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How empathy can help teams innovate in the product world




The starting point for innovation in the product world is unlearning the idea that the practice of knowledge-sharing is sufficient on its own. Just because you or the company has the knowledge, doesn’t mean this information is being utilized properly (Schiuma et al., 2021). The most innovative companies - the ones that thrive (not just survive or are keeping up with the Joneses) - are companies that know that their people are their most vital resources (Schiuma et al., 2021).


The future cannot just simply be an extension of the past. In order to innovate, businesses need to create a new future (Schiuma et al., 2021).

In order to accelerate innovation, a company needs to ensure that:


🚀 There is a self-sustaining spiral between productivity and wellbeing in the workspace

🚀 Everyone has a deep commitment to working on themselves

🚀 The company has fostered a safe space that nurtures emotional intelligence, intuition, and creativity (Schiuma et al., 2021)


When zooming into the individual work required to collectively drive innovation, you may ask yourself:


⚡️ Where do I start when thinking about working on myself in order to be a better person/colleague/leader/manager/teammate etc?

⚡️ What do I need to do in order to be a person my colleagues want to work with?

⚡️ And how does this directly link to innovation for the business as a whole?


As someone in a product role, in order to effectively work with stakeholders, customers, and team members, you need to have the foundations of knowing how to relate to others.


Researchers have identified five components required in order to have the capacity to relate to others (Schiuma et al., 2021):

  • Empathy

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-regulation

  • Social skill

  • Motivation


Empathy has been found to be the key ingredient in innovation because it is the characteristic that enables people to know whether the audience they are trying to reach is being reached (Schiuma et al., 2021); affective empathy is a characteristic that is the hardest to train.


Affective empathy is the ability to be aware of other people’s traits and specific situational triggers in order to be more effective in communication (Jiang et al., n.d).


Since the term had been coined over 100 years ago, researchers have identified 43 different definitions of empathy that span across disciplines (social psychology, neuroscience, law, social work, etc) (Jiang et al., n.d). Empathy can generally be defined as subjectively identifying with the emotion of others, and the ability to experience concern for the emotion of others (Jiang et al., n.d).


Communicating empathically is not only adapting to what your audience needs to hear but also (Kleeberger, 2019):


✏️ How they need to hear it

✏️ Where/when they need to hear it

✏️ The style they need to hear it in

✏️ And understanding why they are looking to hear it in the first place


In the age of uncertainty, dialectical thinking - the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the capacity to function and make decisions without losing sight of the greater good - matters more and more (Schiuma et al., 2021).


You cannot have innovation in teams where brilliant minds are honest and bold in their opinions but won’t listen to each other or can’t get their point across. This responsibility then also goes beyond the individual level and moves towards the macro: company culture.


Some work culture elements that help facilitate a safe space for effective empathic communication to enable innovation are (Schiuma et al., 2021):


📌 Open door policy

📌 Facilitating opportunities that spark creativity and communication (oftentimes found in experiences of adversity, failure, and the butting-of-heads)

📌 Honesty to exercise critical thinking

📌 Established shared sense of purpose

📌 Commitment (to seeing the ‘trees’ and the ‘forest’ at the same time)


What are the characteristics of companies that thrive, not just survive? (Schiuma et al., 2021):

  1. They create a future that is difficult for rivals to compete with

  2. They offer superior value to their customers and stakeholders

  3. They operate in harmony with society

  4. They have a moral purpose

  5. The common good as a way of life


Product teams and individuals, when not practicing empathic communication or sharing a common vision, can easily get lost in the shiny object syndrome, or allowing their product decisions to be driven by the loudest voice in the room, or make impulsive decisions when data is missing, and so on (Pema, 2018).


The holistic approach of actively training oneself to empathically communicate before getting into a room with other product people with diverse perspectives (and shared common vision) is the key to unlocking harmonious momentum towards an innovative future.


To those joining the upcoming PMDojo cohort and are thinking of exploring how to innovate with a diverse team of unique perspectives across the globe with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and motivations, it will be especially important to ground yourself and your team in a shared vision and to practice empathic communication.


Interested to pivot or grow in a product role? Check out PMDojo’s Accelerator Program! Applications for the next cohort is closing soon🔥




📝 References


Jiang, Mei and Lu, Shulan (n.d.) "To Empathize, or Not Empathize in Educational Leadership," Journal of Organizational & Educational Leadership: Vol. 5 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. Available at: https://digitalcommons.gardner-webb.edu/joel/vol5/iss1/3


Kleeberger, Tyler. “How To Use Empathy For Better Communication” Becoming Human, 11 Feb. 2019, tylerkleeberger.com/content/empathy-communication.


Pema, Ada. “How Empathy Changed My Product Management Process” Agile Insider, 12 Apr. 2018, medium.com/agileinsider/how-empathy-changed-my-product-management-process-90d1301ac506.


Schiuma, G.; Schettini, E.; Santarsiero, F. How Wise Companies Drive Digital Transformation. J. Open Innov. Technol. Mark. Complex. 2021, 7, 122. https://doi.org/10.3390/joitmc7020122


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