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The power of empathy in delivering digital programs

May 23, 2019


Rohit Garewal

In a large digital program, where there are over 100 people and/or more than 5 operational silos, there is a secret weapon that can be the deciding factor between success and failure: Empathy.

Poor communication, specifically between silos and teams, is the largest cause of failure for large digital programs. Lack of effective communication is caused in part by poor process and in part from the inability for teams to come together to solve problems. The distinction here is important because even if the processes for teams to work together are defined if the teams don’t work well together the process is not effective.

Enter Empathy.

Webster has a lengthy but accurate definition of Empathy: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

So in the context of a digital transformation program, a person and a groups ability to empathize with another person and another group is often the deciding factor of how people will work together and come together to solve inevitable problems. There are four core pillars to ensuring that a program functions from a place of empathy:

  1. Vulnerability: In order of being aware of what others are feeling and experiencing, a person needs to first be open to sharing what they are feeling and experiencing. This is fundamentally what vulnerability is. Put another way, when a person takes down their walls, others respond by acting in kind.
  2. Trust: In order to create a space of vulnerability, leaders must create a space of trust. In the context of digital programs, this is the trust that all people and silos are part of a common goal and that all opinions and facts shared are for the achieving of that goal, and not for personal gain.
  3. Take ownership: The best way to take ownership of a situation is to not blame. I heard this stated the best last week while listening to speaker James Newton: “In any situation, the person who can define reality without blame will come out as the leader whether designated or not.” Absorb that for a second, and imagine a Risk and Issues weekly call where everyone operated from this principle. Train teams to speak in tones and contexts where situations are clearly articulated and people aren’t blamed but rather called on to come together to create solutions. Side note: there is a difference behind root cause analysis and blaming.  Definitely take the time to understand why something happened so you don’t repeat them, but do it as an academic exercise, not one of blame.
  4. Show then tell: Most importantly, these concepts are better shown than explained, rather explained then shown. These are psychoanalytical concepts, where the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) is being trained that issue resolution is not the equivalent of a bear chasing us in the woods. By definition the amygdala functions at a lower level than our logic center, the pre-frontal cortex, so explaining this won’t have the same impact as repetitive living these ideas.

Finally, while these concepts are written here for the context of large-scale program delivery, it is even appropriate in our everyday lives.  Living vulnerable, trusting, ownership-led lives are cores to being happy and contributing members to society.

About the author: Rohit Garewal is a partner in Object Edge, a Commerce Advisory firm, based out of San Francisco, CA. Rohit is a huge believer in the concept that culture eats strategy for lunch, and that success in digital transformation is rooted in cultural transformation as much as a technological one. Over the past 20 years, Rohit and his firm have been working with Fortune 2000 brands to help deliver both cultural and technological transformations.

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