In a previous post, I talked about what I called “disciplinary empathy” – the ability to get out of one’s acculturated box and see problems from the point of view of other peoples’ expertise and training.  I made the observation that people I’ve run across with high disciplinary empathy are remarkably innovative in teams.  Because they get that there is more than one way to look at the world, they can see a problem from multiple perspectives, and see solutions that integrate multiple approaches.

I’d like to talk about a related kind of empathy here – organizational empathy.

In a previous life, I spent a long time inside a big company, applying design research and user centered design to create next generation technologies and solutions for our mainline businesses.  My team and I were part of a centralized technology organization, and it was part of my job to “manage” the technology transfer process. 

It was tough.  We felt a lot of the time like we were pushing the proverbial rope.  Our internal customers didn’t know about – and often didn’t want – new things, or even to change at all.  We lived The Innovator’s Dilemma – our company’s customers and investors rewarded us for more of the same, but we knew we needed to create new products and businesses for long-term survival.

As a new manager there, I remember experiencing the same frustration that I’d experienced as a younger researcher:  Why won’t anyone listen to us?  Don’t they get how cool this stuff is?  Don’t they see they need to change?  Over time, we bred a pretty nasty case of “us versus them”.

Silos were a problem for us.  And tons of innovation management ink had been spilled about silos and how to avoid them – and it seemed like I read it all at the time.

The Porter crowd said that silos come from unclear company strategy.  Maybe, I thought, but I couldn’t do anything about that. Patrick Lencioni, one of my favorite authors, said that the way to cure silos is through shared goals and common reward and recognition.  Well, that sounded good, too, but that too was out of my control.  Plus, it seemed like there was something more to it.

Over time, we developed ways to work around the silos.  One of the best ways I found was to lend people to our development organizations to help them implement the new technologies we were transferring.  Of course, this was a blatant bribe because these organizations were always short of people.  And it worked, but not for the reasons I expected.  It turned out that the researchers who had spent time in a development organization came back with a deep understanding of what made our output valuable – or not valuable – to our customers.  Having lived life as a developer, they learned to see our technology organization as a developer did… and it was sometimes not pretty.  We learned that no one cared about papers, presentations or knowledge.  The lingua franca of marketing was user testimonial.  For development, it was proof of technical concept and working code.

But I also learned much deeper lessons that I apply even to this day.  I realized that the silo problem was deeper than well-defined strategy, common goals, or shared rewards and recognition could solve.  The problem is that different disciplines, like marketing, finance, software development, etc. are all driven by different cultures.  They speak different languages and have deeply rooted ideas about what good work is.  And these cultures start to be formed when people are still in school.  Engineers, designers, accountants, marketers all get acculturated to their professions’ value systems in school, and it gets reinforced by the largely functional nature of organizational design.  The disciplines’ cultures are further reinforced by the kinds of people who are naturally attracted to each profession – people get attracted to different fields because their personalities and world views are compatible with the existing or perceived culture of that profession.  Look at people who enter engineering school – they’re qualitatively different than people who go to design school.

The big lesson for me was that to cross organizational boundaries, I needed to encourage my researchers to truly understand – to empathize – with the way other departments thought, acted and worked.  Lending people out to other groups turned out to be a happily coincidental way to develop organizational empathy in my team.  It wasn’t just about the bribe – it turned out to be about changing the culture of my own organization.

The people who did this best really adopted the mindset of our internal customers, and later sought out rotation programs or outright transfers, but not everyone got it.  Those who tried to use understanding as a means to manipulate – like the stereotypical used car salesman – had much less success.  People are good at detecting authenticity, and I found that this organizational empathy had to come from the heart.

One of the things I like best about Contextual Design is that it supports the development of organizational empathy. Joining right alongside our clients on design teams, we gain a real understanding of the constraints, values, and approaches driven by the customers’ organizations – and organizational cultures. As a result of CD’s intense teaming experience, we usually find that empathy develops amongst the all of the team members—and among the organizations they represent.