Is it possible to more holistically innovate, by leveraging and actioning the perspectives of others, without getting lost in a sea of input?

Michael Ventura is the founder and CEO of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design practice that helps big organizations tackle existing challenges so they can go back into the world doing what they do, even better than before.

In fact his first book, Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, offers up the agency’s operating methodology and gives shape to how empathy can be used as a very effective framework for problem-solving.

Michael will further share learnings and practices from his work at Innov8rs New York on August 1st.

Leading up to this, we’re sharing several lessons one can take from Michael’s background and experience; an unlikely but complementary blend of alternative healing practices and entrepreneurship centered around this empathic approach.

People, Processes, and Principles: A Myriad of Perspectives

We now know that the central elements of a culture of innovation are people, processes, and principles.

Ventura champions that empathy sits at the core of finding the right solution to organizational problems. Now more than ever, brands need to step into the shoes of their customers and consider how their organization is positioned within today’s deeply diverse culture.

When problem-solving, question whether innovation is happening in a vacuum. Are you pulling in subject matter experts, research from the outside world, contextual cues, and customer insights to inform your strategy?

Organizations excelling at innovation know they must widely gather insights and inputs, but must also anchor whatever they cull within focused goals and actionable metrics in order to stay focused and on task. Striking this balance can be one of the most challenging elements.

Get Started by Embracing Your Corporate Gut

What can alternative healing practices tell us about Applied Empathy?

Ventura reminds us that our minds try to make sense of everything, but some things simply don’t make sense: they just are.

Rationalization and logic are of course fundamental to leadership. That said, we often try to over-rationalize; viewing our own biases as fact, while forgetting an invisible, softer force that is just as important – intuition.

How many times have you ignored the pit in your stomach and forged ahead anyway? When serendipity presents you with a choice, it’s time to really listen to your gut, your intuition. What is it telling you?

If you give leaders the right information, the right confidence, the right plan, and the right support, they can tune into that intuitive guidance and ultimately will course-correct their businesses, time and again.

Making Empathy More Tangible

Empathy can be a conduit in getting people to embrace their corporate intuition. It can also act as a safeguard against internal bias or risk aversion.

Imagine someone is giving a presentation wherein they lay out three options for a decision maker. If the options aren’t couched within a broader context, it’s more likely the selected solution will prove short-sighted. Alternatively a broader context and varied perspective will lead to a more enlightened and lively conversation.

That’s the true value of empathy: the act of stepping out of your own shoes and seeing the world from someone else’s.

This isn’t always natural or comfortable, but its value is immense. It’s also a skill that is strengthened over time, so don’t be discouraged if the volume on your internal monologue is initially harder to turn down.

Moving Into an Empathic Mindset

Using empathy in order to better connect with colleagues, consumers, and yourself sounds great. It clearly is also a compelling solutions framework, but how does one make the leap?

Applied Empathy is a design thinking framework grounded in deep understanding. It requires stepping back and considering a full range of perspectives.

‘That is the leg of a stool, but not the entire stool – so we look at our design thinking approach more eco-systemically,’ Ventura explains an interview with the podcast the Impossible Network.

So who else should be considered within this framework? Typically:

  • The organization itself (what makes people within said organization tick? What are their divergent or overlapping interests and values?)
  • The consumer: who else outside of your most active and easily identified base is using your services/goods, etc? Who else is part of the ecosystem of your business — eg: media, shareholders, potential employees? What do they all want?
  • The context: what’s happening in the world outside of your work, which could impact how people receive it? Consider trends, current events, paradigm shifts, etc.

Leading With Empathy

What keeps leaders up at night? In the aforementioned Impossible Network interview, Ventura recalls a conversation he had with the CEO of a leading furniture brand. This CEO was hyper-focused on IKEA’s positioning within the space and was trying to build a reactionary growth strategy. Ventura encouraged him to step into the consumer’s perspective as a useful way to reconsider the competitive landscape.

This shift in mindset, he assured, could help move the company away from a reactionary growth strategy and instead allow them to address the considerations of the modern furniture consumer.

“When a young couple gets their first apartment together, they don’t have a couch budget, they just have a budget.

They’re not thinking “which couch shall I get for my budget?” They’re thinking “shall we get a new couch, or use this old couch and get a Sonos system instead?” or “Now we’ve got this nice kitchen maybe we’ll get a mail subscription for cooking; Blue Apron or Hello Fresh” depending on where you are.’

It is no longer a couch-vs-couch game.

As such, it’s no longer a question of how to compete with IKEA specifically, but how to become a brand that appears, from the consumer POV, worth spending on within the broader home creation ecosystem.

Balancing Deeper Understanding with a Sharper Focus

Of course, trying to absorb and apply every single piece of information from every available source won’t result in a clear and innovative plan of action. Instead, it’s about stepping back and honing in on the most essential themes from this variety of perspectives to pursue.

This requires a redefinition of how we view empathy in relation to business practices; not as a gesture of sympathy, ‘being nice,’ or pandering to people’s every need, but as a way to use deeper understanding as a competitive differentiator.

The way we find this balance is through a structured application and ultimately, practice.


To learn more about Michael Ventura’s Applied Empathy methodology and how you can integrate it into your corporate innovation activities, join him and others at Innov8rs New York on August 1st.