empathy in strategy

Episode 84: Beyond Understanding – The Importance Of Empathy In Strategy

Bill Clinton once famously said ‘I feel your pain’. Not ‘I understand‘ or ‘I see‘, but ‘I feel‘.

Empathy. It’s the difference between being an observer and an active participant. And in our data first world, it is often overlooked. But without empathy, we can’t execute on our vision. Without empathy we can’t lead. Without empathy our campaigns won’t work. Without empathy, we can’t be strategists.

Empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is feeling from their frame of reference. In other words, it is the ability to put yourself into their shoes. Empathy often gets mixed up with its close cousins, sympathy and compassion, but it is distinct. As opposed to those two, empathy is about imagining yourself as the other person and understanding the motivations and drivers of their emotions and decisions. While our ability to feel empathy is innate to us as individuals to greater or lesser degrees, it can also be taught.

Empathy is of fundamental importance to the work of the strategist for two reasons; our ability to get things done, and our ability to design strategies that work. We’ve touched on this subject previously in discussing the need for the Human Element in Digital Strategy, but it is important enough to expand upon.

What is the role of empathy in getting things done? We know that as strategists we depend on a broad team of subject matter experts and specialists to implement our vision. Without this need for a variety of skill sets, it wouldn’t be a strategy. But the technical complexity of the strategy is matched and intensified by the human complexity of the diverse team. Developers and media specialists, analysts and creatives. Each one brings personal biases and strong opinions founded on diverse experiences. These are not to be stifled; after all, they enrich and inform the strategy. But if not properly managed they can lead to chaos, acrimony and paralysis. The only way to properly manage such diversity of opinion, personality and communication styles is through empathy. Empathy allows you to look at the vision or the challenge from their perspectives, to understand their motivations and emotions, and in so doing to help them arrive at the conclusion you want. Empathy helps you connect with them on an emotional level and persuade them to deliver against your vision. Empathy gives you a mechanism to rally the team without having to bully or bribe. Without empathy you can’t sustainably deliver against your strategy with a consistent team over an extended period of time.

Empathy is also critical in designing winning strategies because it forces you to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. In our digital world, this is often overlooked to disastrous effect. For an example, look no further than the consequences of programmatic media buying. The promise of programmatic platforms was that brands and agencies could execute media campaigns at a very low cost and through the use of technology. They certainly delivered on this promise, but with an unexpected consequence. In the rush to automate and make efficient, the brands forgot about a fundamental function of advertising, namely to emotionally connect and persuade. The quality of the creative was often overlooked, leading to mediocre content and poor targeting. This in turn led to a mass movement towards ad blocking technology by the audience, which in turn only hurt the advertisers and publishers. What was missing in all this was the need for empathy. What was forgotten is that our audience are people, that they are more than their eyeballs, that they have feelings and emotions. We treated them with contempt, as ‘users’ and ‘consumers’. Empathy forces us to think of our audiences as people and to consider their full experience with our brands, in turn forcing us as advertisers to increase the quality of our work. By all means automate and find efficiencies, but do so with empathy for your audience.

Empathy forces us to look at the world through the eyes of the other. It adds complexity to situations and places an extra responsibility on us. But a truly empathetic strategist is also a great strategist.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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