The business of empathy

Student sits at a sun-lit desk working off both a laptop

Successful business leaders need a solid understanding of things like economics, human resource management and finance.

But to navigate today’s tough challenges, they need something else, too – empathy.

It’s a skill that’s more often associated with helping professions like nursing or social work but it’s also vital to the business world, says Associate Faculty member Michael Pardy, especially in the face of challenges like COVID-19.

“Responding to complex challenges like a global pandemic requires a completely different way of thinking,” he says. “It's more intuitive, it’s more relational, it's more systematic.”

It’s the kind of thinking undergraduate business students from across Canada, the US and beyond will put to the test in the Royal Roads University Design Thinking Challenge, happening Jan. 31 through March 7, 2022.

The online challenge calls on students to use design thinking, an innovative approach to solve complex problems using empathy and continuous prototyping.

That means asking a lot of questions, and not being afraid to go back to the drawing board many times over, says Jennifer Hong, who was on the winning team from McMaster University in last year’s challenge.

“We took the time to speak to real people and understand the people we might have the potential to impact," she says. "We didn’t settle for an idea. I learned that it’s OK to go backwards. If you take that time to go backwards, you’ll be able to find so many ideas you’d normally brush right past.”

The 2021 challenge asked teams of students to use design thinking to solve the tricky problem of how last year’s client, the Wilderness Tourism Association, could promote seasonal adventure tour experiences in the local market.

Hong and teammate Hrithik Sharma stood out for their idea to create a sense of belonging for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) population in part through broader representation in marketing materials.

Ideas like this were “eminently practical,” says Scott Benton, Wilderness Tourism Association executive director.

And that is exactly the point, Pardy says.

“Students work on a challenge for a live client on a real problem in real time. They’re clearly motivated by that and committed to their learning.”

The challenge, now in its fifth year, has steadily built a design thinking community. This year that community will extend to design thinking educators as well.

The first Design Thinking Educators Conference will run parallel to the event on March 5 and 6. The virtual conference aims to help post-secondary educators, consultants and researchers build their confidence and skills to elicit meaningful ideas and design solutions.

Registration is now open for the Design Thinking Educators Conference. Presenter proposals are being accepted through Oct. 15.

Registration for the Design Thinking Challenge is open through Dec. 6. The 2022 Challenge will launch with round one Jan. 31. A preliminary four-week round starts Feb. 28, 2022 while rounds two and three will be held virtually over four days March 4 to 7.