Donna Rae Smith: Empathetic innovation

Written by Donna Rae Smith

“Do you know what my favorite renewable fuel is? An ecosystem for innovation.” — Thomas Friedman

We know innovation when we see it. And yet we struggle to define the process of innovating. Someone hits on a great idea and works furiously to bring it to fruition, but how it happens — whether by luck, hard work, an enviable amount of creativity, or all of the above — remains a bit elusive.

Only by turning our businesses into ecosystems that breed innovation can innovation become the renewable fuel that drives us forward — not just once, but over and over again. So how do we make that happen? Empathy.

At first glance, the connection between empathy and innovation may not be obvious. Empathy is the ability to identify with or experience vicariously another person’s feelings, thoughts and emotions. So what does that have to do with innovation?

When we truly connect with another person through empathy, we share in their obstacles and challenges. While empathy doesn’t mean problem-solving, in the business world it can lead to that. Once we can appreciate another’s problems as if they were our own, we’re in a better position to conceive ways to alleviate them. When we truly empathize with our customers, products will more intuitively understand and respond to their needs.

At the same time, empathy makes us better able to work collaboratively with colleagues, to be open to new ideas and willing to be challenged. Empathy expels our egos, asking us to acknowledge that what he, she or they are experiencing is just as valid and meaningful as our own experience. That gets at the heart of why empathy is so critical — because it necessarily expands our way of thinking.

Sometimes we wait until our backs are against the wall to innovate. And while better late than never, the best approach is one that creates and maintains a culture of innovation day-in and day-out. Here are three ways to do that:

Change begins at home

More specifically, change begins with each of us. We can’t ask others to demonstrate empathy unless we as leaders are practicing it ourselves.

As you go through the day, are you listening to staff, or simply hearing them? How much time do you spend listening vs. talking? Do your words and actions demonstrate that you’re concerned with their experiences and that you value them as people, not just producers?

Create an empathetic workplace

Create a workplace where people are continually exposed to other perspectives, where diversity and inclusion are fostered, and where people are truly open to learning from one another. One fundamental way of doing this is by getting people to work in multidisciplinary teams. We all love our comfort zones, but staying too comfortable only thwarts our growth.

An empathetic workplace gets people out of their silos, collaborating and solving problems together. It forces people to challenge their worldviews and to consider new ideas. That’s a necessary precursor to innovation.

An empathetic workplace doesn’t seek to maintain the status quo. It’s a workplace that isn’t self-satisfied and that doesn’t rest on its accomplishments. Fundamentally it’s a workplace that discourages fear. It’s continually asking, “What are we not seeing? How can we be doing this better? How can we keep learning?”

Make a meaningful contribution

Today’s most innovative companies across any industry know how to resonate with their customers. We buy their products because we believe in them, and we believe in them because they believe in them. They’re clear about their mission and their brands reflect that. Their products make customers feel understood and create loyalty.

It may feel awkward and uncomfortable, but demonstrating your humanness through empathy can be the first step toward creating the breeding grounds for innovation.


Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc.®, a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit or contact Donna Rae Smith at

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