29 / Empathy Is the Catalyst for Innovation


Design thinking calls on product people to put themselves in their customer’s shoes. To empathize with them. Saleema Vellani agrees, but adds that empathy is borne out of self-awareness and that understanding others requires us first to understand ourselves. 

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul welcome Saleema Vellani, author of the soon-to-be-released Innovation Starts with I. Saleema explains how practicing empathy, more specifically compassionate empathy, requires a shift in mindset that helps us truly connect with our product’s users in deeper, more meaningful ways. 

“Compassionate empathy is becoming increasingly important,” Saleema says. “It’s not about just understanding a person, what they’re feeling. It’s actually feeling moved to help them.” To understand that connection, she adds, is to be the catalyst for innovation.

Listen in to catch Saleema’s easy-to-implement practical tips for product managers and their teams. What you’ll hear:

[01:59] The future of our product space. AI, machine learning, and automation is creating a lot of job displacement. But with it is coming exciting new product roles and opportunities.

[02:12] The “Augmented Age.” The human skills (e.g., emotional intelligence, empathy, critical thinking, cultural intelligence, technology, and data science.)

[03:39] 3 types of Empathy. Emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy.

[03:46] Innovation Starts with I. Practicing empathy starts with first understanding oneself.

[03:55] Design thinking guides us understand our customers, to put ourselves in their shoes.

[04:00] Associative thinking helps us first understand who we are and then connect seemingly unrelated things.

[04:50] Be a “dot connector.” Applying associative thinking to move from self-awareness to compassionate empathy to innovation.

[05:02] Can empathy be learned?

[06:03] Empathy and innovation. Empathy is the engine behind innovation.

[07:12] The “sweet spot” of innovation lies at the intersection of feasibility, viability, and desirability.

[09:11] Product radical listening. The key to a more holistic understanding of the problem.

[09:50] Groupthink. Creativity’s kryptonite.

[10:44] Product people, heal thyself. Starting with I requires an openness to learning about yourself.

[11:52] Product thinking. A newer concept in which product managers need to become product coaches, and more organizations must become product-led.

[12:15] Product thinking, part deux. It’s not just about the products; it starts from understanding yourself.

[13:50] Inclusion as the catalyst for innovation. Inclusion requires learning as much as possible about different stakeholders using tools like empathy mapping, journey mapping, and user experience mapping.

[15:22] Innovation. The process of taking all the things that are already out there and reassembling them in a new way.

[15:49] A “recovering perfectionist.” Wanting to be perfect is counterproductive.

[16:25] Outcomes > outputs. Perfectionists think about outputs. Problem solvers think about outcomes and how they make us feel.

[17:17] GSD (get stuff done). Better to implement something that’s not perfect than have a bunch of half projects hanging waiting for perfection.

[17:56] Compassionate empathy. The kind of empathy that actually moves us to help. It’s solution focused.

[19:59] Tips for product managers. Create psychological safety; let failure be OK. Practice inclusion. Be outcome focused. So many more!

[20:53] The job of product managers is to give value. Giving value starts with using empathy to understand yourself and your customer.

[21:44] Be an intrapreneur in an organization. Help others by giving them autonomy and flexibility, understanding what will make them happy in their work.

[23:50] The difference between listening and making a person feel heard.

[25:06] Understand the problem before jumping to hypotheses. When we take the time to understand the problem, we often learn that the real problem is very different than we initially thought.

[25:14] Innovation is putting together existing things in new ways that create value.


Saleema’s Recommended Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Innovation Starts with I, by Saleema Vellani.

About Saleema

Saleema Vellani is an award-winning innovation strategist, a serial entrepreneur, and the author of the forthcoming book, Innovation Starts With ‘I’.

Saleema is the co-founder of Innovazing, a strategy consulting firm that helps organizations develop business growth and innovation strategies centered in design thinking and agile processes. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins University and an advisor to several startups and mission-driven organizations. 

Saleema holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Development from McGill University and a Master’s degree in International Economics and International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

She is fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian and has lived in Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Italy, and the U.S. Born and raised in Canada, she is proud of her multi-cultural upbringing as a Toronto native with East African and Indian roots.

t f i l 


Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Paul [00:00:28] Sean, how are you doing today?

