Blog Posts

Innovation and empathy

Very few of my executive coaching engagements pass by without the topic of empathy emerging – nearly always being raised by my client before I do. This is hardly surprising given the increased understanding of the role of emotional intelligence within transformative leadership. These conversations are invariably fruitful and open into avenues of emotional intelligence beyond merely empathic leadership.

Such conversations beckon explorations of the power of emotional intelligence as a leadership requisite and allow us to challenge any residual notions of the ‘soft’ skills. As my friend, Helena Kim, captured it in her book “Soft Skills for Hard People”, emotional intelligence when effectively deployed produces impactful, ‘hard’ outcomes.

As I’ve been developing my ideas around innovation, I’ve mused about the contribution of emotional intelligence, perhaps particularly in contributing towards an innovation mindset. Perhaps the self-awareness lying at the heart of a well-developed emotional intelligence opens us to a deeper exploration of ourselves and the other. An openness which can foster a focused imagination to conceive of our world in new ways. An openness which can enable new insights into the perspectives and needs of the other.

It is perhaps no accident that the primary phase of the design thinking process should be labelled ‘empathise’.

I was intrigued to read in the September 20, 2023, edition of McKinsey Insights, an interview with Google Cloud CEO, Thomas Kurian. Since joining Google in 2019, Kurian has relentlessly insisted on a focus on ‘customer empathy’. For Kurian this extends beyond understanding what the customer wants to perceiving what they need.

This, of course, could leave us open to patrician arrogance in the sense that ‘we know best’ what is needed. But, when deployed sensitively, it amounts to having such an innate understanding of the other that we can better define the true ‘problem’ in the design thinking sense. In other words, we attend to underlying need rather than symptom.

For Kurian, customer empathy not only transforms customer service but can also power innovation.

When asked about the guiding principles that have underpinned his success at Google Cloud, Kurian cites five key elements of which the fifth is company culture by which he means transforming Google’s legendary engineering culture to an expanded focus on customer empathy.

For Kurian, such a culture is not just captured in the corporate narrative but devoid of meaningful links to the organisational praxis leading to the lack of congruence so often illustrated by the Johnson and Scholes cultural web. Rather, it is a culture which, recognises, celebrates, and rewards this empathic focus at all levels and places it as the driving force in corporate decision making and operations.

To put it another way, Kurian frames the empathic focus in a more ontological sense for the organisation. He tells his leaders, “We build with purpose. We work here because we have a vision to.” And that purpose, that vision, is perceived more richly through the empathic focus.

Not Sure Which Consulting Services Are The
Best Fit For Your Business Needs?

We are always happy to explore how bespoke combinations of our services can
enable, support and leverage innovative opportunities for our clients.

Social Media