The Power of Touch


It’s innovation time. Your team has been blessed by leadership to come up with the next big thing that will win the hearts and minds of your customers. Meet the team. Joe the designer likes to work remotely from his house – he wants to spend more time with his kids. Sarah the engineer is located in your East Coast office – given the latest budget cuts, she cannot travel that often. Marc the Product Manager is located in your West Coast office – he’s always in the office, but spends 80% of his time in meetings giving updates to the leadership team.

No problem, your organization is giving you all the tools you need to “collaborate” and become a “high performing team”. The chances are that your IT department has spent a good amount of money to create an infrastructure that will theoretically increase productivity and minimize traveling costs. Webex and Cisco Telepresence are the weapons of choice. Past experiences have eroded your faith in these tools, so you’ve also built your own arsenal of reliable workarounds…Skype and Google Hangout, just to name a few.

You lay out a project plan with key milestones, daily check-ins, monthly face-to-face meetings, and clear roles and responsibilities on the team. This all makes sense until the sexy plan on the page turns into the reality of collaborating in meetings.

“Hey team, Webex is acting out today. I don’t see you on the video. Let’s try Skype. Oh, Skype is slow today; let’s go to Google Hangout. Dammit, for some reason Marc can’t get on Google Hangout. Let me text him and see if he can try Webex again.”

And round and round you go. Before you know it, you have spent 20 minutes figuring out how to finally get to a mediocre workaround to actually start the meeting. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.  Unfortunately, this has become the norm for millions of corporate workers around the world. Somehow, we have become numb to the imperfections of these tools with the hope that the technology will one day catch up with our collaboration needs.

Being a true believer in intact and co-located teams, it occurred to be me that technology is not really the problem here. The real problem might be our assumption that technology can enable true collaboration. Perhaps we are conflating communication and collaboration.

We don’t have to go far to witness true collaboration. All we have to do is turn on ESPN and learn from athletes. They high five, chest bump, butt slap, fist bump, and hug more than they play the game. Whether they’re celebrating as a team, encouraging each other, or consoling one another, these moments all have one thing in common – the power of touch.


These are not empty gestures – they reflect the true essence of a team. Touch strengthens relationships; establishes trust, equality and respect in the team; and more importantly it creates a system of accountability amongst the team members (in other words, friendship) that goes beyond individual performance. These gestures create rituals and traditions that the team can fall back on in good or bad times.

Leaders need to understand that innovation is ultimately a team sport, not a resourcing sport. Teams are not set up for success if you simply enable them to communicate. Innovation is harder than that – it’s garbage in, garbage out. You need to create the space for a group of random people to build genuine, personal relationships and let them emerge as a real team that is passionate about changing the world, and not preoccupied with the mechanics of working together.

Here’s to letting your teams “touch” each other, literally and figuratively, as well as HR appropriately 🙂

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Why you are not the hero


Design Thinking puts people at the center of innovation. As designers, we try hard to build empathy for the people we are here to serve. We go out in the world to observe them, talk to them, and learn from them. We seek to understand their pain points to inspire solutions that will improve their lives. For most organizations, it’s becoming clear that customer empathy is a key component of good design.

But what happens when we confuse empathy with sympathy? What happens when we start judging our customers’ lives and think of ourselves as their saviors? What happens when we fall in love with our solutions so much so that we convince ourselves that people’s lives simply suck without our products and services?

How can something as selfless as empathy turn into something as judgmental as sympathy? Before I go on, I’d like to share this short Nike commercial – it’s served for me as a great reminder of what true empathy means.

At first glance, one might jump to assumptions on why the seemingly obese teenager is running, “he must/should lose weight, obviously he’s too fat and he can’t possibly be happy living that way. I feel bad for him and we should help him with our products.” This is simply human nature – as people, we want to help those who struggle with resources we are most familiar with. We often sympathize for people who face adversity. But what if we were wrong? What if the teenage boy was actually not running to lose weight? What if instead he was running because his dad had just passed away from a massive heart attack? What if he was actually running to look good for an upcoming school dance? What if he was running to make the Football team next year? What if he was running to prove to himself that strength is more than an idealized body?

This commercial does an amazing job of making the customer the hero of the story. This is not about Nike saving the obese teenager. This is about him taking control of his life – oh, and by the way, it happens that Nike will be there to support him as he sees fit. Nike is essentially meeting the customer where he is on his personal journey. Nike does not own the journey, or the destination for that matter. He does. He is great.

As innovators, we all have an obese teenager we are trying to save, whether he comes in the form of a struggling small business owner or a patient fighting a chronic disease. We need to go beyond the obvious sympathetic feelings and really dig deeper to better understand people’s motivations and attitudes.

So the next time you find yourself using words such as should and must, ask yourself whether you’re truly approaching the problem from a place of empathy (caring and empowering) vs. a place of sympathy (judging and saving).

Find the greatness in your customers. Just do it!