Patnaik: Empathy immensely important to innovation


Dev Patnaik speaks in the Amphitheater Tuesday morning. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

It was the late ’90s, and Dev Patnaik was still single. Some people invited him to a little get-together to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their company, an obscure search engine using technology he just didn’t understand. The real reason he went, though, was the free beer.

That company was Google.

He started chatting with Sergey Brin, one of the founders.

“Sergey, give me a break, man,” Patnaik said. “Why are you wasting your time doing this search engine thing? The world does not need another search engine. AltaVista works just fine. You’re wasting your time.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Brin said. “Information is critical. People need information at that moment. It could be a matter of life or death.”

“Blah blah blah, Sergey,” Patnaik said. “The venture capitalists have taught you well. That’s great marketing.”

“I’m transforming lives,” Brin said.

“Sure you are, buddy,” Patnaik said. “I’m just here because the beer’s free.”

“Hey, I saved some guy’s life the other day,” Brin said.

As it turned out, a man’s father had had a heart attack while his computer sat open on the Google website. He had called the paramedics, but his father was passed out on the ground. He searched “CPR,” hit “I’m Feeling Lucky” and followed the instructions on the screen.

The paramedics said he saved his father’s life.

Patnaik said it was early firsthand experiences like this that contributed to Google’s success. Otherwise, he said, it would have ended up as just another search engine.

He was the second lecturer for Week Eight, speaking on the topic of “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.” His speech, “Hybrid Thinking,” focused on empathy as a means to improving business practices.

Patnaik is CEO and founder of Jump Associates, a growth strategy firm. He also is the author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, which analyzes the use of empathy in business growth.

He said humans have three parts in their brains. The reptilian section is the part that developed first; it holds instinct and autonomic bodily functions.

Mammals have another section of the brain: The limbic section gives emotions and empathy. It’s the limbic section that lets your dog know you’re upset when you return home from a bad day at work, Patnaik said.

Finally, humans have the neocortex, which allows reasoning and speech. Since your dog lacks the neocortex, he can’t understand why you’re upset, but he can try to comfort you, because he knows something is wrong.

“Not so with iguanas. Iguanas treat each other like furniture. … And when we looked out into the world,” he said, showing a photo of the Enron building on his slideshow, “we saw more than one species out there of company that we could only describe as corporate iguanas.”

He said these “corporate iguanas” have their employees walk into work, leaving their emotions and morality at the door. Patnaik questioned how a company could serve a market if its members are not thinking like that market.

“(These corporations say), ‘We want to be rational in our decision-making; we want to be fact-based in our decision-making. It’s not personal; it’s just business,’” Patnaik said. “And as a result, we are making decisions with only half our brains.”

Not all companies think this way, Patnaik said. Google, Pixar, Procter & Gamble, Target, Microsoft, Harley-Davidson and Nike were covered individually through the bulk of Patnaik’s speech as companies that have exhibited empathy. Others — like Delta Air Lines, Kraft and Enron — were posed as less empathetic.

In order to inspire widespread empathy, Patnaik said, actions should be simple, firsthand and habitual. If a company takes these actions, it could even give its employees a reason to come into work.

Patnaik said one example of empathy is David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways. Neeleman would fly with the rest of the passengers, thereby experiencing the flight as they would.

Though it was not mentioned in Patnaik’s speech, Neeleman also donated his entire 2002 CEO salary of $290,000 to JetBlue employees.

Another example is that of Microsoft, Patnaik said.

Microsoft had conquered the world of desktop computers at the end of the ’90s, he said. However, the company soon found an unlikely competitor: the Sony PlayStation 2, which essentially could do everything a desktop computer could do. So Microsoft decided it should come up with a video game console of its own.

“The challenge in doing that for a company like Microsoft cannot be understated,” Patnaik said. “Microsoft knows everything about the world of work and the world of the office but knows nothing about the world of play and home and the things we actually want to do.”

