10 Things to Learn from Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy

imageIt has been a couple of years since I read Dev Petnaik’s Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, so I was glad to find my notes and highlights from the reading to review. Empathy, in my opinion, is the most critical attribute to have in managing people and developing products. It’s the biggest reason for the success in my professional career thus far, and I use it to constantly reassess how I can improve in both aspects.

I think failing to talk to people, to understand why people have certain experiences or opinions, that willingness to “pound the pavement”, as I once heard a friend say, takes away a tremendous tool in your potential. Empathy allows you to accept that you (no, that guy is not just dumb) are wrong, and improve yourself.

Here are 10 notable quotes to remember from Wired to Care:

1) Based on her work, companies as diverse as Boeing, Merck, and Toyota developed new offerings that grew their businesses and differentiated their products. It turns out that senior citizens aren’t just some niche market—they reflect unarticulated needs that many of us have. When you make doors that are easier for seniors to open, you make life easier for all of us, young and old. Through her work, Pattie Moore has helped to make life a little bit more livable for people in many parts of the world.

2) [Harley Davidson] the company was on the verge of bankruptcy as strong Japanese competitors eroded market share and introduced cheaper, lighter models that undercut all of Harley’s product line. In response, Harley refocused its attention away from itself and onto the people who rode its motorcycles. They energized the Harley Owners Group into an army of evangelists. Harley transformed itself into an icon of American freedom. The widespread empathy that Harley employees had for riders helped them make a thousand better decisions every day.

3) In keeping IBM together, Lou Gerstner defied the advice of Wall Street analysts, competitors, and even some of his own lieutenants. He was able to transcend a barrage of bad information because he possessed contextual knowledge that others lacked: the experience of being an IBM customer. The existence of category specialists like Oracle and Intel wasn’t an argument to break up the company. On the contrary, it was because there were so many specialty players that an integrator was needed. Corporate customers simply didn’t want to get into the business of designing their own multiplatform technology solutions.

4) The challenges facing the makers of Tubbs Snowshoes going forward reflect an important truth of the global economy: It’s much harder to succeed when you create things for people you don’t know and whose lives seem alien to your own. When companies make products for people who live far away from them, they often make silly mistakes in their design and marketing. These mistakes are caused at least in part by linguistic and cultural differences.

5) During their heyday, U.S. automakers created programs that gave their top managers use of their latest vehicles for next to nothing. Senior executives didn’t even have to pump their own gas. At the same time, auto companies created the A Plan, which offered every employee a deep discount any time they decided to buy a new car. Those discounts applied to friends and family of employees, too. Anyone connected to a car company could buy a brand-new American car at prices below wholesale. While this made it great to be a car company employee, it also served to make people at car companies different from the rest of us. Drivers in Detroit switch cars more often and for less money than people anywhere else in the country.

Many of Detroit’s problems stem from the fact that decision makers have little incentive to try out other manufacturers’ cars. They don’t view the market through the eyes of ordinary Americans.

6) The neuroscientists called their discovery “mirror neurons” because they allow us to replicate in our heads what we see other people doing. Remarkably, mirror neurons not only light up when we perform an action, but also when we watch someone else perform an action. If you turn a page in a book, a specific set of mirror neurons lights up. If you watch someone else turn a page, the same set of mirror neurons lights up. And that’s not all. Incredibly, even if someone just describes page-turning to you, a similar set of mirror neurons will light up.

This makes mirror neurons incredibly important for learning. When you watch someone else expertly dribble a basketball, your mirror neurons start to help you learn how to get better at it yourself. On a subconscious level, we learn just by watching. The most incredible power of mirror neurons, however, is their ability to pick up on tacit information about other people. They do more than help you learn; they help you experience other people’s lives.

7) [Empathy in organizational change] Real strategy is the aggregate of thousands of decisions that employees make over time. When you improve those decisions, you improve your strategy.

8) Target corporate headquarters used to be the same way. It wasn’t unusual to see executives wearing the same clothes that they helped put on the shelves. That changed in 2004 when Target created a strict dress code requiring formal business attire. Changing the dress code created two obstacles to empathy. First, Targeteers no longer looked like their customers. Second, and more important, they now had to shop at other stores to buy clothing that was more suitable for work.

9) In its New York offices is a wall covered with hundreds of lost gloves, all hanging in neat rows. The gloves range from fashionable ladies’ gloves to construction workers’ gloves to children’s mittens. Whenever OXO employees find a lost glove on the street, they bring it into the office and hang it on the wall. It serves as a reminder of all the different kinds of people and all the different kinds of hands that OXO products need to fit.

10) They have understanding without empathy. That can result in a lot of really awful solutions. People start making geriatric kitchen devices that they themselves would never think of buying. They shrug and say that this is what the customer wants. They have some understanding of the outside world, but they still view that world as a weird place, populated by people who are not like them.

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