Today I'm going to focus on a topic that can seem unusual for many innovators, but is vital for success. While many entrepreneurs like to think of themselves as hard-charging, bottom-line types, the history of successful innovation is full of failed companies that focused too much on ideas and profits, and too little on understanding customer needs. To really grasp a customer's need, you need empathy. Too often, empathy is something that innovators and entrepreneurs overlook or ignore.
Not really a business attribute
Empathy is not the first attribute that comes to mind in successful business operations. We tend to think of efficiency, profits, excellent operations, and good ideas as being the motive force behind a successful business. Empathy is something the caring professions do--care for people and express understanding for needs or loss. In the hard-headed world of business--of any type and any size--empathy is rarely sought after or heralded as an important capability or attribute. For entrepreneurs and innovators, overlooking innovation can have serious consequences.
Why empathy matters to innovation
Entrepreneurs, far too often, spot a need or create technology, and then can't see any other solution or value proposition. After all, as the saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But how important is hammering that nail down? How deeply felt is the need? How urgent or important is the need to the potential customer? These questions are where empathy comes in. It's not just recognizing a potential gap or need but fully understanding empathy the way the potential customer or prospect does--and not just from the context of your intended solution. Empathy requires that we experience a problem from the customers' perspective before we try to solve it.
With a truly empathetic approach you can understand more about the problem or gap, the depth of feeling about potential solutions, and what is valuable and acceptable to customers. Exploring needs or gaps with empathy before developing a solution will lead to better outcomes--and often different outcomes than simply peering at the problem from the surface. What may appear to be a product problem may actually be a customer experience problem, as an example. But without the depth of experience and discovery that comes from true empathetic research, you'll never know.
Hard headed but soft hearted
Maybe the best answer is to approach every opportunity with an empathetic "heart" while retaining an objective and rationale decision-making "head." Truly understanding the problem from the customers' perspective provides better insight, and once you've understood the problem, you can determine if it is possible and valuable to solve it. Then you can decide if your ideas or potential solutions matter, or if they should change.