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Why Empathy Is The Most Important Ingredient For Digital Transformation

There are three universally accepted truths around digital transformation. One, that customer experience is a crucial driver of transformation, two, that most digital transformation efforts fail at the scaling stage and finally, that the key to sustainable competitive advantage is organizational culture.
Now, what if there was one common enabler that helped you succeed in all three areas?

That common ingredient is empathy
We don’t need to go too far to see the powerful impact of empathy in action. Just look at the success of Zoom conferencing in today’s pandemic-stricken world. Zoom has become the darling of remote workers, ranking #1 in free downloaded apps in most countries, and #2 behind Chinese video app Tik Tok globally. Zoom is being used by millennials for yoga sessions, grandmothers for connecting with families, and is fast becoming the tool of choice for school teaching, music lessons and even weddings.  It’s become universally recognizable as a verb to describe video communication. True, its meteoric rise has exposed security gaps in its software, but that’s a trade-off that any of its entrenched competitors like Skype and WebEx would have been happy to make.
Zoom’s success isn’t a surprise to insiders in the tech industry. The company was founded by current CEO Eric Yuan, who left Cisco WebEx along with a few friends because he felt that Cisco’s video-conference tool wasn’t evolving fast enough to become a user-delight. In the past few years, that customer empathy was already delivering triple digit growth before the pandemic struck. In parallel, it’s empathy for technology partners drove large IT companies ranging from Logitech and Polycom to Dropbox and others to partner rather than compete with them. And Eric’s empathy for his employees had already earned him the top spot on Glassdoor’s Employee Choice awards.

Empathy in these three areas is a game-changer:
1. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers: The concept of user-centric design isn’t new. Leonardo DaVinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man was the foundation of user-friendly design and architecture for centuries. However, digital technology takes user-centricity to a totally different level allowing incredible personalization. The leader who is quite literally able to put themselves in the shoes of their customer has a huge advantage.
Take industrial designer Patricia Moore for example. She is recognized as one of the most socially conscious designers in the world, having helped to get the Americans with Disabilities Act enacted into law. To empathize with the older generation, in the 1970s, Pattie at the age of 26 decided to conduct an empathy experiment. She dressed up as an 85-year-old woman, using makeup to look the part. She wore glasses that blurred her vision, clipped on a brace and wrapped bandages around her torso so she was hunched over, plugged up her ears so she couldn’t hear well, and put on awkward, uneven shoes so she was forced to walk with a stick. She visited more than a hundred American cities, performing everyday tasks like opening refrigerator doors, shopping for groceries, taking the bus and using can openers. At one point she was beaten, robbed and left for dead. What came out of that experiment wasn’t just the discovery of the world of the elderly, but new-found respect for people with all types of disabilities.
Unfortunately, in the digital era, user centricity is dangerously close to becoming a buzzword. Don’t just be user-centric, put yourself literally in the shoes of the user.
2. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees: The debates about immune system responses to digital transformation, or even about the potential job impact of technology risk becoming farcical, unless they’re backed up with personal empathy. My favorite example of a person willing to literally put themselves in the shoes of the masses is George Orwell. Orwell came from a privileged background, having studied in Eton and having held a plum job of a colonial police officer in Burma. His experiences and concerns about a bureaucratic world gone wrong, and the repression of individual freedom led him into becoming an author focusing on “political” topics. Like Pattie Moore, Orwell undertook a radical empathy experiment. He sold his suit and bought clothes of a tramp in London. He spent weeks with people living on the streets. The legacy of that experiment lives on in his writings, including in Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and 1984.
Orwell’s experiment to empathize with the common person by living their life is still relevant today. Just replace the class-divide of the imperial era with the skills-divide or the wage-divide. The digital era offers a choice for leaders – do you consider your employees as “assets” or as “humans”?
3. Build a culture of empathy: In his 2017 MIT commencement address, Tim Cook warned graduates about accepting the premise that empathy has little role in their career. He isn’t alone in this. In a 2019 survey of 150 CEOs, over 80% recognized empathy a key to success. A culture that’s based on competition and aggression simply lacks the resilience to sustain change. Without the trust in their leaders and fellow employees, there is no motivation for workers to disrupt themselves. They may implement new digital solutions but will struggle to change the defensive organizational DNA.
An empathetic organization culture provides the trust that despite the disruptive transformation the leadership will demonstrate caring in action. That’s the most fertile ground for disruption. 
Eric Yuan’s success may have become visible during an extra-ordinary global situation. However, it is deeply rooted in empathy-based transformational leadership.


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