Microsoft put a group of people who loved video games in a separate building and told them they could break the rules. They can do whatever they want, as long as they could make a great gaming system they would love to play, Patnaik said.

The Microsoft Xbox was born. It quickly became the first American-made gaming console to reach astounding popularity since the Atari.

So when the Apple iPod grew in popularity, Microsoft believed it could succeed again. Once again, it put people in a separate building. Once again, it told those people they could break the rules.

The Microsoft Zune was born, then it flopped.  Unlike the Xbox, the Zune severely undersold the iPod. Patnaik jokingly asked if anyone in the audience had ever even heard of a Zune.

“How did this happen? How was it that in one case, Microsoft was able to put a group of people together to do something amazing and different like Xbox,” Patnaik said, “and in the other case, the same company … fell flat on its face?”

The answer, Patnaik said, was empathy. While the creators of Xbox were thinking as gamers when they made the Xbox, the same was not true of the Zune. Even the creators admitted their failure.

Microsoft’s story was the perfect case study, Patnaik said.

Essentially, he said, American business must change its ways to remain innovative.

“All of us have this ability to empathize with other people,” he said, “but something strange happens when we get together as large groups or as an institution or as a company or as a college. They tend to forget the people beyond our wallets.”

Q: Best places to work and best places to invest products — is there a link?

A: I think so. I think it’s because creating products is something about what you do, and what you do is invariably the expression of who you are. And I don’t think you can be something completely different from what you produce in the world. It reveals itself in how it shows up in your life. It doesn’t matter if somebody’s a complete jerk and they decide to throw a dinner party for you. It doesn’t matter how expensive the caterer is; his jerkiness will come through. And so if the dinner party is the product, I think that’s true.

Q: This person wants some free advice. Our National Organization for Women group and League of Women Voters group are nearly all older women. How do we appeal to younger women in order to grow? They don’t see the need, according to this; they don’t see the need for us.

A: I would respectfully chide that individually, that you’re asking the wrong question. You’re trying to say, “How do I get other people to care about me?” When you should be asking the question, “What do other people care about?” It’s a little bit like walking into a bar and trying to get a date by going up to somebody and saying, “What’s it going to take for you to go out with me? What do I need to change?” As opposed to, if you want people to care about you, care about them. The best book I’ve ever read on innovation is not Wired to Care. It’s How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I assign that to my students, because it’s such an obvious thing. He says, “If you want people to care about you, genuinely care about other people.” Right? He wrote it back in the ’30s, early in the self-help movement. You don’t have to be particularly non-intuitive; you can be fairly straightforward. If I come up to you at a party, Sherra, and you say, “Dev, how is it going? How are things at Jump? Are you working on any cool new innovations nowadays? How are your kids, Dev?” When you walk away, I’m going to say, “Wow, Sherra’s a really interesting person.” It’s not just because I’m a selfish jerk; it’s because we’re all interested in people who are interested in us. And so I would encourage the National Organization of Women and other women’s organizations to get outside and figure out what’s keeping young women up at night today and speak to that and forget about whether they care about you. That’s not the point.

Q: How does empathy translate culturally? For example, the people in China who are doing manufacturing work?

A: It’s crazy. In fact, I wrote about this in the book a little bit, too. There’s a company in Guangzhou, China, that is now making skis and snowshoes. And the temperature in Guangzhou most parts of the year is similar to Los Angeles. People who are making these snowshoes have never experienced snow. It was fine when these things were made in Vermont, where the company originally was. If you were working on coming up with a snowshoe, you could then go try it out and see what it was like and come back and do something with it and tinker with it. The biggest change that we’ve had in the last 300 years has been the Industrial Revolution. It’s been great in terms of being able to make many, many things for many more people. The challenge with it is that it’s also allowed us to make things for people who are far, far, far away from us but that we have no empathy and no gut sense for. And so everything that we do, whether it’s in my professional work or in teaching students how to actually figure out what people need, these are just kind of Band-Aids to kind of heal that rift. There was a time 300 years ago where the guy who made your shoes lived down the road from you, and he knew you growing up, so you didn’t have to spend a lot of time in his market research focus group to tell him what kind of shoes you wanted. And yet so many of these things that we’re creating nowadays are pulling us apart and separating us, and I’m not sure that sending all of our companies over to China is really helping us.

