Empathic Immersion Expands Consciousness and Sharpens Instincts
In this article I introduce empathic immersion as an essential practice for business leaders if they want to cultivate and improve their instincts for the people they serve. Empathic immersion will help business leaders become mindful, alert and responsive to the rapidly changing mindsets and behaviors in the world.
First, a conceptual framework
Empathic immersion produces best results in an organization when key stakeholders participating in the experience understand and work with a broader concept of co-creation.
In their article co-creation experiences: The next practice in value creation, C K Prahlad and Venkat Ramaswami propose,
“Meaning of value and the process of value creation are rapidly shifting from a product- and firm-centric view to personalized consumer experiences. Informed, networked, empowered, and active consumers are increasingly co-creating value with the firm. The interaction between the firm and the consumer is becoming the locus of value creation and value extrac- tion. As value shifts to experiences, the market is becoming a forum for conversation and interactions between consumers, consumer communities, and firms. It is this dialogue, access, transparency, and understanding of risk- benefits that is central to the next practice in value creation.”
Stakeholders in a value chain must therefore understand the following:
- Everyday people’s participation in value creation is central to the concept of co-creation.
- Co-creation is an ongoing engagement between people who have a stake in your business, your teams distributed in silos, your industry partners and everyday people.
- Two key features of this engagement is dialogue and iterative design.
Empathic immersion is one of the many methods used by SonicRim as a part of our co-creation practice.
What is empathic immersion?
It’s a practice of sending key decision makers of an organization to the real world environments of their current and target customers with the purpose of closely observing their life and imagination. The process needs to be carefully orchestrated to facilitate, open minded observations, critical dialogues, interpretation of observations. and synthesis of insights from multiple perspectives and most importantly generating consciousness and empathy.
Why is it important?
We live in a fast changing world where technological disruptions, new business models, generational transitions, and cultural complexities are causing big shifts in behaviors, attitudes, values and aspirations in individuals and communities
Today everyday people are prioritizing their personal life over work more than ever before. They are seeking new options for creating comfort, safety, convenience and meaning. They are also experimenting with their own identities and relationships. In this context staying engaged with your customers as they evolve has become inevitable.
Empathic Immersion offers organizations direct access to the explicit, implicit, emergent and latent pointers to the future. By Becoming aware of the changing realities of real people, business leaders will become more alert and aware of people’s requirements and unmet needs.
Senior leaders who rely more on middle management for insights, consulting companies for recommendations, and big data to support their decisions miss out on a critical piece in decision making- contextual understanding and empathy.
Understanding your customers in their own environment has a different impact on organization’s cognitive capacity. It expands consciousness and builds capacity for cultivating a trusted relationship with them. The reason business leaders need to work on their relationship with their customers is their relationship with people has broken. It is broken, not because the businesses do not care but because they are not present- where the change is happening.
I would like to give an example. Several years ago a bay area design company, Lunar Design (now a part of McKinsey) was approached by Cricket Communications, a wireless company primarily providing services to socio-economically less privileged sections of the US population. The company was successful in establishing trust and loyalty of their population by offering innovative services such us Muve Music and personalized payment plans that their customers could afford. The request from Cricket Communications to the design company was to identify ways to elevate the Cricket Communication Brand through design. The scope of the project included transformation of the brand at every touch point- through visual communication, retail experience design and design of innovative services. Particularly, the management of the company was inspired by the story of Target Corporation elevating its brand through design. Lunar Design requested SonicRim to conduct research that would reveal opportunities for creating meaningful transformation of the Cricket Brand.
The project involved empathic immersion in the life of Cricket customers at various touch points- in their homes, at Cricket stores and where they shop (primarily Walmart). At the commencement of the project it was agreed that key leaders of the company would accompany Lunar+SonicRim team during the Empathic immersion fieldwork and participate in a dialogue with their customers.
The team that did participate in the observations and dialogues went through a belief shattering experience both during fieldwork and during synthesis. We realized that Cricket customers did not want a brand upgrade. They trusted the company because they believed they could relate to the company and felt welcomed in the stores, unlike other stores where they felt they were looked down upon.
A lot of the cricket customers we met shopped at Walmart. They were very conscious of how people in higher echelons of the society mocked them as “Walmart People”. They did not want Cricket brand to follow a path of design transformation that would make them feel they did not belong there anymore. Instead, they wanted Cricket to continue strengthening their relationship with communities, and introduce new services empathic to their socio-economic constraints. We observed many constraints with which they lived and gained deeper consciousness of their mental models. Several years later AT&T acquired Cricket Communications. To date AT&T has retained the brand essence and customer experience strategies for Cricket separate from their mainstream customer experience strategies, out of respect for the unique sensitivities, cultural ethos and needs of this socio-economic segment. The point is- Empathic Immersion in the lives of an unfamiliar population helped us gain greater consciousness and respect for their life and ultimately also told us where designers should be mindful in not disturbing the sensitive of everyday people with our elite values.
