We all appreciate what it takes for someone to run a marathon, even if not many of us have attempted it. At some point in our lives, we all have given a shot for a quick sprint or a long jog and know how hard it is to sustain it for 26.2 miles. However, it is often difficult for most of us to appreciate an equivalent amount of effort that goes into an outcome built upon a career practicing the craft of good design.
Popular interest in design often halts at the superficial aspects of aesthetics, whether one is marveling at the creation of an artist, an architect, or a designer.
Is it because many of us don’t do enough to express ourselves in an art form? It is time we all picked up an instrument to play or a canvas to paint or simply wrote down a few lines beyond 280 characters. In addition to our own well-being, our ability to express ourselves has real tangible economic imperatives on how businesses and communities can attain sustainable growth. Let’s see how.
The Recipe For Creating Differentiated Experiences — Empathy
The most memorable moments in our lives are rooted in strong connections with our surroundings, especially when someone is able to relate to you, understand where you are coming from, and empathize with your situation. When empathy is missing, the exact opposite happens — you withdraw yourself from such an environment, physically and emotionally, where you don’t think you belong.
Often times when businesses make decisions in boardrooms pondering at sophisticated models for margins and rate of return, there is little room for empathy. This leads to decisions that unintentionally alienate the best interests for the company’s most important stakeholders — customers and employees. Worse, some decisions are so systemic and deep ingrained in decades of a management philosophy that it is hard to see otherwise.
Case Study — Employee Engagement
A classic set of examples can be found in how businesses treat their employees while their CEOs deliver lip service on how their people are their most valuable assets. Here are a few scenarios on the impact of lack of empathy in the operating principles for most businesses towards their employees.
When companies organize their operations for the sake of running a business without centering their focus on the employees, it results in counterproductive policies that have a direct impact on the cost of acquiring, growing, and retaining talent.
Annual Performance Reviews: For a finance department that needs to prepare a prudent annual budget, it makes complete sense to conduct a once a year exercise to evaluate the cost of wages and reward employees accordingly through hikes and bonuses. Unfortunately, performance evaluation and compensation are so tightly woven together, that it is easy to miss the fact that career progressions and professional growth do not happen sporadically as a once a year milestone. Employees need positive reinforcement and guidance on focus areas throughout the year. Companies that are serious about grooming their talent have invested in and institutionalized year-long in-the-moment authentic conversations on feedback. This is a natural outcome for organizations that empathize with the needs of the employees to grow in their career over the need to prepare an annual budget.
Talent Acquisition: Sustained high growth targets often cause an organization to aggressively seek out new talent to meet its ever-evolving ambitions. A singular focus on meeting the numbers on the hiring order board may lead to short term success in finding the right experts who appear to prove their viability for a return on investment for the company. However, imagine stepping inside a work environment where every single employee was able to get a foot inside the door using this criterion, irrespective of their working styles, how they collaborate, what inspires each of them, and what they value of each other. At best you will find accidental one-off synergies, at worst, the organization may never be able to nurture a meaningful work culture. Now contrast this with a company that is genuinely interested in making the candidates they interview succeed in their careers. These organizations are interested in your aptitude but also invest time in truly understanding what motivates you, how you define success, how failure has shaped your personal leadership, what you value in your co-workers, and where you desire to be in months to come. This demonstrates a deliberate attempt to empathize with the candidate’s personal story and it leads to hiring diverse talent aligned with core values of the organization, and eventually drives to higher retention and superior business performance.
Express And You Shall Be Good At Understanding Expressions
Keeping your primary stakeholders, your customers and employees, at the center of everything you do, will lead to organic frictionless experiences that elevate the performance of the entire community. But how do we go about getting good with empathy and understanding the real needs of your stakeholders? Our ability to empathize with others starts with our ability to empathize with the self.
Awareness of our own thoughts is the foundation that will help us build the mental muscles needed to actively listen and empathize with others.
Being self-aware is a “meta-skill” that accelerates our ability to pick up new skills. Indulging in expressing ourselves through a form of art that is dear to us is a skill that will sharpen our faculties to be equally aware of the signals from others. It doesn’t matter what form of expression we choose — whether you compose a song, play an instrument, make a sketch, write an article, stretch your vocals, or scribble a speech, if you are authentic and true to your emotions, you will create a good piece of art that does justice to what you want to convey.
The Paradigm Shift — Going from Good to Great
Thus, a good piece of art is the one that is authentic and does justice to what the creator wants to convey. A great piece of art does that as well as creates a shift in the minds of the participants. That shift is rooted in the creator’s ability to intimately understand the audience and embed design choices that create a seamless transition. That creation does not necessarily have to be an art in its traditional sense.
Whether you are defining a business strategy, envisioning a brand definition, writing a policy document, designing a mobile app, or writing a piece of code — if you use your craft to create something from scratch, then you are applying underlying principles of design to make an impact.
The outcome that is based on closely understanding the needs of your audience over legacy business priorities will deliver a higher return on investment in the long term.
Putting It All Together
When businesses focus inward to create operating principles based on singularly focused priorities without acknowledging the needs of its stakeholders, the outcomes are often optimized towards short term success, however, it gradually leads to unsustainable mediocre performances in the longer timeframe. Putting the customers and employees at the center of your efforts will lead to experiences that are rooted in strong connections. This requires a research-mindset to first intimately understand the people whom we are designing solutions for. It needs to start with individuals being able to express themselves first to understand expressions from others. And this applies to everyone, not just folks with the title of a designer — if you are creating something from scratch, you are exercising muscles required for good design. Building empathy as an organizational skill is a marathon and it can take years. However, the journey will not only enable a contentful experience for those involved but also deliver results that have a direct linkage to financial performance.