Q: The next question is about health care and whether or not your insights have anything to improve the health care delivery or shrink health care costs.

A: Absolutely. We’ve been spending a lot of time on health care at Jump in the work that we’re doing nowadays. I think we currently have three health care projects going on, on everything from working with e+CancerCare out of Nashville, which is all about trying to radically transform the experience of what it’s like to have cancer to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital to figure out, “Okay, is there a way to help kids have a better experience as they’re navigating their way through the health care system?” The biggest challenge there is the health care system in America is one of the lowest-empathy categories or industries out there. It really is. I’ve spent time with these folks. So we have to start with very little things. The entire system was built on a 20th-century idea of factorization and professionalization, which was all about professional distance. So what happens is, you have that professional who in many ways, to guard their own emotions, tries to keep a distance from the people that they’re actually serving. But it sets up a very weird dynamic. I’ve done this a couple times where, you know, walk through a hospital without wearing a suit or just wear ordinary street clothes and as a doctor walks by, say “hi” to them. Say “hello.” They look at you, a little startled, you know — “The meat is talking back to me.” Because it’s all supposed to be, “I talk to you for those eight minutes when we’re in the exam room and otherwise, if you see me other than that, it’s not set up for that.” I drive my physician nuts because I keep addressing him by his first name. He hasn’t called me on it yet, but at some point, he will. But I think we have to start by creating some empathy for the folks we’re trying to serve. And we’re not doing that today in health care, and it’s probably the worst situation I’ve seen like that.

Q: Do you have any plans to help our politicians use their empathy to actually learn what is important to the people they serve?

A: I think being in politics is incredibly tough today. I mean, like, look at what our politicians have to do to run for election, to get elected. Who in their right mind would actually put themselves through that? And so the people that you get either so deeply feel the calling to serve or so deeply feel the urge of their own self-aggrandizement that it will propel them through that. Which is not to say that you can’t have both. There are some who love to serve and love to serve themselves as well. I think it starts with actually getting us back to kind of that ordinary vibe, and that is very hard. It’s particularly hard in Washington; it’s true in state capitals as well. And yet there are parts of government, parts of politics, where people do a great job of actually having a real sense of empathy for ordinary people. I was a huge fan of (Stanley McCrystal) — he was running Afghanistan before (David) Petraeus. Fascinating guy. He was in trouble for saying some things that were completely out of turn, and that’s fair. But as a high-empathy leader, if you want to see the empathy of war no one did it better than … McChrystal. … Stanley McChrystal was just an incredibly empathic leader. It showed up in little things. He spent very little time actually in command posts and far more time out in forward operating bases actually with soldiers and actually going out every week and seeing what was happening on the ground. Just fascinating stories of him where he would go out and meet Afghan tribal elders. He wouldn’t wear a flak jacket. He said, “If I’m wearing a flak jacket, that tribal elder is not wearing a flak jacket. So I’m telling him that my life is more important than his. So how are we going to win their hearts and minds?” So I think more than anybody, I’ve seen it over and over again in military leaders nowadays that display a sense of empathy because they have to. In this day and age, you can’t just shoot them and declare victory. We’re actually trying to win them over to our side. And that doesn’t work if you don’t have empathy, and I think our young men in combat learn that very quickly nowadays on the ground. So there are great parts of government that are doing really great things. Can I tell you? I really took issue with yesterday’s speaker. Because I think government has done great things — private industry didn’t build the Hoover Dam; private industry didn’t build the interstate highway system or win World War I or World War II. … I understand he has a professional position, but being the son of a schoolteacher, a public schoolteacher, who lives in Detroit, which is basically about the automotive industry and is now running a consumer electronics organization, these are industries that have been the beneficiaries of government largess like no other organization. We built the interstate highway system to subsidize cars. We built the Internet to subsidize tech companies. And I live in Silicon Valley, so I am surrounded by annoying people who want government out of their business, even though they pick at the low-hanging fruit of government largess every single day when they use the Internet, and it annoys me. It is rude to pick on the guy who spoke yesterday, so I apologize. Very friendly, very nice guy. I’m a low-empathy guy, you see? Talk to my wife. But I think it needs to be said that there are many things government does incredibly well. And sometimes, we only hear about the worst parts and the stupidest things that our politicians say, and we forget all of the good things that happen every day when you get out on the road and you drive down the street and you get to your other destination and you didn’t die. You have something that many of my friends in India did not have. And that’s government.