Sean [00:00:30] I’m doing well, Paul. How are you?

Paul [00:00:32] I’m doing great. I’m doing a lot better after that conversation. Saleema has a fantastic library of thought that she is about to share with all of our listeners.

Sean [00:00:42] Yeah, she’s a master of linking empathy and innovation.

Paul [00:00:46] I think the eye-opening moment for me was the intersection of inclusion as a catalyst for innovation. Definitely stick around for that one.

Sean [00:00:56] Yeah, this is gonna be a good one.

Paul [00:00:57] All right. Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:00:58] Let’s do it.

Paul [00:01:02] Hello, product people. We are very excited to be joined by Seleema Vellani. She’s an award-winning innovation strategist, a serial entrepreneur, and the author of the forthcoming book Innovation Starts With I. At the age of twenty-one, Saleema launched Brazil’s largest and number one language school to finance an orphanage and social development program. Shortly after, she co-founded and ran a leading online translation agency to help companies of all sizes expand their digital presence globally, which was acquired in 2012, and for over 12 years, she’s been leading technology companies, startups, economic development organizations, and international financial institutions to the next stage of growth and innovation. Welcome, Saleema. We’re so excited to have you today.

Saleema [00:01:44] Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Paul [00:01:46] Awesome. What’s been on your mind lately? What are you interested in in the product space, especially where that intersects with human beings and the empathy and innovation that surrounds that?

Saleema [00:01:57] Yeah, so given a lot of my work is in innovation and design thinking and helping companies, you know, design and develop better products and services, it’s extremely interesting right now that we’re in the middle of this reskilling revolution and basically the future of product. You know, where is like the product manager or any sort of product role going to go in how organizations are going to have to think differently since there has been so much focus on like, “we need to think like designers,” but I think it’s going to be more like, “we need to be more product-led across the entire organization,” which is really, really interesting.

Paul [00:02:27] So that’s a really interesting place to jump off. The reskilling revolution, from the World Economic Forum’s lexicon, you know, you’ve aligned yourself to this opportunity and it opens up a whole new world of what product means, really, and how it intersects with A.I. and machine learning and the automation that is inevitable, and it poses an opportunity. A lot of people see it as a risk. But what are the opportunities that you see going forward and how can we start thinking differently about what it means for us in the product space?

Saleema [00:03:01] So basically with A.I. and advancements in automation, you know, it’s going to we’re going to see a lot of job displacements. There’s going to be, as the World Economic Forum has stated, about seventy-five million job displacements, but there’s also going to be one hundred thirty-three million new roles. So that’s basically like fifty-eight million jobs by 2022, new jobs. And you know, we’re just going to see a lot of jobs being automated as we go through this, you know, as they call it, the augmented age, a lot of jobs will be augmented. Certain skills will be augmented, such as human skills, especially like, you know, emotional intelligence, skills like empathy, you know, critical thinking, communication skills, cultural intelligence, certain skills and technology, data science as well is really, really big. And we’re also going to see a lot of, you know, jobs that will be replaced and automated, as we’re already seeing right now. And it’s really, really interesting how product management is going to evolve over the next 10 years.

Paul [00:03:52] Yeah. You used the word empathy there, and that’s a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts. I think it’s often discussed and really understood. We throw it around like it’s a skill that you can learn, but oftentimes it takes some knowledge and understanding that is outside of just a bunch of checkmarks that you can check off a list. And one of the ways that you’ve started to think about empathy is in the ways that empathy is defined that’s possibly a mistake. What is empathy often mistaken for when we talk about what it means as we’re thinking about technology and how it intersects with human behavior? You’ve mentioned a couple of things in your writing and in your talks that I’m curious to know a little bit more about. What is empathy, and maybe more importantly, what is empathy mistaken for that is not really true empathy?

