Big Think Interview With Dev Patnaik
Dev Patnaik is founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a growth strategy firm. He is also the co-author of "Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy" (written with Peter Mortensen). Patnaik is a designer and strategic planner with experience in engineering, art design and business theory. He has worked with Fortune 500 firms and fledgling startups in the U.S., Asia, Europe and Australia. An assistant faculty member at Stanford University, Patnaik teaches design research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. He also speaks frequently at leading industry forums on product development, marketing and innovation.
Question: What is workplace empathy?
Dev Patnaik: Every single one of us understands what empathy is on a personal level, and that’s because we are blessed with the ability to connect with other people, right? We’re born with this biological power to connect with other folks, to step outside of ourselves and walk in someone else’s shoes, to intuitively get where the person is coming from and get their feelings and their point of view.
For an organization, having a widespread sense of empathy is to get every single person in that organization to have an intuitive sense of the people beyond their walls, for the folks who buy our products and services and who ultimately fund our 401(k), the people who actually have mistaken our success. And so we can get, not just the people in market research or marketing, but the people in R&D and finance and HR and IT and legal, everybody in the company to have that kind of gut sense intuition for ordinary people. What we find is that companies do better as a result.
The real power of empathy--and that’s something that surprised us when we started looking at the topic--was, yes empathy will allow you to know things in your gut before the rest of us read about that in the “Wall Street Journal,” and yes it will give you the courage of your convictions to act on something and take a risk on something new. But, the big surprise for us was how much that sense of empathy for the world around you gives people something that companies struggle with, which is to give their folks a sense of mission, to give the people a reason to come into work every day.
And we’ve seen this over and over again that when you connect with the outside world, you someday realize that, wow, there’s all these people out there who were counting on me to do the right thing, right? And so, you start to see your business in a completely different way.
Target is a great example of this for over the last ten years they have stopped competing with Wal-Mart to shave half a cent off the cost of a bottle of detergent. They are actually creating a community and they are creating a place where people love to go hang out. We’ve seen moms who leave their kids at home with their husbands and have a girl’s night out on a Friday night and they go shop at Target together. We’ve seen dads on a Saturday afternoon who are with their kids, and they don’t know where to take them, and there isn’t a park nearby, so they go hang out in Target.
Topic: Empathy and the financial downturn.
Dev Patnaik: In many ways, the big reset that we’re going through is like a back to the future. It’s going back to the way that companies used to do business. There was a time when people bought things that they needed from companies that made things that had value. And what happened is we let go of that as things have gotten more and more abstract. The financial service industry is foster child for this.
But I’m seeing a fundamental change, and it’s getting back to saying, we need a gut-level intuition and an empathy for people. So we can actually solve their problems because that’s worth paying for.
I’ll give you one example which is not in the book [“Wired to Care”]. I get called to talk about innovation in companies and I often say, “Okay, well that’s great. I want to come and talk about empathy.” And they’re often a little bit leery because it was like, “Hold on, that empathy stuff sounds very touchy feely. We’re IBM or we’re GE. We don’t talk about that. We want to talk about innovation.”
That’s great. And so I have to spend half an hour on the phone convincing them. “No, this is important. Empathy is the key to innovation.”
And I remember I was giving a talk at GE to 300 marketing managers, and we were talking about why empathy matters and how it’s actually the way that you can drive growth.
At the end of the conversation, as I was leaving the building, two guys came up to me and each if them had worked at GE for over 30 years, and so these are people who had worked at GE their entire adult life, and they told me, “You know what, you’re absolutely right. Empathy is what we need around here. We need that gut sense. We need to get back to that. You know what, that’s how we used to do business before Jack Welch, and we’ve just been pushing the money around ever since.”
So, it gives more hope for GE because it tells me there’s something deeper in the DNA there than just following a stock price. But it also tells me that maybe we’ve gotten away from that in the last few years, that we are doing things that are good for the bottom line today, this week, rather than what’s good for the company and its shareholders and its customers over the long term.
Question: What can companies learn from the Obama administration?
Dev Patnaik: When I wrote the book [“Wired to Care”], I was primarily focused on the business situation because I was looking at how companies can grow and prosper. And it seemed that empathy was the biggest differentiator. But what I’ve been most surprised about is how much empathy has become a larger trend, something that is being focused on at the highest levels of government even.
Barack Obama has become our chief empathy officer for the country. It’s just been amazing to see. When he was at the Saddleback Ranch last year and Rick Warren asked him, “Why do you want to be president?” The number one reason he gave was because his grandmother had taught him the value of empathy and he felt that that needed to be brought back to government and to America.
