Jenny Liang, Strategic Design Lead at BCG Digital Ventures, discusses how empathy is the unexpected foundation for innovation. *This article was originally published by Jenny on our blog, Pollen. To enjoy additional thought leadership and stories from our global, multidisciplinary team, visit Pollen.

Design consultancies have touted their multidisciplinary teams for decades, but the rise of startups-as-a-service have brought the discipline mash-up to a whole new level. BCG Digital Ventures pioneered the structure of a new platform — one with equal rigor in design, strategy and tech — allowing us to rapidly launch new businesses with some of the world’s most influential corporations.

While multidisciplinary collaboration speeds up time to market, it’s very different in practice than it is in theory. Each discipline embodies a different set of unseen but integral values. Mixing them together and expecting it to just work without considering how to accommodate their inherent differences is magical thinking. Imagine the various disciplines as different species of fish — although a few of these species can live in both freshwater and saltwater, the vast majority have evolved to require a specific environment to survive. In this same way, we cannot expect an engineer’s working style to be exactly the same as a designer’s, and vice versa.

Early on, we discovered the need to quickly develop new tools and codify best practices into scalable methodology. Postmortems of our first venture work revealed that team members often assumed their way of working, values and KPIs were the norm. For example, on one early venture, someone upstream promised a clickable prototype as part of the final product. The design team had a much more robust definition of a clickable prototype, however, and didn’t think they could execute this well, causing friction within the team.

Empathy at Scale

Without a shared vocabulary helping us see eye to eye, expectations proved hard to change. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, was integral in developing this vocabulary.

Being empathetic can help us become more collaborative, agile and innovative. Scaling empathy requires awareness of both your own and others’ mindsets and how to navigate them. At DV, we practice this in a series of workshops which help bring differences to light and resolve them.

These workshops first began as best practices for ethnographic interviews that were then applied to scoping and project process discussions. They continued to expand as I led strategic design for the incubation of Takt, a real-time personalization platform that empowers brands to build nuanced relationships with their customers. The head of this venture encouraged me to find ways to help the platform be more humanistic. Dissecting how we relate to each other organically could help transform a coupon into a moment of meaningful human connection.

Around the same time, I was also taking calls from people in crisis at a suicide hotline. I saw how empathetically responding to people’s needs was, in essence, the same thing that Takt was trying to do for their customers through new technology. The current iteration of the empathy workshops was born through this intense focus on empathy, which quickly enhanced the interactions I had with my colleagues.

The Empathy Machine

Being empathetic is a skill, not a trait. We must exercise it like any other muscle. From an evolutionary standpoint, collaboration within familiar groups helps us compete. But with less familiar “outgroups” that each embody a unique value set, empathy breaks down, as seen with different disciplines in business.

From a neurological standpoint, mirror neurons help us feel what someone else is feeling (also known as affective empathy). For example, if you see someone get punched in the stomach, your hand might naturally rise to protect that area. Cognitive empathy, the ability to cerebrally understand what someone else is feeling, is more detached and occurs via other pathways in the brain.

Unless your brain is different than the ‘norm,’ your neurological empathy machinery is naturally running, but not always at full steam. To this end, we’ve developed a cadre of exercises in our workshops that teach people the tools they need to jump-start their own internal empathy machine. These tools can be broken down into two main categories: Methodology tools and culture tools. Methodology tools allows us to fast forward. They help us quickly get up to speed with a shared language, mashing existing work to fit our framework. Culture tools help people identify the invisible waters they are in.

Goldilocks Empathy

When we talk about empathy exercises, we first think about how to amplify. Many need help seeing beyond themselves and their assumed norms. In this case, we focus on exercises that teach active listening, building rapport, cultivating a compassionate mindset and tuning into one’s own empathic responses. My teammates on the business side are typically not used to swimming so deeply in these waters. Their logic and metrics-based value system dominates the commercial sector, but we’ve seen promising shifts take place in these areas.

Those within the more creative disciplines are often too empathetic and can be overwhelmed and distracted by other’s needs. Designers often need to tamp down their empathy for others and follow their own voice. For them, the workshops are tailored to setting boundaries, encouraging others to see their perspective and filtering out noise that can block out the creative processes.

The goal of our workshops is to balance the scales of empathy. Like Goldilocks, we are looking to find the middle ground that is “just right” for team members from all disciplines.

After covering these basic components, we set up targeted role-plays that help us practice interacting in a safe environment. These are tailored to the specific venture, client, or team dynamics we anticipate. I’ve found that players learn just as much being the receiver of empathetic (and not-so-empathetic) responses as they do being the giver. The purpose of the exercises is to help build the emotional vocabulary for future interactions.

Workshop participants practicing role-plays. Can you tell from their body language what they are feeling?

Feel in the Blanks

With so many ways of working across disciplines, it’s easy to get tripped up in arguments about what to do next. Being empathetic to differing perspectives speeds up the process of aligning on the best approach. “Feel in the Blanks,” is a simple recipe to do this in four parts:

  1. Demonstrate understanding and respect: This sets an open tone for the conversation. “It makes sense that you would like to _____.”
  2. Analyze options: This establishes common understanding of method qualities. “With that approach, we’ll get_____, and _____, which is great.”
  3. Clarify trade-offs: This surfaces hidden decision drivers. “So, in my view, there is a trade-off between _____ and _____.”
  4. Invite discussion: This empowers your listener to partake in decision-making. “What do you think is the way to balance these tradeoffs?”

I often hear participants remark that they would like their partners and family members to attend these workshops. While we haven’t expanded our curriculum to include significant others, we’re encouraged that the skills we teach can also be applied outside the walls of our ventures. Since implementing our empathy workshops, we’ve seen more intimate ethnographic interviews taking place that inspire better products. We’ve also seen more meaningful applications of new technologies, such as the more responsible use of AI and personalization, which helps us avoid being creepy, invasive and annoying. But empathy doesn’t just help us improve technology — technology can also help us become more empathetic to the world around us, such as using VR headsets to inspire empathy for endangered animals to increase conservation efforts.

As we scale and modify our empathy workshops across our global centers, we continue see stronger collaborations, which ultimately lay the groundwork for better innovation. How do you treat empathy at your organization?

Counselor Deanna Troi is an empath aboard the Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) in the science-fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Troi is half-human, half-Betazoid and has the psionic ability to sense emotions.

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BCG Digital Ventures invents, launches, and scales industry-disrupting new businesses with the world’s most influential companies.

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