Innovation Starts With Empathy

At Porsche, digital innovations and technological progress are important drivers for the future of the company. Digital transformation is changing not only our cars, but all areas of our organization and the way we work. As change never succeeds alone, but only together, we asked experts outside of Porsche how they perceive the upcoming challenges and changes. In the next guest article, Lena Rogl, Project Lead Diversity & Inclusion at Microsoft Germany, she explains why empathy is a success factor for companies.

If you look up images for “innovation”, you will find numerous technical and abstract representations. However, something deeply human is essential for true innovation: empathy. This is a challenge and a relief because far too few people are aware of empathy in our current working world. The good thing is that we can all learn how to be empathetic.

In October 2021, after more than five years in corporate communications at Microsoft, I moved to the HR department, where I am responsible for diversity and inclusion. This topic may look like buzzwords at first glance, but in my view, it is fundamentally important for corporate innovative strength. In my current position, as well as in the years before, I was involved in projects, communities, and teams that dealt with how we can live inclusively and achieve diversity in very different ways. And all these projects had one thing in common: They were innovative.

Empathy is the undervalued ingredient in innovation and the most important driver of inclusion. When we listen empathically, when we empathize with our target groups and their needs and challenges, we can create innovation. When we deal empathically with our colleagues and fellow human beings, when we try to empathize with them, when we view the (working) world from their perspective, then inclusion becomes an absolute matter, achieving more diversity.

All my colleagues have prioritized diversity and inclusion in their targets. Regardless of whether they are career starters or CEOs, all my colleagues must define what they will do to proote diversity and inclusion within the scope of their roles and responsibilities. That means that this task is not just for Microsoft employees but for management as well.

Empathy is the most important skill for leaders

Managers who want to make their companies or departments more inclusive do not have to reinvent modern management. They just need one quality. You guessed it: empathy.

“Empathy,” writes Forbes magazine in September 2021 about a study by Catalyst, “is the most important leadership skill”, and it has important implications. Employees of more empathetic leaders tend to be significantly more innovative, more committed to their company, and a lot more committed to their company when their circumstances are respected and valued. The number of inclusive workplaces is also much greater when leaders are empathetic.

Contrary to the belief that some people are naturally more empathic than others, we can all train ourselves to be more empathetic. First and foremost, empathy with ourselves. We should take time to reflect on ourselves and be truly aware of ourselves, our actions and reactions, and learn from them. Genuine self-awareness, not false pride.

Empathy is not only a necessary leadership skill, but also a key driver of innovation

But empathy is not only fundamental in leadership. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella writes in his book Hit Refresh, “Innovation starts with empathy.” I think that if we take a moment to think about this, it quickly becomes clear that this applies to all industries and areas. In order to know what my potential customers need, what solutions could help them, what products they would like to use, I have to be empathetic. And it is precisely this empathy that can lead to new ideas or innovative products.

Diversity and inclusion are an economic factor

One myth of the modern world is that diversity and inclusion slow down technological progress. On the contrary, a lack of diversity reduces the effectiveness, innovation, and profit of companies in the digital world, according to a study by BCG and TU Munich.

This is evident in complex companies with a high need for innovation, i.e., companies that want to transform digitally. Diversity, on the other hand, promotes creativity through the variety of perspectives and backgrounds brought to the table. Additionally, diverse companies have more productive employees and better corporate culture. This has also been confirmed by the IW’s findings.

Companies should also have a vested interest in fostering empathy strategically because market research, surveys, or analytics alone are not enough to truly understand what customers need or how companies are perceived.

It is much more a matter of paying attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues of the people around you — employees, partners, customers, and superiors — and taking them into account. And empathy is essential for interpreting surveys and analyses.

Technology enables participation

Diversity and inclusion are not just values; they are a responsibility that companies bear. This includes designing products and technologies that are as accessible to as many people as possible. Doing so will contribute to more diversity and inclusion in the working world. Companies can achieve this by getting as many different people as possible involved in the design and development process, so they can learn about their perspectives and needs and bring that knowledge to new products. Empathy in action leads to innovation.

There are numerous examples from a wide range of industries of how inclusive product design works. Instagram is rolling out a feature that automatically adds subtitles to videos, and more video games offer additional color modes, so people with color vision deficiencies can enjoy them as well. But, of course, it’s also about working accessibly every day, whether it’s emails, presentations, or meetings. Here, we can use many digital tools to promote inclusion. Real innovation in everyday collaboration.

Diversity and inclusion are important factors for the innovation strength

But I must admit, digital tools don’t always lead to more productivity. Due to the pandemic, the number of video meetings has increased sharply — not only within teams and companies but also in cross-company communication and even as an event format. Here, we should also decide empathically and consider which meetings are necessary and how we can implement them as inclusively possible. This starts with the time and duration

I am convinced that virtual meetings will outlast the pandemic because they offer many advantages. For example, they can be recorded, and subtitles can be added, making them more inclusive than in-person meetings. Hybrid events give people the opportunity to participate even if they may not be able to travel due to a disability.

Asynchronous communication tools also remain important: emails, chats, and social media platforms let employees who cannot be present due to their professional or personal situation be included. Whether synchronous or asynchronous, it is communication with modern tools that enables and improves inclusive work — for all employees.

We all benefit from an inclusive, empathetic world

I think it’s becoming clear that innovative technologies can promote inclusion in everyday life. And vice versa, empathy in action — real inclusion in teams — leads to more innovation. If we manage to implement inclusion empathically, then we will have the chance as teams, as companies, as a society to truly innovate and be fit for the future.

Learn more about all facets of Porsche’s digital transformation and beyond in the other episodes of our guest article series. Read the guest articles that have already been published. Recently, Lunia Hara explains why empathy is crucial for the automotive industry:

Lena Rogl, Project Lead Diversity & Inclusion at Microsoft Germany

About this publication: Where innovation meets tradition. There’s more to Porsche than sports cars — we are developing new digital products and services — always with our customers in focus. On our Medium blog, we tell these stories. It’s about our #nextvisions, emerging technologies, and the people that drive our digital journey. If you want to know more, follow us on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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