Trying to Innovate? Try Empathy

Let's imagine what its like to be each other
Designers often point to empathy and collaboration as two essential activities in their creation process with clients. It now appears that these two are more linked than it first appears.  
Collaboration is increasingly becoming among the most “essential” of terms for those working in public health or any other field related to wellbeing. This is for good reason given that much of the environment is which this field operates in involves complex problem solving. And complex problems, those with multiple causes and consequences that are highly dependent on context, require multiple perspectives to adequately address.
Collaboration is a means of engaging the necessary diversity to problem-solve effectively. Adam Richardson from Frog Design recently compared collaborative activity to being a “team sport”. I find the analogy fitting, because a team sport is something that is highly engaging when you’re playing it. When you are on the field of play in a game like football (soccer) or hockey, the focus is on the ball/puck and attractor patterns that build around it. When control of the ball (or puck) is yours, the decision to move alone with it or share it with your teammates is strategic, but in the moment, with the aim of achieving (and scoring) a goal.
Team members don’t contemplate their relationship with others as “collaboration” while playing the game, they simply play the game. Although most of us have played some type of team sport, few of us are really skilled at collaboration and fewer are prepared for it when it comes about. Why is that?
Richardson’s HBR post provides some points to jump off on. He suggests the following key points to consider:
1. Collaboration is a process not an event. We need to be more attuned to the rhythms and pace of others if we are going to be successful at working together. Syncing these and understanding when they are not working together is important and this means paying attention.
2. Helping people warm up to collaboration. Socializing is natural, but many of the contexts we do this in terms of collaboration are not by themselves natural. It is important to get people in the right frame of mind and sometimes this means mixing things up.
3. What is good for collaboration is also good for innovation. What makes someone a good innovator is a willingness to take risks and to build trust. The former is something that comes from personality, experience and support. The latter adds empathy.
Getting these ducks in a row is a problem of design, not just a practice of design. Not only are we not designing spaces for collaboration (both social and physical), we are not designing the intellectual space for it. A study reported through Science Daily and presented at the annual meeting the American Psychological Society in Washington  suggests that students are nowhere near as empathic as their counterparts were in the latter part of the 20th century.
“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”
The report goes on to show how perspective-taking, a key component in empathy (and in good design practice) is becoming less familiar or practiced by students today compared to the 1970’s:
Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”
It is perhaps not surprising that another recently posted article on innovation suggests that large corporate structures where impersonal relations are formed are not conducive to innovation.
Perhaps this all comes down to the relationship qualities that we’ve used since we were kinds. Find and build a tribe of people who you trust and like and spend time with them, get to know them, and invite new people in whenever possible to mix things up. If that is the case, then the way we work in the health and wellness sector is surely in trouble where we don’t curate information and customize our knowledge for others, and we don’t support the kind of relationship building that equates to robust knowledge translation.
I can sympathize with my colleagues who face this problem. But the key is whether or not I can empathize with them.
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