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MCLEOD: Empathy and innovation: An unexpected pairing that will solve any problem

Question: What do world hunger and bad customer service have in common?

Answer: The secret to solving them both is empathy and innovation.

Empathy and innovation seem like an unlikely pairing, but together, they're the secret to solving just about everything.

Here's why. You have to care about a problem before you're motivated to solve it. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone because his wife was deaf and he wanted to help those who couldn't hear.

Empathy for his wife ignited the innovation.

The challenge is, everyone wants to be innovative; it's powerful. But empathy sounds like some wimpy thing your mother would lecture you about.

Innovation is sexy. Empathy isn't.

Can you imagine a company ad campaign with the slogan "We're the industry leader in empathy?"

Unless they ran a chain of funeral homes, very few would embrace the mantra. But that's a real shame because empathy is a huge competitive advantage.

For example, who do you think demonstrates more empathy for the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and aspirations of their customers: Microsoft or Apple?

Empathy is about putting your own perspective on pause so that you can experience how the world looks through the eyes of another.

Empathy is like innovation's dull, overlooked cousin. The one who reminds everyone to show up for Grandma's birthday, but then gets left out of the will because the other cousins gave her flashier presents.

Empathy kick-starts the process, but innovation gets all the credit.

The truth is they're intertwined, and they're both critical to success in work and life.

Michel Koopman, chief executive officer of getAbstract Inc. says, "Empathy and innovation are the two most important qualities that can help us solve many of our economic and political problems."

Koopman, whose company has the largest online library of business book summaries, has been privy to thousands of cutting-edge ideas, yet he believes these two interconnected qualities -- empathy and innovation -- continue to emerge as the two big things.

He says, "Empathy allows us to see the world through the eyes of others and with skill, then express our value in aligned to their needs, while innovation is a function of new ideas, risk-taking and problem-solving to serve that need. This is true at a micro and macro level. The American spirit of entrepreneurialism is rooted in this concept as well."

So how do you kick-start the empathy innovation cycle? Simple: Take a walk in their shoes.

One of our clients was struggling with how to differentiate their products. Instead of sitting in a room brainstorming ideas, we created a process for the executives and sales people to spend a day in the life of a customer. After they experienced the myriad of challenges their customers -- doctors and nurses -- encounter in a single day, they were on fire with ideas to make their lives better.

When the CEOs on "Undercover Boss" experience what life is like for workers in their companies, they make all kinds of innovative changes.

Again, it's the empathy that kick-starts the innovations.

We tend to think of empathy as something that softens us. But that's not true. Empathy empowers us. Because when you see how the world looks to someone else, you don't diminish your own perspective, you expand it.

You can't be innovative if the only perspective you see is your own.

Empathy and innovation -- the magic duo that can solve anything.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders.