“Always start with empathy.” That’s the opening advice that master innovator and IDEO general manager Tom Kelley shared with the THINK 16 audience. It isn’t exceptional intelligence that drives the creative process. It’s not technical skill or artistic genius. If your goal is to generate new ideas that capture the attention of the marketplace, change the dynamics of the workplace, or solve a larger social need, your journey begins with empathy.

Empathy puts human need front and center. Do you want your idea to resonate instantly with consumers? Solve a real human problem. Create an online application that establishes membership and opens accounts in five minutes or less. Give credit-challenged members a three-step process to qualifying for a mortgage.

Are you introducing a new product or process? Ask yourself how you would receive it. Do you understand what it is and why you need it? Does it help you? Is it worth your time and money? At its most elemental level, empathy is the easiest, fastest, cheapest form of road testing.

Gary Vaynerchuk – who parlayed his family’s liquor business into a $65 million online success story and then used the new media skills he developed to create a $100+ million media company, Vaynermedia – says empathy is a key to his surefootedness:

“I think empathy is the greatest trait that I was gifted by my mother, and I use it every day,” he told the THINK 16 audience. “I think it makes me a great salesperson. When I sell wine, or when I sell books or client services, and whenever I try to sell anything for the rest of my life, my goal is always, ‘How do I deploy 51 percent of the value of this transaction to the other party?’ “

Empathy is a skill you can develop – individually and as an organization. While Vaynerchuk may consider empathy a gift, it is also a practice you can build into your work and life. Empathy expert Whitney Hess shared this method for communicating with greater compassion. Try following this four-fold path to collect better data on what others are experiencing – and devise better solutions based on their needs:

  • Make observations: Without judgment, what do you observe? Is your member moving an account after an incident of fraud? On a wider scale, are people unable to log into your mobile banking app 47 percent of the time? What behavior is actually happening?
  • Key in on feelings: How are people feeling? Is your member frustrated after attempting to use a new piece of technology? Are they anxious about some aspect of their financial situation? Can you identify with their feelings?
  • Identify needs: What would make the situation better? Do members need acknowledgement? Support? Information?
  • Propose solutions: Taking the first three steps enables you to proceed with empathy. You are not merely reacting, but rather responding, to an identifiable need. Once you’ve zeroed in on behavior, feelings and needs, you can suggest new strategies that might improve the situation – or solicit solutions from others.

Empathy begins with you. Finally, Hess has a suggestion on where to begin your empathetic journey. Start with yourself. By gaining greater insight into your own behavior, feelings, needs and requests, you’ll have better perspective on others. “When you’re ready to pull your hair out and walk out in the middle of the work day, ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling? What needs do I have that are not being met? What can I do that is a new strategy to meet those needs, because the strategy that I have is not working?’ “ Hess says. “You are each uniquely positioned to bring these practices into your organization by practicing them yourselves.”