needs in order to do this? If not, what are you basing it on?
Like many organizations, you may rely on hunches and intuition - perhaps even well-meaning intuition informed by experience. But at some level, you may be guessing. How might you make empathy more a part of your organization’s culture and ethos? What role might research (at small or big scale) play in fueling your efforts?
Asking these questions is the beginning of a fruitful journey towards empathy-driven innovation.
Dan Kennedy & Audrey Reeves are co-founders of Boaz Research (inspired by that story in the book of Ruth), which seeks to make applied market research accessible to redemptive ventures. Prior to launching Boaz Research in January 2022, both served at the research and brand agency Kumveka where they helped 60+ organizations pursue empathy in their missions. Both live in Richmond, Virginia.