Empathy as a Precursor to Innovation

And once again…relationships take centre stage

The role of empathy in innovation is a constant reminder that innovation requires relationships. How can we possibly understand what someone needs if we do not know them?

We design strategies, solutions, plans — we even plan innovation by using data to determine what those we serve actually need. We ask questions, develop surveys, determine patterns to justify our actions when in reality, those actions are only based on a best guess. We have to wonder if we even asked the right questions. We have to assume that those responding were honest — felt safe enough to be honest.

Recently, I was reminded of a quote from Dr. Brené Brown (Thanks daddygogy).

I am just beginning to embark on a new project to support schools in creating School Narratives to tell the story of learning and improvement and I am struck, once again, by the need for relationship to drive any type of learning and improvement.

We need to find the soul of our data and that soul is always found in the stories of those we serve. We need to understand those we serve — the students, their families, our staff, in order to improve upon what we already do. We need to stop acting from what we think we know and listen to those we serve, to find what is truly needed. The key is empathy.

Last year I visited Texas with a group from my school board, hosted by Apple, to learn more about the New Tech High schools. One of the schools we visited, New Tech High Belton, like all the others had a high degree of tech present in the school. It had beautiful rooms and spaces for collaboration. It had a makerspace and an experimental garden. All of these spaces were impressive but what had the most profoud affect on me was the culture.

Staff Work Room is covered in post-it note messages from students thanking the teachers for various things they have done. Hallways are adorned with posters reminding students how to travel through the halls, interact wtih each other and act professionally.

Students were calm, kind and respectful. The students who took us on the tour of the school spoke about the rooms and the way they did work but they mostly spoke of the culture, the feeling of family, safety and belonging. They felt that the culture allowed them to be innovative, take risks, learn from one another and be truer to themselves.

Peter Drucker said, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”

The culture we create and nurture will lead to innovation, creativity, passion and performance. We cannot create performance without it.

Seth Godin (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2016/11/empathy-is-a-bridge.html) writes:

Gloating or silence closes the door. Empathy, on the other hand, and the action of speech, of moderation, of connection, can change everything. And if it hasn’t been present before, it can start right now.

What are you going to do to change the culture of your school? your workplace?

We all want innovation but it won’t happen in a culture of fear. It will happen when we can look one another in the eye and understand what we need to make it better, more responsive, more meaningful.

As I think about this idea of empathy leading to innovation my mind wanders to the movie, Robots, which was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was a little girl. The main character, Rodney Copperbottom, is born to be an inventor. He creates numerous inventions but it is only when he looks at his father, lying exhausted in a chair at the end of a hard day of work that he comes up with his best invention. He feels empathy for his father’s situation, his hard work, his broken body and it is only then that his dream begins to take shape. The aspirations to impress his idol, Bigweld at Bigweld Industries, isn’t enough.We often confuse invention with innovation. Invention is the creation of something whereas innovation is about improving something — be it a process, a product, or service.

George Couros writes about this idea in his book, The Innovator’s Mindset and in his blog, Empathy for the Learner as a Learner.

Empathy is the characteristic where innovation begins. It is crucial to put yourself in the place of those that you serve if we are going to create something that is better moving forward.

And if there isn’t?

And if there isn’t a space of empathy? If there isn’t a space where we can let our teachers, colleagues, team know what we need? If there isn’t a space to listen and understand? If there isn’t an effort to know who we serve from their voices and not our assumptions? If we don’t take the time to know our students? Their families? Their needs?

Once again I rely on Hugh MacLeod at Gaping Void to illustrate it best…

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