Do You Have an Empathetic Strategy?

A little empathy can help your strategy.


I’ve kept this one in the queue for quite a while.  Sometimes things just get stuck there.

In an early 2015 insight by McKinsey, Catherine Courage, SVP of Customer Experience at Citrix Systems, landed this outstanding strategic punch while talking about “design thinking” with an interviewer:

“Design thinking is an ideal framework for us to use because it focuses on developing deep empathy for customers and creating solutions that will match their needs—as opposed to just dreaming up and delivering technology for technology’s sake.”

Design thinking has been, for me, one of those near cringe-worthy topics because of the essential nothingness of the term.  As a matter of fact, a large proportion of the interview in the link above is dedicated to merely defining “design thinking.” And, while I still think “design thinking ” is better suited to a marquee than to a management process, I think Ms. Courage nails it with her comment on empathy.

We would do well to extend her comment on empathy to our company strategies as a whole.  If design thinking is the focusing of product design and development on the experience of the customer, then strategic thinking shouldn’t stray far from a focus of resources on meeting the needs of customers.

Call it strategic empathy.

I’ll be the first to tell you that strategy is all-too-often devised for internal purposes and not for attainment of external goals.  Strategy, in the wrong management team’s hands, becomes just another process.  It becomes a set of steps to complete so that a capital request can be approved or a new project can be started.  It loses customer empathy very early on.

Similar to unenlightened product design efforts that never really touch the customer, unenlightened strategic plans ignore the market and customers as well.  The worst offenders wrap their strategy around a financial model.  As a huge believer in the financial model as a foundation of strategy, I can also say that a financial model is necessary but insufficient for defining a company’s strategic plan.

That requires listening to the market.

That requires empathy.

That requires patience.

Take the time to understand what it is your capabilities can deliver to your customers, then set direction.  You might find that a little bit of design thinking–applied empathy, just as Ms. Courage from Citrix describes–can help your strategy.

What do you think? 


Tversky, Trump, and Unintended Consequences

Bad things can happen when people see no upside.

The 2016 election has produced a president-elect who is…unorthodox.

Donald Trump’s election, however, is quite possibly the result of one of the most important quirks to human decision making ever discovered.  Namely, that people are risk seeking when faced with certain losses.

That’s right–when our back is to the wall, we tend to roll the dice.

In a series of experiments years ago, the late, famous psychologist Amos Tversky and his collaborator Danny Kahneman delineated Prospect Theory.  Among the key outputs of Prospect Theory was the notion that people are protective of gains…we like sure gains over gambles even if the gambles are expected to pay off more than the sure thing.

But, we are very willing to speculate when it comes to sure losses.  We will take the prospect of a gamble that results in a big loss or no loss at all over a certain smaller loss. Back us to the wall, and we roll the dice.

It’s arguable that such a psychological phenomenon drove the election of Donald Trump, who represents tremendous uncertainty when it comes to things that matter (like policy…I’m not talking about his tendency to Tweet). Things may just work out great, but we don’t know yet.

A large enough proportion of the electorate was backed into a position where voting for Trump’s opponent was a sure loss–a vote for a status quo that wasn’t really working for them.  Instead, they had the option to roll the dice on an option that might just break even.  So, they did…in droves.

You could argue–and Monday morning quarterbacks of the election have done so–that by disregarding wide swaths of the electorate who saw only continued decline coming with a vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat party backed those people against the wall.

Kahneman and Tversky showed us that if we put people in a lose or gamble situation, they will gamble. They will gamble even if the loss is only modest (in this case, simply the status quo of steady opportunity erosion).

So, what’s the insight for you as a leader?

From an organizational perspective, let’s say you are an executive or a board member who wants to “send a message” to an organization.  Maybe that message looks like a substantially more challenging compensation structure–you raise target performance by 50 percent, cutting likely compensation for executives by 25% in the process.

What you’ve done is sent a message to them that says “you are going to lose compensation this year.”  Remember that when faced with a sure loss, people are much more likely to roll the dice and move on. Expect lots of people, especially good ones with other prospects, to check out.

From a strategic business perspective, the same can happen.  If your strategy is to drive your competition to the brink, then you must know that competitors will roll the dice when at the brink.  Good conduct consists of avoiding backing the competition into the wall unless you know the endgame.

It might feel good to back them to the wall; but be ready for their gamble if you do.

What do you think? 

Dear Younger Me

10 pieces of advice I would give to my twenty-something self


After recently depositing my youngest at college, it got me thinking about myself back then. I was painfully shy, insecure and still trying to find my identity. The same was true when I entered the work place and, in spite of apparently performing well, I was riddled with anxiety. Over the years, I eventually found my footing but I can’t help wondering how many years I shaved off my life with needless worry. If only I knew then what I know now.
So, if like the Little Debbie ad, I could back and talk to my younger self, here are the 10 pieces of advice I would give…
1. A problem shared is a problem halved – Don’t shoulder the burden yourself, especially if the issue is out of your control. Talk to your manager, but come armed with some potential solutions too.

2. Conflict now is better than a tsunami later – Addressing the issue may seem daunting, but not addressing it will probably come back and bite you in the butt at some point. And if nothing else, you will sleep better afterward.

3. Check once, check twice, check thrice –  Adopt the discipline of checking documents first for comprehension, second for logic/flow and third for typos/grammar.

4. Feedback is a gift –  It may not feel like it, but feedback is important in helping you to grow. Ask for it, receive it and provide it.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others – We are all different and you were hired for your unique skills. By all means, observe others and adopt what you like, but obsessive comparisons drive feelings of inadequacy.

6. Silence can be golden – Listen to what is being said and process it instead of worrying about not speaking. That way, you will learn and be able to contribute to the discussion.

7. Don’t assume everyone knows what they are talking about – Confidence does not always equate with competence. If something smells wrong, trust your instinct and push back.

8. No pain, no gain – Push yourself to stretch beyond your comfort zone. That’s how you grow. Except when it comes to roller blading in your forties. Don’t do that. There will be much pain.

9. Seek out mentors –  They have made mistakes that you have yet to make. Actively foster relationships with people you admire. They will become lifelong friends.

10. Don’t worry, be happy –  Worrying never solved a problem. One day, someone will tell you to write down your worries on a piece of paper and put them in a box. After a month, you will open the box and find that most of them have miraculously disappeared.

This will change your life…

What about you. What would you tell your younger self?