Saleema [00:04:41] Yeah, sure. So there very different types of empathy and there’s different theories and stuff out there. But, you know, I say like, you know, there’s three different types of empathy that I’ve read from one theory that focuses on, you know, emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. I think we’re going to see more and more compassionate empathy. That’s becoming increasingly important. And my take on it is, as I mentioned with my book, Innovation Starts with I that’s coming out in a few months, is that it really starts from yourself and knowing who you are and having the self-awareness, because, without self-awareness, you can’t have empathy. You see a lot of empathy in design thinking and they say, you know, it’s all about getting into other people’s shoes and understanding your customer, but my take on it is you really need to understand who you are, and the human element starts with oneself. And it requires that mindset shift almost, you know, being able to use what they call associative thinking, being able to make connections that seem unrelated, if that makes sense, and connecting these dots together. Like, being a dot connector is going to be increasingly important. And so that’s basically what empathy is, is being able to naturally do that. And when I say naturally, it doesn’t have to be innate. Some people ask me, “can empathy really be learned?” And I say, “yeah, it can be.” People can develop the capacity to learn empathy. Certain people, you know, have it in them more naturally than others, but I do think that that skill is going to be super, super important as it already is today.

Saleema [00:06:04] In terms of what empathy is not, you know, sometimes we see people that think that they’re empathizing and they might go into storytelling, for example, I like to call them the storytellers, where you say something, you know, like, “someone in my family died yesterday,” and then that other person might be like, “oh, my uncle just died, too.” And, you know, they go into their own story. Sometimes you even have to console them and they’re trying to empathize or they’re trying to relate, but it doesn’t necessarily make the experience of the person that’s, you know, for example, the product user, in our case today, really feel understood. You know, there’s people that minimize the problem when they’re trying to empathize, but they’re making it, you know, not so bad if that makes sense. You get people that are sometimes acting as advisers and giving unsolicited advice. We see that a lot. There’s all sorts of ways that we see that there are people trying to empathize, but it doesn’t really feel like empathy.

Sean [00:06:55] Got it. So what is the link between empathy and innovation? That seems to be where you spend most of your time thinking, so I’d love to understand what you think the link is between empathy and innovation.

Saleema [00:07:05] For me, I think that empathy is the engine, or the undervalued stock, of innovation. And the way that this all started for me was when I actually started doing some work as an innovation strategist a few years ago where, you know, there was this problem of, you know, we have this refugee crisis in the Middle East and Africa. And, you know, the refugees were eating sugar cookies and juices and they weren’t getting the nutrition they needed. But it was also really hard for them to grow produce in, you know, desert type environments. And so they said, you know, “Saleema, we know you’re not the agriculture specialist, you’re the out-of-the-box thinker, and basically our department has been just thinking about soil-based solutions and we need somebody to come and look at other things, you know, there’s endless possibilities.” They created this safe zone where I could really go out and look at like, 3D printing and hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, all kinds of different solutions even though I knew most of them probably weren’t feasible or viable.

Saleema [00:07:59] But finding that intersection of a product or solution takes that sort of being able to come up with as many solutions and ideate as much as you can, and thinking about quantity versus quality initially so that you can really come up with some of the, you know, wildest, crazy ideas sometimes and then be able to narrow that down. So you go through this process of like divergent thinking and then being able to converge and pick something that’s at the sweet spot of innovation, which is right at the intersection of, you know, feasibility, viability, and desirability, and then actually, try testing it. We’re going to see a lot of like, you know, rapid iteration, a lot of testing, a lot of experimenting, which happens a lot already with products. But that’s going to become increasingly important as most organizations are product-led. But what I wanted to say was, you know, with that whole, you know, looking at food security, we actually used simplified hydroponics, so like a very low tech version of that, to grow produce. So basically using PVC pipes and recycled materials, 90 percent less water, we were able to create a solution that was human-centered for the refugees that were already very entrepreneurial and had a background in agriculture but had no idea that this type of solution existed.

Sean [00:09:05] So you mentioned this mindset shift is required for divergent thinking.

Saleema [00:09:09] Exactly.

Sean [00:09:10] And that the mindset shift is this shift towards empathy, towards more empathy?

Saleema [00:09:16] So the mindset shift, going back to my example, is really trying to understand what the users are going through. So, for example, oftentimes we can be focused on building solutions without really understanding the problem, and that’s where empathy comes and using tools such as empathy mapping. There’s other tools like rapid product listening, there’s ways of really understanding by asking the right questions and oftentimes those questions are starting with why, how, and what, and really digging deeper for insights. So, for example, with the refugee example, we actually went down to the field, we went to visit refugee camps. We actually went to Israel to understand, like what are the emerging technologies? What are the people experiencing? Because sometimes we’re focused at HQ and we’re thinking like, what kinds of solutions can we implement? But how do we really understand it? It’s actually involving those different stakeholders in that process and testing.

Sean [00:10:08] I love that. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at. So you mentioned rapid product listening. What do you mean by that?

Saleema [00:10:13] So it’s called product radical listening and it’s basically based on Marshall Rosenberg’s theory about non-interrupted sessions. And so it’s something that you can actually practice internally with different stakeholders or team members. For example, you can set up a weekly meeting with someone that you have in mind and gather data from your team in the form of one-on-ones, and using that data from customers, whether it’s like interview answers, comments. You present that data to the person and don’t allow them to interrupt and talk back. Because oftentimes when we’re in meetings, you know, a lot of times we get into groupthink when we’re trying to do a brainstorming session, we’re trying to be innovative, we’re trying to come up with solutions. But when we get into that groupthink, that actually takes away the creativity, because a lot of times those insights and those connecting the dots happens when we’re given that time to, almost like a pause, to really, basically share more. Does that make sense?

Sean [00:11:00] Yeah, no, it makes a lot of sense.

Paul [00:11:02] Yeah.

Sean [00:11:02] I like the concept of connecting the dots.

Paul [00:11:04] I love it. I think it was just going to jump into something that you were about to dive into. I think one of the things that’s counterintuitive in this is, we’re talking about understanding others and empathizing with others, but part of Innovation Starts With I is rooted in this fundamental sense of self-awareness and understanding yourself first before being able to help others. I was reminded of the image of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping somebody else. Can you talk about what it means to you to understand yourself and what this prospect of self-awareness means as it relates to empathy? It seems paradoxical, but I think it’s super important to the concept as a whole.

Saleema [00:11:46] Yeah, sure. So being able to understand oneself requires, it’s honestly a lot of personal development and personal growth and being open to learning. You know, with my book, I interviewed over a hundred leaders and entrepreneurs, and over 70 percent of them said, yes, empathy is one of the most important future-of-work skills. But self-awareness, like really knowing who you are and being really honest with yourself, it takes a lot of introspection, reflection, and it also takes you know, I think that oftentimes people think that you have to search for your passion, and I think that your passion can actually be developed and it takes doing and active contemplation and not just sitting in our heads sort of thing. It’s actually doing something, and that’s why I’m a big fan of, you know, side hustles and projects. That can help you. You know, anyone has to start their own business per se. Start with these projects where you can learn and you have the ability to fail and not lose so much. And so, I think with the self-awareness, being in that sort of process of continuous learning, you know, for me it’s like going to conferences, learning things that are out of my comfort zone, I listen to apps like Blinkist, for example, which gives me like book summaries.

Paul [00:12:43] I love Blinkist, yeah.

Saleema [00:12:46] Books I wouldn’t otherwise purchase, it’s like, “oh, OK, well, you know, I’m going to get like a quick summary of this book and I’m going to learn something new.” And I think picking up a nugget every day of something keeps us in that constant learning mode and I think that’s increasingly important to have that intellectual curiosity. I also think that you know, especially for our product managers, there’s a sort of newer concept called product thinking, where product managers are going to have to become product coaches and more organizations are going to have to become product-led, and it’s not just about the products. It’s not just about empathy and understanding other people, it really starts from understanding yourself in order to be able to do the empathy part.

Paul [00:13:19] Yeah. I think the aspect of self-awareness that was important to me, that I keyed in on from your writing and your thinking, is that you need to know yourself first because it defines how you relate to others and you’ve called for this concept of inclusion as a catalyst for innovation. I love that thought. I think we have a very ingrained part of human nature that aligns with finding things that feel safe. And I think there’s a counterintuitive piece of this that says, by aligning ourselves with people who are not like us, who don’t look like us, think like us, act like us, we’re also forced to alter our thinking and alter our perception of the world because it allows us to broaden our horizons. It’s not safe in the sense of, the point of reference is within us, the point of reference is outside of us and it creates, like you said, that catalyst for innovation. I think that that’s the nugget that I was taking away from your self-awareness to community to the world levels of understanding. And I think that that’s really applicable to the product space today as we’re looking at challenges that aren’t always immediately recognizable. Looking at 3D printing for an aquaponics solution when that’s not our comfort zone, for example. Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant, maybe specifically, in inclusion as a catalyst for innovation?

Saleema [00:14:42] Yeah, sure. So inclusion, oftentimes, a lot of people, as soon as they hear that word, they’re like,” oh, H.R. and like, you know, diversity and inclusion and equity and belonging,” and all these terms which are important and they’re hot right now. They’re buzzwords. But I think that inclusion just goes way, way, way beyond that, especially when it comes to innovation. That’s actually something I do talk a lot about when I key in on inclusion as a catalyst for innovation because it’s really helping people think in a more collaborative way. People are just going to have to embrace more of a collaborative mindset, and that means really thinking about the different stakeholders, directly and indirectly, that are involved in whatever. For example, for product design or product management, it’s important to think about, basically do some influence mapping or figure out like who are these different stakeholders and how do I learn as much as I can about them by actually using tools like empathy mapping or journey mapping and user experience mapping? I think that you know, being able to relate to other people and understand the bigger picture of inclusion and mapping that out will really help you diverge, if anything, in your perspective.

Saleema [00:15:41] And I think for, going back to my example with the refugees and the hydroponics, it really expanded our perspective. Because at the beginning, we were just looking at what’s happening in the US, what’s happening in the literature, but that’s all stuff that has already happened. But we only really were able to come up with a solution which, you know, was simplified hydroponics, by actually talking to the people and looking at, you know, who are people in this technology hub? And even at that point, we had to be open to failure and be like, “Hey, you know what, like this might not be profitable, but how can we actually merge this with something else?” Innovation is all about things that are already out there. How do we actually put them together in any way? So now we’re looking at like, insects and bugs and how do we actually provide protein, help people create like, you know, insect farms, because that’s going to go hand in hand with the hydroponics. And that’s really practicing inclusion because we’re going down and understanding, “OK, so we solved the nutrition problem, but there’s still a protein problem,” and it takes going through that cycle of iteration and being OK with like, whether it’s failure, or being like, “Hey, you know, we got close, but maybe we need to go back and ideate again and understand the problem in a different way.

Sean [00:16:45] Interesting. You talk about self-awareness. I’m going to go back a little bit, and I was reading through your stuff, doing my stalking for this podcast. I see that you often describe yourself as a recovering perfectionist, and I think a lot of product people behave in this way. What does it mean to you to be a recovering perfectionist and how do you defend against that so that you can actually get something done?

Saleema [00:17:11] So I find that a lot of people can relate to that because sometimes we can be really hard on ourselves. And for me, it’s from my upbringing and just wanting to be perfect and working really, really, really hard and wanting to be that A-plus student. And I realize that sometimes that can actually be counter-productive because we’re focused so hard on whatever the output is, but we’re not thinking about like, what is the outcome and how does that make us feel, and was this really the best way to go about this because now we’re so focused on being perfect that we kind of missed the bigger picture if that makes sense. And so I would say in tangible terms, I think it’s important to be more outcome-focused instead of output focused. And I think the way to do that is to do things at like, 70 to 90 percent perfection versus 100 percent because that extra 10 to 30 percent might kill you or it might not get you to the outcome, the desired outcome, that would actually be viable and feasible.

Sean [00:18:08] Yeah. The point is really continuous improvement, continuous innovation, and better. I like to use the word better, not the best. Because you never quite get to the best. There’s always something more you can do, right?

Saleema [00:18:19] Exactly. And I’m all about, we call it like GSD, or get stuff done. Just always get stuff done, even if it’s not perfect because it’s better to implement something that’s not perfect than having a bunch of half projects hanging.

Sean [00:18:32] Yeah, for sure. When we were doing the pre-call for this, and I touched on it earlier, we had talked about the different forms of empathy. Because there are different kinds of empathy. There’s affective empathy, which is the stuff that Brené Brown works on, and then there’s this tactical empathy, or cognitive empathy, which is our ability to understand and influence people around us. I would love to hear your thoughts on that in terms of like, are the different types of empathy all-important for innovation?

Saleema [00:18:58] Like I said, there’s different theories. And, you know, there’s like cognitive empathy, which is, you know, more concerned with actual thought and understanding and intellect, which is really trying to, you know, at the analytical or the intellectual level, being able to understand how someone else feels. And so it’s not actually necessarily feeling what they feel, but understanding it. And then there is, you know, the emotional empathy, for example, which is more based on feelings and physical sensation. This is where your mirror neurons are being activated in the brain and you actually feel physically along with the other person, and it’s almost as if their feelings, their emotions, are contagious. Like, for example, when you’re at a funeral and you see other people crying and then you automatically start crying, and that’s emotional empathy. And then there’s compassionate empathy. And as I mentioned, that’s the one that’s becoming more and more important, because this is something that like, it’s not just understanding a person, what they’re feeling. It’s almost like, not just understanding what they’re feeling, not just feeling what they’re feeling, but it’s actually kind of feeling moved to actually help, and that’s, I think, the most important part for innovation is having that compassionate empathy because it’s actually more solution-focused. And how do we actually help that other person?

Sean [00:20:08] Cool.

Paul [00:20:08] We’ve got a bunch of product people listening. There’s product managers, product owners, product thinkers, and a lot of these concepts are difficult to apply in our day-to-day hustle and bustle. A lot of times it’s difficult to come apart and think about these things in a way that is applicable to the people, the human beings that we’re building technology for. What are some tactics that you think a product manager can take away today, either in regard to the self-awareness piece, maybe in mindfulness and thinking through that awareness, or what are some tactics that might be applicable in meetings that we have with our clients and customers and our users of the technology that we’re shipping and trying to improve the world every single day? What are some quick tips that you think might be helpful that we can apply, you know, even today in the next meeting that we have?

Saleema [00:21:01] Yeah, sure. So I would say, you know, creating that psychologically safe environment, first of all, to start that meeting and making sure everyone’s voice is heard and actually practicing that inclusion and whether you want to get props involved, like, you know, we always bring sticky notes and Sharpies and flip charts and try to make it fun and get people moving with their hands so that their focused and off their phones, and giving everyone that chance to share their voice, being able to sometimes just have moments of getting out of groupthink, as I mentioned earlier, because when everyone’s talking, it’s hard to really innovate or be productive. And meetings can sometimes be really unproductive, so keeping them short and to the point, you know, setting an agenda, being open in terms of where it can go, but taking notes, taking stock, being able to assign different roles… It really depends on the type of meeting, but I would say like trying to have specific outcomes from it is important. And that’s one of the tips I wanted to give was to be outcome foucused instead of output focused.

Saleema [00:21:55] Another is to really give value, you know, value creation for your business and for your customers. Giving value first, it starts with using empathy to understand your customer, but giving them value, and that’s something that sometimes we can forget that it’s all about adding value, and then thriving in uncertainty, using problem-solving, having a culture where failure is OK and failure is an opportunity to learn. And that goes back to that psychologically safe environment. And I also think, you know, creating a happy and empowered team and organization, so people empowerment. At the end of the day, it’s people that drive the business. It’s not just the products. And so as we see, there’s a lot of turnover in a lot of organizations, a lot of people are sort of forced to reinvent themselves, upskill, reskill. A lot of people are looking to do their own thing these days. You see a lot of that with people wanting to be entrepreneurs. So helping people, you know, be more of an intrapreneur in an organization, I think that’s also something that we’re going to see more of is giving people that autonomy and flexibility, understanding, what will make them happy? What will help them sort of feel like they own something and that they’re contributing to whatever it is they’re doing?

Paul [00:22:58] There’s some great tips. It’s not an innovation if we just go to the same meetings and say the same things and give the same status update. But by resetting the bar of what a meeting even means, fundamentally, meetings are the thing that we spend most of our time doing, so creating that psychologically safe environment is super important because we have human beings in the room who are not being heard. And I think that they’re not being heard because either they are feeling like they are not empowered or not being listened to. Just creating that environment can radically shift the direction that a product team is taking. Just because one person was heard in a moment where they felt open and vulnerable enough to share what they’re thinking and make an impact on the direction that the team is going. Those are some great tips and I think that they sound like they are not necessarily a skill that you would put on a resumé, but they were absolutely skills that are going to make a difference in somebody’s day and eventually make their way into the world in the form of features and experiences that live in the technology that we build. Thank you.

