Empathy and Innovation in Problem Solving

Empathy and Shoes

My husband can drive from Chicago to St. Louis in four hours. For my son and me, it’s a three day trip, via Rock City and Fairyland Caverns in Georgia, or perhaps down the “crookedest street in the world” in Burlington, IA.

For some, it’s 100% about the destination or end product. For others, it’s the journey or process. But what about when you are going someplace where no-one’s gone, or you want to contribute to solving a problem that has eluded a solution?

That’s where an innovative process might jump start even getting on the road.

That’s also why I was so fascinated by reading “Becoming Invisible: What Being Homeless for a Day Taught Me about Rejection,” by Gustavo Razzetti.

As an Interculturalist the experience felt rife with parallels to cultural empathy (he hooked me with “The more scared and uncomfortable I felt, the more I realized I had to do it.”). But for Razzetti, it was all about innovation and the process of solving a problem:

“What if instead of simply talking to people in need, I experienced how they lived? What if instead of trying to be empathetic, I really put myself in their shoes?”

The Problem

The problem that Razzetti, EVP and Managing Director of LAPIZ at Leo Burnett, was addressing was one of personal interest and societal need: Hunger.

“I had a realization a couple of months ago that people go to a restaurant and get huge portions and they don’t get to finish them. Or they buy a huge sandwich and know they won’t be able to eat more than half of it.

“My question is how people can share that food excess with others in need. How can they donate that food before they touch it and/or it goes to waste?” (See here for one idea that worked in Philadelphia, at Pay-It-Forward Pizza.)

The Process

The process was to as authentically as possible pose as homeless, or, as he said, “in spite of my fears, I was able to fully embrace the experience and dive into it.” He didn’t eat the day leading up to it, so he was indeed hungry. “I needed to get food or money if I was going to eat…so I didn’t feel embarrassed about begging for money.”

And while he scruffed up his appearance, he quickly learned there is no ‘one face’ of homelessness—it’s not dirty or torn clothes, but carrying a bag, or no cell phone that made the difference between “us” and “them”.

Razzetti was surprised at how quickly he was relegated from one group to the other. “At some point I went to a restaurant where I had dined a couple of weeks ago. It was somehow funny to see how they smiled and greeted me when I was a customer and how afraid they felt when I faced them as a homeless person.”

The Outcome

Homelessness and hunger were abolished and no longer exist in society and everyone went home and lived happily ever after.

Well, of course not. But often the thought that your one action won’t make a difference is enough of a deterrent to prevent any action at all in the right direction. (Read his original article and ask yourself—would you do his experiment?)

While Razzetti notes there are some other experiences and experiments related to the hunger problem that he’s putting in place but that are not quite ready for sharing, he says “perhaps the biggest outcome was it changed my way of having empathy…Of course it creates more sensitivity about others’ needs.”

And, in the words of a relatively new adage, “What has been seen cannot be unseen” (learn the history of that meme here, simply because you can).

The thing about the process of immersion is that you can’t help but be changed—when you make yourself vulnerable or truly open to seeing another perspective, it inherently changes you and that opens up a whole new world of possibility. (See someone who did it for a year in Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon.)

“The impact was great but you need to continue to experience things like this to create a more on-going, vivid experience.” Put another way, you’ve had the experience that has changed you, but perhaps has not yet been synthesized into your way of viewing and being in the world. But that is to come.

What challenges do you have? What social issues inspire you to action? What can you do to feel the experience of the end user, to aid in problem solving?