Many articles have been written on the ways to build a culture of innovation. We talk about flexible work schedules, workshops on creativity, and crafting a workforce that constantly looks for newer, better ways to run our business. But with all this talk of creativity, perhaps it’s time to look to a trait that’s critical to innovation and often overlooked: empathy.
The very definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It might sound very soft, but think about all of the great innovations that have come from empathy. Steve Jobs wanted to be able to carry his entire music library around in his pocket. He found it frustrating that he couldn’t and he thought perhaps others shared that frustration. From that level of empathy, the iPod was born. Tom’s was crafted so individuals could buy comfortable shoes and profits could be used to give a pair to those with none. Warby Parker was created in much the same way. Ride sharing services alleviate the frustration of public transportation or not being able to get a cab. AirBnB wants to help people experience the comforts of home in cities around the world. But all of these innovations are built on the idea someone had and the empathy for others and their experience
Empathy also plays a large role in how innovation takes place. Without empathy, one teammate’s great idea may never be heard. Empathy allows individuals to bring their experiences, their world views, their very lives into the workplace and create ideas for a better world. That same empathy allows their teammates to hear them, to see them, and to help them craft that vision. Without empathy, innovation is merely an empty idea. We cannot see our way to the future without our ability to see each other. We must put down our phones, step away from our devices, and hear ideas. We must have the ability to step into each other’s shoes, feel each other’s pain, and work to solve for the common good.
Writing this in the world today where so often we see individuals ignoring each other or turning their backs on what they do not wish to see, it is more important than ever to practice empathy. The next great idea is waiting for it. Yes, we must build hard skills and teach leadership, but the toughest glue of a cohesive culture of innovation is the ability to comprehend and share the joy, pain, frustration, and ideas of our fellows. Empathy is a muscle that should be built along with all other skills and abilities that shape a powerhouse workforce, and it’s imperative that we make it a priority. Because the key to business survival is the culture of innovation, and it starts with the expression and understanding of ideas. If we can cannot empathize, progress could end and the whole thing could come down.
Every innovative effort starts with someone expressing how things could be better, and someone else validates that concern and offers to help. That is the nature of teamwork. That is the core of innovation culture. Without it, we have nothing.