How we do it
Organizing Empathic Immersion requires systematic planning.
Selection of a catalyst
An important role in ensuring success of an empathic immersion process is that of a catalyst from within the organization who
- is curious, open minded, and non-judgmental
- believes in the value of collaboration and co-creation
- is relentless in sharing and socializing their learnings within the organization
- has a network of strong relationships within the organization (those who can tolerate his/her persistence)
- practices tact in challenging beliefs of opinionated and egocentric people. Thanks
A kick off workshop will help prepare the key business leaders for the mind-altering experience. Most business leaders are adept at processing vast amount of qualitative and quantitative data available to them and making strategic decision based on the patterns it reveals. They are less comfortable with or prepared for insights that challenge their beliefs that are gathered from empathic immersion. It is important to position the empathic immersion experience, for what it is- a journey of curiosity undertaken with an open mind and willingness to be challenged. This journey may wound your egos but will make you more resilient, responsive and creative.
In this workshop we typically provide participants the rules and tools of conduct in an unfamiliar culture. We prepare them to sense the environment we will be visiting and establish a protocol for capturing observations, synthesizing insights and building frameworks for understanding.
From conducting observations and dialogues in close to 50 countries over the past more than 25 years I have learned that empathic immersion is a liberating experience. It liberates us (the observers) from our biases in a delightful manner. Making it a regular practice nurtures a sense of curiosity for the reality of the people who’s are not like us. It helps us understand fresh perspectives and brings humility and respect for diversity of the world cultures. In fact I have found that the biggest realization my clients have had through empathic immersion is how privileged and yet dissatisfied we are and how little it takes for people who live with meagre resources to be satisfied. It takes a lot of resources to feed people’s greed but relatively it takes a lot less effort and resources to bring satisfaction to everyday people around the world. Empathy for their reality and imagination helps us understand how to satisfy foundational needs rather than how to make people crave for more.
Every culture has its customs and we normally take a local cultural interpreter to interpret both the language and the culture.
Every day in the field begins with reflections on the previous days’s observations and capturing of key insights. A week of immersion provides enough insights that challenge our established perspectives and frameworks.
At the end of the week we do an in-field synthesis workshop where we collectively process all the insights to arrive at top of the mind patterns in what we are learning.
Empathic immersion, when effectively managed, can affect organizational cognition and help key stakeholders working in different silos develop a shared sense of purpose.
A rigorous organizing of insights collected from the fieldwork is undertaken at our end in preparation of a more involved workshop with a broader team in our client company. A room full of visual display of insights, patterns and frameworks is created to help those who did not go into the field a vicarious experience and a visceral memory of what the team in the field experienced. Edited video is very effective for this purpose. Collectively we discuss implications for the organization in the wake of the learnings from the experience. We make a plan for socializing the insights with a broader community of stakeholders.
A dialogue creates ripple effect
A critical part of our process is- dialogue. At every stage of a typical project we encourage our clients to participate in a series of moderated dialogues. The importance of a dialogue is that those participating in it feel heard and at the same time open their minds to new insights and Provocations generated from the synthesis. An ongoing dialogue within an organization helps soften hardened beliefs, breaks stereotypes and allows stakeholders to listen to each other.
Why involve Senior leaders
As one goes higher in an organization the role of intuition and wisdom becomes critical. Most breakthrough innovations that have enabled organizations leapfrog into the future are driven by intuition, wisdom, creative thinking and the ability of the leadership in taking calculated risks.
About fifteen years ago we were accompanying a group of senior executives of a global corporation on an international deep dive. One of the executives was a CFO. He accompanied us to Milan and Austin , Texas. He came prepared with a set of question for our team. The questions were primarily about “how much premium would customers pay for any innovative features that emerged from the project”. I did not ask those questions because the idea was not to prejudge their ability to spend, but to understand people’s living conditions, constraints and aspirations. At the end of our Austin fieldwork, I asked the CFO if he was upset that I did not ask any of his questions. His response was, “I am glad you did not ask those questions. I learned a lot about our customers this week. I also realized I was asking wrong questions. I have developed a new found appreciation for our customers now. Those questions can wait. The next time I am thinking about a new feature I will remember specific individuals we met during this fieldwork and their powerful stories.”
The point is- just like the transformation the CFO had, senior leaders in an organization need to be able to visualize, emote, and viscerally participate in the imagined scenarios of the future within the context of real people’s real experiences.
Key takeaways from this article are:
- Senior leaders rely on their instincts and wisdom as much as data in making critical decisions.
- To support decision that will ultimately resonate with people in the real world leaders need to be able to cultivate instincts through empathic immersion in the life and imagination of real people.
- Engaging your customers as co-creators of value will involve immersion, observation, dialogue and synthesis.
The future is emerging regardless of whether you are prepared for it. Empathic immersion as a regular practice will help your organization and leadership sharpen your instincts to respond quickly to the changes and to conserve investment in value creation.