Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

The Foundation of Innovation Is Empathy

How innovators approach their work is a choice, and this choice boils down to how you prioritize two things: serving customers and making money. Surely, every successful innovator has to balance these two priorities, but sometimes these two priorities conflict, especially in day-to-day operations. Every entrepreneur, every non-profit, every company, every organization, every innovator has some version of this tradeoff. At the end of the day either your customers or making money take priority. When these interests conflict, which will you choose over the other?

For companies that want to innovate, I think they have to prioritize serving customers over making money because innovation is fruitless without the identification of a real, clear, customer need (which you can't find out if you don't prioritize it). In all the innovation work I've done, it's very easy to delude yourself into trying to force a solution on customers which they don't need because it's more profitable.

Choosing to prioritize customers over profits is a huge commitment to make, though. What I find interesting is why anyone would choose to prioritize their customers' needs over making money. I think what's at the core of it is empathy because empathy gives you reasons to forego short-term profits for long-term value creation.

It's easy to commit to serving someone if you feel for them and understand what they need. It's easy if you care about their experiences and what happens to them in life. It's easy if you value and respect them and constantly put yourself in their shoes. Committing to serving someone - like a customer - is really, really hard to stick with if you don't empathize with them.

Again, I'm not suggesting that businesses should ignore the need to make money, in fact they must do quite the opposite. But I am suggesting that innovation requires prioritizing your customers' needs over profits and going to the mat for them sometimes. And that critical ingredient for innovation - commitment to serving your customers' needs - requires empathy. Empathy is a foundational attribute, I think, for individual innovators and innovative companies.

Innovation cannot exist without empathy. And, I'd say that these days innovation is pretty important.

So, the real quandary is, if innovation is important and innovation requires empathy - how do you develop empathy for customers within companies who believe the shareholder value thesis?