Saleema [00:24:07] You’re welcome. And I can get one more out of that, actually.

Paul [00:24:09] Great.

Saleema [00:24:09] I hear a lot, like through my book interviews, everyone talks about active listening and empathy starts with listening. And I think, yes, listening is important. But I think the other half of listening is not just listening, but making the other person feel heard. And we do that by asking the right questions. Whether you’re in a team meeting and you want to start by asking questions to your team to really got them into the right zone and help them realize that their voice is being heard and basically enabling them to add value. And asking questions, especially out of the box questions, questions about, you know, just even asking how your days going can go a really, really long way in making people feel valued and acknowledged. And so, yes, there’s a difference between just listening and making a person feel heard. And I think more and more leaders need to embrace that.

Sean [00:24:52] Yeah. So as a workshop facilitator, this is one of the things we do right, as product leaders, is facilitate lots of workshops. It’s our job to make sure that everybody’s opinion is heard and is out there. And one of the cool tricks I’ve found, one of the things I think Post-it notes are absolutely brilliant for, is you can ask a question and have everybody put their answers on paper, which really helps you draw out the ideas from those introverts and from the folks that are maybe a little intimidated maybe by the power brokers in the room, you know.

Saleema [00:25:21] Another great way to do that is actually, one tool that we use when we do design thinking workshops is, when we do the empathy and define stage, we actually get teams to write breakup letters. Like, just giving them 10 minutes, turn on some music, and get them to write a breakup letter to the problem. That really helps get those emotions out. That gives them the time and space to sort of let the writing flow into what’s going on and insights come from that, and it’s really, really interesting when, yeah, you have the Post-it notes, you have the right tools in place and people are given that opportunity to really understand the problem that they’re trying to solve. Because oftentimes you’re just focused on solutions. We’re like, “OK, what’s the next solution we’re gonna build?” and it’s so interesting that when we really take the time to understand the problem, oftentimes what the real problem is, it’s very different than we initially thought. We’re coming up with hypotheses without really understanding what’s going on.

Sean [00:26:08] Right. All right, so a question we ask all of our guests: what is your definition of innovation?

Saleema [00:26:16] My definition of innovation is putting together existing things in new ways that create value. Based on the example I gave earlier of hydroponics and refugees, or insects and malnourished people in developing countries, it’s, well, these things already exist. It’s not that they’re new. Hydroponics has been around for hundreds of years and we’ve had people, you know, dealing with food insecurity for hundreds of years as well. And so how do we put these two situations together in a way that creates value?

Sean [00:26:44] I like that.

Paul [00:26:46] Yeah. The other thing that we like to close out with is a book recommendation, and looking through your Twitter, you’re a voracious reader. Do you have anything on your booklist that you’d recommend to our listeners for picking up?

Saleema [00:26:58] Yeah, sure. So apart from my own book that’s coming out in a few months, Innovation Starts With I.

Paul [00:27:04] Of course.

Saleema [00:27:04] Of course. I would highly recommend a book, it’s been out for several years now by Daniel Kahneman. It’s called Thinking, Fast and Slow and I think it’s really valuable because it has a bunch of mind games. It really helps you shift the way that you think and understand that two different systems of thinking in our brain and I think it is one of those books that you’re like, “hm, this is really intellectually interesting, but it’s also something I can apply.” And it’s one of those like life-changing books for me. So I highly recommend that one.

Paul [00:27:30] That’s great. Yeah, that’s one that started as a Blink for me and then I picked up the real book.

Sean [00:27:34] Yeah, he’s done some incredible work, him and Amos, Trevesky is it, or Tversky? There’s been books written on those, too, as well.

Paul [00:27:43] Yeah.

Sean [00:27:43] The Undoing Project was a really good book, but the work that Daniel Kahneman has done in our space, the usefulness of it, to any business application actually, has been incredible.

Paul [00:27:52] Yeah.

Sean [00:27:52] Great recommendation. Thank you.

Saleema [00:27:54] You’re welcome.

Paul [00:27:56] Well Saleema, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. You’ve got incredible insights and it’s really been eye-opening to share a couple of minutes talking through them with you today.

Saleema [00:28:05] Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

Paul [00:28:10] Well, that’s it for today. In line with their goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or reading wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.