And Now For Something Completely Different… Empathy

6 years ago
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This one’s a simple article, and it begins with a recent innovAGEING (iA) service design workshop in Canberra.

Teams of two were asked to spend time to get to know each other as best they could. At the end of that exercise, feeling that they knew each other quite well, they were given 30 seconds to come up with a make-belief $20 gift for their teammates.

The results were illuminating, and at times entertainingly funny. One person offered a snow globe of Parliament House. When asked why they would give a Canberra souvenir to an ACT resident, it didn’t cross their mind. Having read somewhere that fanny packs were back in vogue, one participant gave her teammate a ‘hipster bag’, which wasn’t met with much enthusiasm.

Yet, not all teams had gift giving faux pas. One participant, having learnt that her teammate was sleep deprived because of a teething child, paid herself the $20 to babysit for an hour so that her teammate can go for a spa treatment. She qualified that she would’ve given the spa treatment as the gift, but was limited to only $20, so quite ingeniously paid herself instead.

The Roman philosopher, Seneca, put it best when he said that: A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.

Exercises like this hit home the fact that when you get a gift that’s spot on, it feels like the giver made the effort to know you—it feels good, you feel special. However, get a gift that misses the mark, you question whether the giver cared about you at all. Perhaps you even wonder whether you we’re the casualty of a re-gift.

This is how consumers feel when your products or services don’t meet their expectations. Perhaps there is irony that in an innovation workshop on designing person-centred services, we needed less focus on novel ideas or technology, and more focus on empathy.

It is no coincidence that iA service design workshops with Ellis Jones in Melbourne, and ALIVE (part of the Mirus Group) and UTS Startups in Sydney had a strong focus on empathy-work.

The fact that both workshops were fully booked, indicates that, for the most part, the industry understands that design centred on ‘giving a damn’ is good business.

This is why health platforms like Savvy Cooperative, are exciting to see. Set up to bridge the gap between experts and patient/client networks, the model connects businesses and practitioners looking for insights with specific communities. The co-op reaches out to its networks to identify people who can inform through a variety of initiatives, such as, surveys, user testing, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews.

According to Savvy Co-Founder, Jen Horonjeff:

What I was finding in healthcare was that there were people who genuinely wanted to help patients and include the patient experience in their work, whether it be research or pharma, but they were never talking to patients…

This sentiment applies equally in aged care, and we see a similar concept with COTA SA’s The Plug-In program, which aims to provide businesses with ‘an efficient way to access well-matched end users’.

Just like the old adage that all politics is local, all business is personal. To emphasise explicit data over people is tantamount to running an organisation with half a brain.

Dev Patnaik, Founder and Principal of design thinking firm, Jump Associates, notes it as such:

Companies systematically dull the natural power that each of us has to connect with other people. And by dulling the impulse to care, corporations make decisions that look good on paper but do real harm when put to practice in the real world…

Especially in tough times, empathy is one competency that companies can’t afford not to develop. It can help them to move more quickly, make better decisions, and create new businesses that can fuel their growth…

The implicit argument for empathy is twofold. Stanford University’s Perry Klebahn and Jeremy Utley frames it as such:

  • By discovering people’s implicit and explicit needs, we connect with our clients in the products and services we create for them.
  • Until we understand our client’s needs and wants, we don’t actually know what problem we should be working on.

Denmark’s The Good Kitchen initiative to deliver subsidised meals to the elderly in the Holstebro Municipality is a fitting example of how empathy led to:

  • Deep insights into clients
  • Staff improving the nutrition and health of the elderly
  • Increased workforce morale
  • Government cost savings

As individuals, we are naturally predisposed to care. There’s no reason why organisations can’t be predisposed in the same way.

Published in Fusion, Spring 2018