Picture the scene: You’re on Jeopardy and you’ve just chosen “Innovation” for $1000. Alex Trebek takes aim with an uncharacteristically generous clue: “It’s the undervalued stock of social innovation. The buzzword we keep hearing in leadership, business, sales, and social impact and innovation. It’s one of the most highly valued skills in the 21st century and the future of work.”

The room is silent, the spotlights are shining down on you, and you’re suddenly acutely aware of the lump sum you’ve accumulated up until now. What’s this mysterious skill in question? If your answer was “What is empathy?” you can breathe a sigh of relief.

Empathy’s importance is often overlooked, but here’s why it’s worth paying attention: Stud​ies have shown that when we learn to practice empathy in a systematic way, we become much more effective at developing innovative ideas and solutions. We break the mold of tried-and-tested methodologies, find and create new connections, and experience more of those priceless “aha!” moments.

Empathy 101.

We all know that empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their point of view. What’s less well-known is how broad and versatile its application is. Tapping into empathy gives us the ability to do five essential things:

  1. Collaborate across cultures, functions, and industries.
  2. Mitigate unconscious bias.
  3. Fuel human-centered design.
  4. Encourage a growth mindset.
  5. Facilitate better problem-solving.

It’s a crucial skill for all of us, in and out of the workplace. So how can we cultivate and grow empathy? I’ve found a three-step approach to be most useful and effective: defer judgment, listen actively, and ask about the 50% you least understand.

The relationship between empathy and innovation.

Innovation isn’t just about utilizing disruptive technology – it’s about taking technology and using it in a disruptive way. Simple solutions can come together in new ways to create a better outcome.

We often associate innovation with technology or coming up with an idea that no one’s thought of. As a social innovator or entrepreneur, it’s easy to get fixated on the solution before digging deeper and understanding the “Why” at the core of the issue. Putting the “Why” (the purpose) before the “How” or the “What” provides a powerful framework for success.

Empathy and innovation in action.

If you’re anything like me, you probably read the above thinking, “That all sounds great on paper, but what does this look like in real life?” I recently had the privilege of working on a h​igh-pro​file research study where we examined how we can improve refugee livelihoods in the Middle East and North Africa through the use of climate-smart food production technologies.

Most of the refugees have to deal with the worst of conditions: food insecurity, water scarcity, nutrition deficiencies, poverty, unemployment, and lack of electricity. However, we noticed that they tend to be extremely creative, entrepreneurial, and resilient – three qualities that we fiercely admired and that eventually played a key role in our proposed solution.

After taking a deep dive into resource-efficient food production technologies – hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, portable farms, and 3D printing – we realized we would be setting ourselves up for failure if we didn’t go to the field and actually talk to the people we were trying to support. We started to visit refugee camps and settlements across the geographies we had been tasked with covering. We also went to Israel – the agritech hub of the Middle East – and learned about the different low-tech food production solutions in use/development there.

Empathy proved vital throughout this process. By listening, asking questions, and working to understand who we were trying to help, what their struggles were, and what the “Why” at the core of our research was, we were able to narrow our options down to a simple, sustainable solution for this particular population and set of circumstances. This wouldn’t have been possible without listening to the refugees’ stories and seeing their living conditions firsthand.

We saw that this would need to be a human-centered solution – and the one that seemed to be the best fit was simplified hydroponics, where buckets, PVC pipes, solar panels, and other basic materials can be used. You don’t need electricity, much water, or soil, which was critical when there wasn’t access to a lot of water or good land. It was a low-tech, low-risk system that would enable refugees to grow food and address their food insecurity issues in difficult conditions.

Through the interviews we conducted, we learned that many of the Syrian and Yemeni refugees had a background in agriculture; this, plus the natural entrepreneurialism that we saw in them, made us realize that this solution would be less susceptible to failure.

One unexpected takeaway.

Innovation is all about taking existing problems and using technology and testing solutions in a new way. It means getting out of our comfort zones and transforming the way we perceive things —cultivating a mindset shift. The diversity of thought leads to creative, out-of-the-box thinking, and unique perspectives.

I’m not an agronomist by any means, but through leaning into my sense of empathy and my own diverse experiences, and having been displaced for several months myself, I could relate to being forcibly displaced and using creative thinking in moments of survival mode. A realistic and critically important outcome resulted from viewing the situation through another set of lenses – in other words, by following a process with empathy at its core.

Building empathy as a skill.

It’s often debated whether empathy can be taught, but the good news is that researc​h shows that empathy can be facilitated.

Empathy is one of the core leadership skills social impact leaders strengthen through my company, Inno​vazing, where we help change-makers develop emotional agility to become innovative leaders. We use the P​ERI model developed at Mavasive Le​adership Institute that focuses on developing self-awareness, empathy, resilience, and intuition. We don’t teach — we facilitate an experience. We’ve been successfully doing this for Fortune 500 companies, international organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies for over five years using neuroscience-based tools and highly interactive, experiential programs.

A parting thought.

There has been a shift in focus from the designer being the expert, to the user, or community, as the expert in their own environment. People-focused design approaches such as Co-Design, Participatory Design, and Universal Design, are increasingly being used in the social impact space, though a mindset shift is still needed among many global development leaders.

The heart of innovation is breaking traditional and static mentalities while building routines that incorporate creative outlets – and deviating from our routines when our intuition tells us to. My challenge for you in 2019: Let empathy feed into your process of innovation and guide your intuition. You might be surprised at the number of doors it unlocks.

Saleema Vellani is the Co-Founder and COO of Innovazing, an education and leadership development firm that strives to help organizations cultivate more impactful leaders.

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