Henry Ford and Empathy

I presented Empathy – at the heart of innovation at Creative Thinkers High Five last Thursday. Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 15.25.20The presentation includes a quote from Henry Ford that lead to a very interesting conversation about solutions vs needs and much more.

In the talk I bring up aspects such as why it is important to seek to understand your customers and users when working with innovation. This is from my point of view one of the corner stones to Human Centered Design and Design Thinking approach to innovation: To realise that you are not the user and the problems that you are trying to solve are not your own.

I have seen many organisations focusing on what can be done (feasibility) and how it might be provided (viability) rather than what the needs are.

Henry Ford and what people want

In my talk about importance of empathy, I include the famous Henry Ford quote:

“If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”.

Wait a second. Does this mean that we shouldn’t listen to our customers? That is one way of interpreting it. However, I prefer to interpret it quite different.

Before Henry Ford launched the landmark model T Ford more than hundred years ago, it was almost inconceivable that a middle class family could own a car. So if you would ask them about what they wanted you would get an answer that expressed a solution within the current paradigm (horses).

Henry Ford showed great signs of empathy in understanding the needs of his customers as well as the employees. Making an affordable car was of course a great stepping stone, but also making sure that middle class families could finance the car in a good way and that service and repairs weren’t too expensive was all part in designing for user needs.

In order to do so asking what somebody need is not enough. You need to seek to understand the needs.

Solutions vs needs

If you ask directly about what someone wants the reply will be a solution not the need. In order to understand the need you need to practice empathy. There are two types of empathy:

  • Affectionate (or emotional empathy)
  • Cognitive empathy

Affectionate empathy is the capacity to respond to another’s mental state and cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state (also called theory of mind). When I talk about empathy and innovation, it cognitive empathy that is the focus. Trying to understand another’s perspective requires letting go of ego and embracing a curiosity. It is being relaxed and not judging so that you are open to experience the wonders of Vujá dé. Vujá dé is the opposite of déja vú and means that you see something for the millionth time but discover something new. I find it to be a very interesting sensation.

Subjective vs objective reality

One thing that has helped me immensely when empathizing and helping others to empathize is that my view of the world is not really based on an objective reality. This means that I don’t get fixated about how things “are”. Instead I find myself often curious about how other people perceive the world. I don’t see that there are right or wrong ways in seeing the world. This makes it much easier for me to be curious and not judging the people that you seek to understand.

When observing and interviewing people the ego must really go out the door and it is important to seek to understand their point of view rather than defending your own point of view. The HBO TV series Silicon Valley has a brilliant episode in season three called “Daily Active Users” in which it is given a very clear example of when ego wins over understanding of your customer needs. Painful to watch, but brilliant and spot on.

Enter the empathy ninja

One of my passions that I have found increase my empathy skills may sound a bit strange to some, but it is my martial art practice in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. I have found that practicing Bujinkan increase my empathy skills. One aspect is to put yourself in your opponent’s shoes and trying to understand your opponent but an even more important aspect is the importance of a beginner’s mind.

Shoshin (beginner’s mind) is a zen buddhist concept that refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject at an advanced level, just as a beginner. I find that the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki frames it beautifully: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

In order to learn you must let go of your ego. You learn by understanding what you might have gotten wrong and embracing it instead of hanging on to your beliefs of what should be right.

Being a martial artist comes with a big responsibility. You might hurt others very seriously if you lack empathy. If you have learned to inflict pain and/or damage, I find that you gain a tremendous respect for it. With an open mind and a benevolent heart you might also see that we are all connected and therefore the I see my goal as a martial artist as peace rather than fight/war.

Empathy – at the heart of innovation

As I mentioned earlier, the Empathy at the heart of innovation is one of my favourite presentations. I have given the presentation at World Usability Day, Lean Tribe Gathering, Chalmers Interaction Design talks and now at the Creative Thinkers High Five. The response has been very positive and I find that the presentation has raised a lot of interesting ideas and reflections leading to great discussions.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I am uploading my presentation material to SlideShare. The material is licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 non-commercial attribution license which means that you are free to remix and remix non-commercially as long as you give proper credit. Below you will find the presentation from my talk last Thursday. As always, the slides by themselves are not all that understandable. But if you are curious about the topic and  want to book me to give the presentation to your organization, just reach out to me. The talk is around 20 minutes (often followed by a forty minute facilitated discussion on the topic).

Peace, love and understanding

Three things that I am grateful for today:

  1. Presenting and facilitating a dialog for leading politicians and public officials of a municipality last Friday was really awesome. I love being surrounded with smart, passionate people that want to change things for the better.
  2. That I was kind to myself yesterday and just let myself relax and recharge after a couple of very intense weeks
  3. The opportunities that are starting to emerge at the horizon and where I am right now.
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