As a leader, there is no doubt you’ve been saturated with writing and lessons in empathy. Since empathy was at the center of my life studies, there was a time when I was going to write a book about it. As some folks might say: “But Amazon.”
Given all that, what could I offer you in regard to empathy that you might not have already read?
You and I likely agree that, in order for you to do a world-class job at eliciting requirements in any discipline, your ability to hone your empathy skills is of utmost importance.
But one thing that I will share with you that many other writers might not is: no matter what your experience with empathy, if you are to get somewhere great, the work is very, very difficult. After all, if it were that easy, why would there be so many books to try to teach you how to make it easy? Empathy is a lot like running, biking, swimming, or weightlifting. It takes regular exercise and practice to keep you at the top of your game.
When I teach software engineers about empathy, nothing I have found illustrates how hard it is to empathize well better than the following exercise:
The next time PowerBall or MegaMillions begins to ramp up to an insane value, have everyone in your team buy a ticket. Not in the shared office sense, mind you…no, have every single person buy his or her own ticket.
(In order to really do this exercise well, it’s important for each person to have actually bought a ticket. Disclaimer: please don’t do this if you have a gambling addiction. I do care for you.)
Knowing that each person has an actual chance at winning (while simultaneously acknowledging the old adage that the lottery is a tax on people who failed math), have each person ponder:
“What will life be like if I won?”
You will find your teammates saying all sorts of interesting things. But here’s the rub: If you don’t get at least a little scared of a few things, you’re not thinking hard enough.
I’m not going to try to explain why in this post — I can follow up on that at a later time. But the point is: if you cannot empathize with a future version of yourself, how can you empathize with somebody else?
The answer: because empathizing is hard.
Almost all work is a requirements elicitation exercise. From coal mining to neuroscience, from taking orders for tacos to sending people to Mars, we all spend much of our time at work understanding other people’s problems so that we can formulate solutions.
The key to successful requirements elicitation is in understanding the people we are serving, and empathy is the key.
But it is hard. Work on it. Every. Single. Day.
More to come.