And when he was asked to choose a Supreme Court nominee, Obama said that he was looking for someone who first and foremost had a sense of empathy--and this is a big deal.
People flipped out on both sides of the aisle. What does he mean by empathy? Is empathy a good thing? Is it a bad thing?
You hear people on the right saying that, “Oh, by empathy he means we want someone who’s a push over.” And, that’s the sign of what’s wrong with this country. It seems like empathy has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years in America. We’ve confused it with being touchy, feely or soft minded.
What it really means is just the intuitive ability to connect with other people, and Barack gets that. I think he’s leading us to a different place.
It’s a sign of Obama’s ability to connect with people that we don’t call him President Obama. We call him Barack. The people I know refer to him by his first name like he’s one of us.
Question: How do businesses create new markets?
Dev Patnaik: Creating new markets comes from seeing the world through new eyes. It’s about having a fundamentally different perspective on the way the world works.
We are often looking for a reframe at Jump [Associates]. We’re looking for a fundamental shift in perspective that makes you think, “Wow! I thought the world work this way, and it actually works this way.” It’s a completely different change.
In “Wired to Care” I write about one of my students and those kinds of reframes, and they’re incredibly powerful when you get a reframe. It’s like taking that pill in the movie “The Matrix”--and you thought the world was one thing, and then suddenly the world is all numbers and you can’t go back to the view that you had before.
I had a student a couple of years ago and we’d asked him to go out and study what cleaning looks like. So we had 50 of America’s best and brightest. These are all Stanford students and they are studying how do old people clean, and how do young people clean, and then how did Latinos clean, and in the final presentation--they were doing a presentation to Clorox because they were our corporate sponsor--and a guy was up there and he was presenting how young people clean, what the world of an eighteen-year-old looks like, which is not a pretty picture when it comes to cleaning and he’s presenting his story.
They are showing video and this vice president from Clorox cuts him off right at the middle and says, “Wait a minute. It sounds like you’re telling me that people your age don’t care about cleaning nearly as much as people my age and we should forget about you.”
And this guy says, “No. It’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that people have come to view the world through some basic frames based on whatever they have experienced in their life, and there are some people who for whatever they experience earlier on, view all of the world around them is being made up of durable goods, that the stuff around you will last, the table, the chair. You take care of it. You keep it looking like new because it will be with you for a long time. And there’s other people who view all these same things as disposable goods. So, if you get a scratch in the table, it’s no big deal, you throw it out and you get a new table, right? So, there are people with a durable good mentality and people with the disposable good mentality.”
And people who are the age of this vice president tend to view the world as being made up of durable things, things that last. And people who are seventeen or eighteen years old tend to view the world as being made up of disposable things because they are on their third personal computer by the time they’re eighteen. They are on their fifth cell phone. And they say things to their parents like, “Mom, can we get a new car? This one has a rattle in it.” That’s how they view the world.
And then, this student of mine looked at the VP and said, “Here’s a real clincher. Everything that Clorox makes, everything that you produce speaks to the world as if it was durable. It says keep looking as new. Keep looking like the day you bought it and you have an entire generation of people coming up who think well, why would we do that? Why wouldn’t I just throw it out and get a new one?”
And this is a fundamental problem. It’s also a fundamental reframe for this vice president. If you think about it, she walked into the room thinking that her business was about having an ice lemon scent and killing bacteria and maybe cutting cleaning time in half. And here are some guys who, after studying the worlds of that’s all great, but it is totally irrelevant to an entire group of people because they see the world in a different way.
Topic: The biggest myth in corporate America.
Dev Patnaik: We buy things for widely different reasons. We buy things because they satisfy basic needs like hunger, right, or thirst. We buy products because they make us feel good. They meet our needs of identity or needs of belonging.
On some level though, we buy everything because it meets some needs that we have and I think companies have gotten shy about the reasons why people buy their products.
The biggest myth I have heard in corporate America is the myth of the low-interest category. You’ll go into company that makes widgets and nails and say, “Those are relatively low interest category.” It’s something that people are not that interested of and so well, our biggest, or only choice is just slice it down and make it as cheaply as possible. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think there is any such thing as a low-interest category.
Every time we go in and we study cleaning products, we may find out that it’s really about a mom caring for her children. And we study soft drinks and we realized there’s much more about feeling like you have a sense of identity and a belonging with a group of people. We study engineering thermoplastics, and we discover that it’s really about chemical engineers who use those thermoplastics feeling like they’re competent in their job.
