Innovation through empathy

We’re a nation about to elect our next leader; it’s important we find one that can see potential and hope where others see none, one that can set Sri Lanka forth on a transformative journey where the quality of our lives remains paramount.

The need in any leader – whether for a country or a company or a community – is for the ability to see and think differently, from a perspective borne out of the courage of conviction and the willingness to take calculated risk, all for the greater good. In the President’s case, that vision will define the collective ambitions of the people for the next five years.

For a country the size and influence of Sri Lanka, innovation as a culture is an imperative, one that is sorely missing in business and in life. For innovation to be the driver of growth, creativity must become the driver of innovation through the generation of new ideas and new thinking. Creativity has been identified as a critical job skill of the future, but it’s unlikely that our people and our organisations have reached any significant portion of their creative potential.

Perhaps there is no lack of creativity in Sri Lankans. But where there is creative potential, the need is for the conditions under which those innate abilities may be moulded and disciplined in ways that allowed those skills to be applied to innovate, to identify needs, to understand the problems people have, and to find solutions that work.

Changing how we approach creativity and innovation begins with the way we raise our children and educate them; right now, the innate curiosity, constant questioning, and exploration that define childhood are stifled by a system that encourages staying within a frame and opting for the safe, instilling a fear of failure and insecurity while punishing the nonconformist.

Instead, we must create a generation of problem solvers by making significant changes to an archaic, outdated system of education and by harnessing the vast opportunities offered by digital learning. More importantly though, we must also as businesses and communities and as parents and adults, encourage and appreciate the quality of empathy, because empathy has the power to be the wellspring of innovation.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks often about how empathy sparks innovation, because empathy invokes the ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs. Nadella’s own life experience as a father of two special needs children made him appreciate the quality of empathy, within both personal and business settings.

Empathising with real problems faced by real people by taking the time to understand those problems and what’s important to people instils in the innovator the desire to find a solution that can make life easier.

Innovation thus springs from a place far beyond the motive of profit, motivated instead by one’s ability to make a difference. The empathetic innovator is genuine and authentic in his engagement with the people whose conditions and challenges he wants to positively impact.

Empathy will not only make you innovate, it will make you inspire others, it will build you loyal followers, it will make you human. To become empathetic, you have to start caring more – sincerely caring about the people around you.

Empathy is still considered a soft skill but there’s nothing soft about it; it’s an essential life skill and one that no leader can do without.

And when we vote next month, let’s hope we pick a leader that has the wisdom and empathy to lead us; quite simply, one that cares about the people he leads.