What My Father Taught Me: Empathy Drives Innovation

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Harper Lee

Many years ago my father told me something that stuck. He was, I know now, passing along a piece of wisdom that exists in nearly every culture – whether as a Chinese proverb or a passage in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

He told me to always consider someone else’s perspective. Step into the shoes of the person you are trying to help, he said, or you won’t be able to help them. Do not make judgments until you understand their perspective.

There’s a reason this piece of advice has been with me for so long. It’s an elemental way to understanding and teaching empathy. Without empathy it’s almost certain we won’t be good colleagues or friends, let alone be able to get the collaboration required to solve the most pressing problems across the globe.

Of course, this piece of advice is so universal it applies to my personal and business interactions almost every day. As someone who manages a large organization, it’s central to my understanding what motivates employees and what their pressure points are. If I’m able to consider a variety of perspectives it makes Philips a better place to work.

It also drives me to better understand our customers, our partners, and just about everyone I come into contact with. In other words, it’s good business to know what others think and to bring an open mind to the table.

This kind of thinking even informs how we go about designing a new product or how to solve our customer’s problems. If we undertake a large project without being guided by the value we create for customers we are doomed to fail.

Stories of a “perfect” design failing the first time the user gets his or her hands on the product are legion. But it’s much more than avoiding a design mistake – it’s also about understanding how to make improvements when you already have something good. It’s about making it great.

Last year, for instance, when we set up HealthSuite Labs, we decided to use design thinking in order to help us understand a complex set of problems. It dawned on me that we rarely set about designing complex systems, like healthcare delivery, with allstakeholders’ perspectives in mind. So we brought in physicians, the CEO’s of a hospital and a care organization, of course, patients and their care givers, to help us think about what would work in a real world setting. The CEO was standing next to the patient putting stickies on the design board and they were essentially co-creating the new pathway. Guess what? By jointly designing with all stakeholders, we create better products and services and most importantly we establish the buy-in for successful deployment and continuous improvement.

Before I wrote this column I gave some thought as to why my father’s advice had stuck with me for so many years. I think it’s because the advice has always been productive when called into action. But more than that, it encourages a humble mindset, and acknowledges that as individuals we are stronger when we are able to understand how we relate to other people. In today’s world, where divisiveness based on race, religion or political views is becoming commonplace, I think we need a little more of that kind of thinking.


Jeroen Tas
About the author: 

Jeroen Tas is Chief Executive Officer of Connected Care & Health Informatics at Philips, where he is also and a member of the Executive Committee. He has more than 30 years of global experience as an entrepreneur and executive in the healthcare, information technology and financial services industries. Previously he was CEO of Philips Healthcare, Informatics Solutions and Services overseeing digital health and clinical informatics and and the Group Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Royal Philips, leading IT worldwide. He co-founded and served as President, COO and vice-chairman of the Board for MphasiS. From 2007 to 2008 he was Vice President and General Manager at EDS.  Prior to MphasiS, Jeroen was the head of Transaction Technology, Inc., Citigroup’s tech lab, Earlier in his career, he held international marketing and project management roles with Digital Equipment and Philips in the USA, Europe and Asia.  Jeroen is the 2004 winner of the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Information technology category for the New York region. He also won the Dutch CIO of the year 2013 Award, NASSCOM Global CIO Award 2014, the World Innovation Congress 2014 CIO Leadership Award, CIO Net European CIO of 2014 Award, the IT Executive 2014 Award, the Accenture Innovator of the Year 2015 Award. He is a native of the Netherlands and holds a Master’s Degree in computer science and business administration from the VU University, Amsterdam.  Follow him on Twitter.