The design community has known for years that if you want to create a winning product, service, or experience, you need to listen first. Listen to the people who want or need the object of your design. Then, go beyond listening to deeply connect with their experience, their situations, and gulp, their feelings.

Yet, I’m surprised day in and day out by the reactions I get from clients, strategists, and innovators when I mention empathy. Some are politely dismissive. Some seem to not hear me, I mean literally as if their ears were momentarily blocked, then suddenly open again when I talk about something else. Yet others tell me that emotions are those soft skills that really don’t belong in the more scientific world of hardcore innovation.
As I wrestle with these responses, I take a stance — be empathetic so as to better understand and share the feelings of another. Well, that’s the definition of empathy. And I have to say firmly, that…

Innovation without empathy is just invention.

Walk through your neighborhood megamart and you’ll find inventions of all kinds, from kitchen tools that hurt your hands to menus on digital devices that are impossible to navigate. Someone invented these things from their own singular perspective, or at best from their small team’s viewpoint. Then someone else approved their production. And someone else allowed them to be sold in their store. Want an even more aggravating experience, shop your late-night 30 minute infomercial. What you get in the mail is downright criminal in the lack of empathetic design and exploitation of the user.

This extends to service design as well. Anyone recall visiting with your state’s department of motor vehicles about 20 years ago? The classic example of a service created, not for the user, but from the perspective of the organization required to provide the service. Nothing made sense, it took too long, and the positions were staffed with individuals who really didn’t care about your experience or how you felt — and sometimes they would tell you that directly.

Same was true for the early websites. I spent quite a few years as a university administrator and I recall time and time again seeing websites, supposedly designed for students and parents, built with navigation based on the organizational structure of the university, one which neither student nor parent needed to understand. Still today, I challenge you to pick 10 college websites at random and pretend you’re a student, or if you are one, be yourself. Try to get to a service you need. I bet that half of them have a design based on an organizational chart, not intuitive navigation based on what you need.

When trying to do something new, too many smart people close the door, put their heads down, and solve a problem, thereby creating bigger ones. Einstein reminded us that “problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them”, or let me provide an analogue by saying “providers cannot solve users problems without understanding the users mind set and their emotions”. The more I study and practice innovation the more I’m convinced that sustainable, healthy innovation requires empathy.

Let’s not kid ourselves — innovation starts with empathy.

So, how do we innovate with empathy?

We have experienced-based practices and models to prove it, and they actually work. Nearly all of the design thinking models put empathy or a similar approach in their initial discovery step (see Innovations in Strategy Crafting Chapter 6 to learn more) and many prototyping techniques depend heavily on user experience and input. In fact, empathy is now such a core innovation tool that I would put it on a list of the top ten basics for any innovator.

Recently, I had the opportunity along with my colleagues to design and facilitate a meeting focused on empathy and innovation. We met for three days in Orlando, Florida and experienced empathy directly as well as learned about its role in innovation. Here are some samples from our convening.

  • Poverty Simulation — We started our three days together with a large-scale simulation of a month in the life of individuals struggling with family resources. Each of us was assigned a role to play in a family and we set out to solve problems and keep ourselves clothed, fed, and healthy while we navigated our neighborhoods, services, and daily tasks. After four rounds of weekly experiences, each of us lived many atypical struggles, opening up our awareness.
  • Learning About Each Other — During our opening reception and introductions, we used an exercise in small groups where we sought not to hear individuals’ job titles, but what’s exciting to them in their world related to innovation and the gifts they bring to our gathering. The focus on the gifts in the room, what we bring that lies below the surface or hidden at first glance, really opened up the empathy and made for deeper connections over the three days.
  • Three Wise Guys — Our group thrives on something called positive turbulence, which we define as information from the periphery of our everyday awareness, disciplines and routines to provide this novel stimulation at each meeting. We opened our convening with podcast and radio hosts who are also a Christian reverend, a Jewish rabbi, and Islamic imam. They spoke to us about tolerance, inclusivity, and empathy using examples across faith traditions.
  • Dining in the Dark — To further explore empathy, we replaced our typical social dinner on Thursday night with a two hour meal served and consumed in a completely dark dining room. We were thankfully supported by an amazing planning organization Lighthouse as well as the Orlando SWAT team wearing night-vision goggles. When the lights went out and we lost our vision, I was amazed at how much my other senses became amplified and how my communication patterns with my tablemates shifted and the normal experience of a dinner deepened.
  • Authentic Inclusion — Our final experience on Friday morning was a deep dive into our own fears and vulnerabilities lead by Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon. We explored power and reciprocity in our own stories and those of others with the final outcome focused on how we can best share our transformative power with others. The more we give, the more we receive.


The three days was one of the deepest dives into empathy I’ve ever experienced and I came away changed. How can I keep that awareness with me day to day?

And now… fear.

Where empathy is often dismissed, fear is downright avoided — like the plague — if not made out to be one of the worst possible human conditions that exists. I’ll admit, I have an atypical relationship with fear, and I think fear is a great teacher. If we want to quickly know who we are, to become vulnerable, or to grow, we eventually must experience and explore our fears. Fear is an extreme emotion that is purposeful to the degree that it protects us from harm, but limiting in that is holds us back from living fully.

Empathy can open us up to fear, first our own, then importantly, the fears of others.

Leaders have known this secret for years. Religions are built on fear to keep the devouts’ behavior in line with their organization’s beliefs. Dictatorships and democracies wield fear to control their citizens and to influence the behaviors of other countries. The media uses fear to sell stories, but mostly sell ads. This is not innovation, it’s just the opposite, it crushes hope and optimism.

Yes fear can control, but it can also open us up, from individuals, to families and teams, to organizations, to entire cultures and societies, to wonderful experiences and growth. I teach adult learners in graduate courses and workshops and I often run an exercise on the first night of class. I ask the students to think about one of their most profound learning experiences and then about the key elements that made it profound. I ask about the students’ emotions before and during the learning. Year after year, the group is surprised about the patterns that emerge; we see commonalities in profound learning and connected emotions like struggle, loss of control, and fear.

The same goes for profound change. When working with organizational change projects and even strategy and innovation engagements, fear often surfaces as both an obstacle and accelerator. Fear of breaking norms, fear of failure, fear of being vulnerable. Fear is the mind killer, yet once we release into and through the fear, we are better able to change. In hindsight it’s easy, but taking that first step toward change can be downright paralyzing.

Yet, innovation and fear are intimately related in many ways.

Fear of Failure. Our organizations evolve to produce repeatable results with ever decreasing resources. When the system fails, we get poor results and increased costs. Failure is bad in most organizational contexts and managers train workers to fear failure. Get fired, skipped over for promotion, dock your pay, or bad assignments — there are constant reinforcements against failure. Yet we know we learn more when we fail than when we succeed; someone recently told me research suggests it is four or five times as much learning, but we need to be open to it. Innovation, ideas to valuable action, takes failure. Fail forward, fail fast, and learn; move on optimistically to the next challenge.

Fear of Vulnerability. From singing your first solo in front of a crowd to falling in love to letting down our guard in a dangerous situation, we work hard to protect the parts of ourselves that we’re unsure of or can be hurt. Yet when we survive these situations we grow considerably. Innovation requires that we grow confident to be vulnerable. The deeper we become exposed, the deeper the change we can experience, both individually and organizationally.

Fear of the Unknown. I’m a fan of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. In their work and writing, each explored fear of the unknown as a fundamental part of the human condition. Nearly every child experiences a series of fears about what is unknown, from attachment to a parent, to the dark, to socializing as a teenager, but as adults we take some of these fears with us. Innovation is about the unknown, from new ideas to the responses of the markets to the things we create. By transcending our fears in the innovation and creativity processes, we can extend the reach of our creations and the value that’s generated by our innovations.

So, what can one do?

Taking it all in balance, when we seek to innovate, we need to address both empathy and fear. We need to experience them both without losing ourselves too deeply in either. I’d really like to offer you the formula for experiencing empathy and fear as an innovator, but alas, there is no single approach.

These are individual journeys unique to each of us.

What I can offer, however, are three bits of sage advice I’ve learned during my own journey. One, run the experiment. Empathy and fear take us out of the cognitive domain and into the emotional. The best way to explore these are to act and reflect, not to overthink. Run the experiment, observe, learn, and adapt. Two, listen to stories. It is difficult to speak directly about empathy and fear for most people and we tend to speak in generalities, riddles, or tell stories. Explore the hidden meanings in the stories you hear and tune in to the themes of empathy and fear. Three, be bold. We all have natural boundaries that keep us safe, but often empathy and fear lay outside our day to day behavior and actions. To fully experience, we need to be bold and direct our own personal journeys beyond these boundaries. Be bold and push your comfort zone.

So take with you all that is most human and open yourself to the experience as you innovate. It’s a wonderful journey.
Rob Brodnick, Ph.D. is a strategist and innovator. He founded Sierra Learning Solutions as a platform for his work to help organizations learn and change. Recently he published Innovations in Strategy Crafting, a book that is filled with applicable tools and provocations for anyone seeking to create their own futures. Rob writes on Medium and publishes about two articles each month. He also helps guide and facilitate the AMI innovation learning community. He welcomes feedback, inspiration, or requests for assistance; write to him at