Q: Dev, we’re a storytelling bunch around here, and someone has asked about the best turnaround story you’ve seen where an executive team has gone from total ignorance to enlightenment.

A: I think the one I’ve been most impressed with is what’s happened with IBM. I worked at IBM in the 1990s in the bad old days, and it was a company that had lost touch with ordinary customers on the ground. It was largely under the leadership of a man named Lou Gerstner that they regained that sense of empathy for the outside world. They did it by actually not trying to go out and do something different than who they were. This is something that’s a fundamental lesson of innovation. We get all sorts of people who come to Jump and say, “Hey, make us more innovative.” They’re on the innovation tour bus. They stop at Apple; they stop at Google; they go to Pixar. At some point, they come to Jump and they say, “Hey, make us more like Apple.” And we say, “That’s not going to work; how about we make you more like yourself?” Any of these large organizations have had good days and bad days over their tenure, and you just want to have more days that are like the good days and less days that are like the bad days. I think the secret to what Mr. Gerstner did at IBM is that he didn’t turn around and say, “We need to make IBM more like Apple.” He made IBM more like IBM. The IBM of 2011 is much more like the IBM of 1971 than it was like the IBM of 1991. It was completely focused on what those folks were doing who actually have a stake in their success, which is corporate IT guys. That’s probably the greatest transformation I’ve seen. And this was from a company that Wall Street analysts — you know, the 23-year-old experts that we pay to tell us how much our stock has devalued — said that what they should have done was broken up the company.

Q: We’ve got a lot of questions about size and style of companies, about whether a company can be too big to be empathetic, whether a person from the bottom can make a change. We’ve got a Delta employee here who wants to know about how — this person actually wants to help.

A: It’s all about this question of transformation. The biggest difference bet3ween companies that are able to transform themselves and those that aren’t have nothing to do with how good they are. It has to do with how bad they want it. The difference in a place like IBM is they were literally at death’s doorstep, so they wanted it really bad. The challenge I have with American companies nowadays is we still don’t want it bad enough. I’ll give you the difference; you work with a large American company for six months or a year, and they say, “We want to learn this innovation methodology that you have at Jump,” and learning it means that they send people out for meetings every month or so — three or five or six meetings over the course of a year, while the project is ongoing. When we work with a Korean company, for example, like Telecom or Samsung, they say, “We want to learn the process,” what that means is shipping out five people to California, enrolling their kids in Korean-American schools in Palo Alto and living at Jump for a year until they can finally understand and learn what that’s all about. Then they take that back. Does Samsung? Are they smarter than the American companies? No, they just want it badder than anybody. And I think we just don’t want it bad enough. That’s what I’m worried about. It’s not about how good you are; it’s about how bad you want it. Zappos is great, because Tony Hsieh — and I, I know Tony — he wants to create a great company. He wants it really bad; like, he can taste it. It’s not just, “Yeah, I would prefer to be a good company; if that turned out, I wouldn’t be bummed.”

– Transcribed by Elora Tocci