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The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at Harvard Business School

It all comes down to one word: empathy.

At Harvard Business School, renowned professor Clay Christensen helps his students see that the role of a business is to solve someone’s problem -– and therefore, by their very nature, all businesses are an exercise in empathy.

James Allworth, a fellow at Harvard Business School’s Forum for Growth and Innovation, reflects:

The place for me, however, where an appreciation of empathy is most undervalued, is in business. The potential upside for those in business who are able to be empathetic is huge, and is eloquently described in Professor Clay Christensen’s jobs-to-be-done theory. Understanding that people don’t buy things because of their demographics — nobody buys something because they’re a 25-30 year old white male with a college degree — but rather, because they go about living their life and some situation arises in which they need to solve a problem… and so they “hire” a product to do the job. This is a big “ah ha” to many folks when they first hear it; but when you really boil it down, the true power of this is in giving people in business a frame with which to exercise empathy. In fact, both Akio Morita of Sony and Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research — instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They’d put themselves in the shoes of their customers.

Read the rest of Allworth’s post, then check out Christensen’s jobs-to-be-done theory in greater detail. An excerpt below:

“…the jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: ‘Why did she do it that way?'”

Sound familiar? :)

Christensen recently co-authored the book How Will You Measure Your Life? with Allworth and Karen Dillon. It’s a fascinating read about happiness and worth your time.

A big thanks to my friend Dan Szuc for sharing the HBR post with me.

If you ever happen upon something on the intersection of empathy and business, please be sure to forward it along to [email protected]. Thanks in advance!

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  • Christa Avampato

    Fabulous article, Whitney. I am in business for precisely this reason. It’s a practical application on continuous empathy because I create products that make the world a better place.

  • Lynn Goodendorf

    Great article! This resonated with me related to my professional practice area. I believe that empathy is a core competency for privacy officers to effectively set policies and processes for the collection and use of personal information.