Feedback Loops, Empathy and the Importance of Outrospection

What do you really know about the people you work with, work for, or serve? 

Empathy is the long-discussed concept of understanding another person. But what happens when we consider not just individual, but collective empathy? 

In his dense and vibrant talk, Roman Krznaric discusses the importance of developing empathy at the level of organizations. For years, navel-gazing introspection has run its course, he asserts, but now it is time for outrospection. As coaches and facilitators, we can't quite agree with his dismissal of introspection (though navel-gazing is no one's wish) but we couldn't agree more with the need for 'outrospection'—listening to your communities. 

Creating Feedback Loops

As the world shifts towards more-networked organizations, the creation of feedback loops is more important than ever. An organization's capacity for empathy determines whether or not its products and services will actually serve the people it is trying to earn money from, and its awareness of what motivates its competitors, regulators and even its own staff will determine its ability to form important strategic alliances, form public-private partnerships and retain its workforce. 

It's changing to know where to start sometimes, though, as organizational empathy is abstract. Do you send just a product development team to listen to customers? How do you get executives to understand the challenge of a front-line employee, or a customer who might have a household income 50%—or 5%—of their own?

Where Feedback Loops Show Up in an Organization

Empathy in an organization shows up in a number of different ways, not all of which we could possibly list here. However, you can begin to frame feedback loops as enablers of empathy. There are a couple of characteristics to consider, just to get started: 

  • Formal vs. Informal
  • Quantitative vs. Qualitative (numbers vs. stories, for example) 
  • Individual vs. Collective
  • Live vs. Time-Delayed (and other time-based variations)…

Tangibly, feedback loops can be in all kinds of places, like:

  • Social media 'listening posts' (check out The Social Media Handbook for more information on creating listening posts in corporate contexts)
  • Exit interviews for staff and clients
  • Surveys and other traditional methods of market research
  • 'Idea boxes' and their bigger siblings, innovation challenges
  • Competitors' strategy

Deep, meaningful innovation requires empathy. If you recall the challenges of working with DOS in comparison to the Macintosh computers of the same era, it's clear that Apple's innovations were more in the realm of understanding their users than in the newest, flashiest or fastest specification, while clearly the organizations producing command-line systems had no real understanding of the needs of non-technical users. Apple's subsequent move to the powerful Unix-underpinned OS X, with its command-line tools and other 'power user' features was another example, wherein they were able to better wed the needs of both visual, metaphor-based users who enjoyed a window-based desktop experience with the automation and scalability demanded by developers.

Narrative is a critical form of empathy. The telling of a story allows for a human element which motivates action at the individual decision-making level, while allowing groups of people to 'sync up' their understanding or questions about a particular situation. Good narrative asks as many or more questions than it answers, and can serve to inform more qualitative research and prompt the right inquiries for quantitative research.

So, before you start offering more 'answers' to your ecosystems, consider asking what questions you need to ask them, what stories they have to share, and how to start thinking—and feeling—outside of yourself.