There’s always a human being and a high interest factor associated with it. I’ve told more than one CEO that the first thing he needed to do was to walk around his company and ask people, “Do you think we have a low interest product? Okay, you’re fired.” Get rid of people who don’t believe that the stuff they make can change the world because it is changing the world whether they are noticing it or not.
Question: Who was your worst boss?
Dev Patnaik: If I ever had a really bad boss, the only person I can point to is myself. I have been a lousy boss for myself just because I find out that I am spending a lot of time focusing on the business and I’m probably not spending enough time giving myself guidance and making sure that I’m continuing to learn and grow, which is what I think every boss needs to do.
That’s really the definition of a great boss at the end of the day, right? It’s somebody who can spend time with you and figure out who you are and what’s going on with you and what you’re really great at, and helping to unlock that so you could become really amazing, right? And then figuring out what you’re lousy at and shielding you from all of that so you can be at your peak potential.
The bosses who figure that out become more than just bosses. They start to become leaders. They start to become folks that we look to for guidance and direction in our life.
Question: What was your biggest business mistake?
Dev Patnaik: When I was working in India I worked on a project there famously called Project Athena and was all about coming out with a handheld devices like a handheld meter--and it was just terrible.
It was supposed to take 6 months and it took the better part of three and a half years to make.
It was supposed to be waterproof. I don’t think we ever got the thing to be truly waterproof.
It was supposed to sell tens of thousands. I think we sold five.
And it taught me everything I know about innovation and strategy today because every mistake that I made then has somewhat played out as a big lesson today in terms of this was the product that didn’t play to the strengths of the organization. This was not the right product to be made. This was something that, if I had to go back and do it all over again, if someone asks me “How would you that differently?” I’d say, “It’s easy. I wouldn’t do it. I’d kill that product right away.”
It was exactly the wrong thing to make and I think that’s what people are starting to realize, is coming up with new things is really hard, but figuring out what you are to come up with is even harder.
Topic: Innovation in business.
Dev Patnaik: You need to find a model of innovation that works for who you are as a company and what makes you great. Both Procter and Gamble and IBM realize that what they’re really good at doing is getting ideas and rolling them out. They’re not even really as good with coming out with the idea to begin with. They’re okay at that, but they’re really great at rolling those ideas out. So when they come up with the idea of open innovation, they’ve come up with the way to say, “Okay, we’ll get the idea from anywhere. It doesn’t matter where we got it from, but let’s make sure we grab those ideas and roll them out.”
They’re doing something that will play to their strengths. That doesn’t necessarily mean it plays to the strengths of their competitors. And so when their competitors start to say, “Well, we need open innovation approach too, right?” They’re actually setting themselves up for failure because they are now trying to do something that plays to their competitors’ strengths, right?
So, the key thing isn’t about doing open innovation or closed innovation or internal innovation. It’s about playing to your strengths, doing the things that you already do great and doing more of it and less of the stuff that you do poorly.
Topic: What is your favorite website?
Dev Patnaik: Wikipedia is great because, number one, it’s the argument solver. How often have you been at a party and say, “Oh no! It’s true. You know, life cereal, if you pop rocks on it and eat it, your stomach will explode”? I said, “Well, let’s go and actually look that up, and what the story is about, or what is the history of wine, or why is a city named as it is? I find that I am often posing those random questions to myself. Or I will be walking down the street and I’ll say, “Why is the street called what it’s called?” And I can look it up in Wikipedia and I can find out and someone has actually written about it.
It is a testament to the broad and very human interest that’s out there because the fact that there’s articles on everything means that there is, somewhere out there in the world, at least one person who is as interested in that topic, as I am, even more so that they would write that article. And I think that’s fascinating. It’s a testament to the roving curiosity of the human species.
Question: What big ideas have you had recently?
Dev Patnaik: I had three big ideas in one year and one of which I’m patenting right now. I’ll share with you the one that is in the process of being patented.
The big idea number one was that empathy was actually the source of innovation.
Big idea number two was about actually coming up with an innovation dashboard that actually helps companies play to their strengths by focusing on what they did well and not on stuff that they didn’t do well.
Big idea number three, was the pug dog. The pug dog was, I looked at the world and I thought there is no really great way to entertain my daughter and there is-- You can make a dog like this but that doesn’t really look like a dog. I think you make a dog that looks like this but that’s two-dimensional and yoyo has only one ear and I looked around and there’s no great ways to make a hand sign which looks like a dog so I came up with one and that’s what I call pug dog. And the way you got a pug dog is you make a fist, right, and then you lift up two sides like the ears and you drop down the tug and that’s the pug dog. Patent pending.
A conversation with Jump Associates CEO and author of "Wired to Care."
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