CU Water Cooler

Think Empathy and Innovation

Tim McAlpineComment

Trevor (not his real name) is a 31-year-old med school graduate with over $500,000 in student loans. He just moved home with his Mom in San Diego while he tries to find a residency to further his medical training. But, just like half of the med school grads in the United States this year, he's been unable to find a hospital to take him on. He's an avid hiker, uses a Sony Android phone and an Asus computer, drives a 2004 Chevy Cavalier, met his Korean girlfriend while studying abroad in Australia and has recently deleted all of his social media accounts. His favorite food is Korean barbecue and he loves the Vancouver Canucks!

Trevor answered a non-descript ad to be a focus-group participant. Little did he know that he and a couple dozen other millennials would be grilled by small groups of credit union folks who attended a "People Helping People 2.0 Master Class" at CO-OP THINK 16. The session was facilitated by Jeanette Thebeau and other pros from Open IDEO—a global community working together to design solutions for the world’s biggest challenges.

Just one of the many ideas that our table came up with for Trevor's financial situation!

Just one of the many ideas that our table came up with for Trevor's financial situation!

By getting the crowd to talk directly with actual living and breathing young adults, CO-OP was giving the crowd a taste of design thinking and building empathy before jumping to product design. I for one, had no idea that up to half of graduating medical students do not go onto becoming doctors and are saddled with such enormous debt. It was a real eye-opener.

Always start with empathy

This concept was outlined in a morning session titled "Creative Confidence" by Tom Kelley, the General Manager of IDEO. IDEO (pronounced “eye-dee-oh”) is an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow. 

Tom Kelley, General Manager, IDEO

Tom Kelley, General Manager, IDEO

Tom defines creative confidence as the the natural human ability to come up with an idea and the courage to leap. The talk was fantastic and essentially boiled down to these three main points.

  1. Always start with empathy
  2. Treat life as an experiment
  3. Leverage the power of storytelling

Tom's most compelling and heartwarming story was about Tom Dietz, a medical imaging designer at GE Healthcare. This is from GE's site:

“I had just finished designing a big MR scanner,” Doug Dietz, the creator of the MR Adventure Discovery Series explained during the TED California Event. As an industrial designer, Dietz is in charge of the enclosures, controls and displays, coils and patient transfer. He was so excited to see his MR scanner in action that he ran to the hospital where it was being showcased to see.

A young patient was coming into the MR room to be scanned, “I see this young family coming down the hallway and I can tell as they get closer that the little girl is weeping. As they get even closer to me, I notice the father leans down and just goes ‘remember we talked about this, you can be brave’,” says Dietz. As they walked into the MR suite, Dietz had the chance to see the room through the girl’s eyes for the first time: “Everything was kind of like, beige” he said, describing what he calls ‘crime scene’ stickers (which tell patients where to go), and the exclamation mark warning sign on the door. “The room itself is kind of dark and has those flickering fluorescent lights” and adds “that machine that I had designed basically looked like a brick with a hole in it.”

This was Dietz response: the GE Adventure Series Scanner.

With empathy and design thinking, Doug and the GE Heathcare designers have reduced the need to administer general anesthesia by more than 80%. As Dietz rightly says, “when you design for meaning, good things will happen.”


Whitney Hess, Certified Coach and Author

Whitney Hess, Certified Coach and Author

After Tom's inspiring talk, we heard from Whitney Hess—she is on a mission is to put the humanity back into business. Whitney dug deeper and gave the audience practical advice on building a more empathetic organization. Empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is feeling and it all starts with self-awareness. "If we don’t have self-awareness we can’t have other-awareness," explained Hess.

Empathy is a competency that can be learned and developed over time. Step one is access your listening, step 2 is watching for cues and step 3 is, believe it or not, to read literary fiction! Literary fiction requires us to use our imagination to fill in the blanks with imagery and this process increases our capacity to feel. Read more about Whitney's work.

Day two of CO-OP THINK 16 was intense and enlightening. One more day to go!


Tim McAlpine lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He is the President and Creative Director of Currency Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in helping credit unions attract the next generation of members. Tim is best known as the creator of Young & FreeIt's a Money Thing, and CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec. He is also a co-founder of the CU Water Cooler.