On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly talks with Michael Ventura of Sub Rosa about his new book, Applied Empathy, and its extension of Q&E Cards to foster deeper conversation. They discuss how an empathetic approach to problem-solving creates the most effective outcomes for clients, as well as how his agency’s culture is rooted in understanding human behavior at every level.
EP 37: Applied Empathy for Agencies, with Michael Ventura
Kelly: Welcome to another year of Thrive, your agency resource. So to kick things off for 2019, we've got a great discussion for you today, all about applied empathy for agencies and my guest is Michael Ventura, CEO and Founder of Sub Rosa, probably one of the most sought-after strategy and design firms in the country and Michael who's actually recently authored his first book called Applied Empathy, and so that’s what we're gonna dive into today. Welcome Michael. I'm really, really grateful to have you.
Michael: Yeah, happy to be here.
Kelly: So, let's dive into this a little bit. I really like that you start out with a book saying, "Let's be transparent about this. People think of empathy as this squishy word." And it's the perfect word for exactly what people have the stigma around empathy for. So just to kind of set some context, what is empathy really in terms of life and business?
Michael: Yeah, it's a great question to start with because I think empathy is often very misconstrued. Some people hear it and it triggers, "sympathy," or "compassion," or "being nice to people." And what I often tell people is that those are all side effects of empathy but they aren't empathy unto itself. And really what empathy is for me is a self-aware perspective taking of someone else in order to gain richer and deeper understanding. And I say self-aware because we have to have some awareness for our own biases and our own ways of thinking and being and doing. Otherwise when we go try to take perspective of someone else we’re clouding it with some of our own baggage. So it does require a little bit of some interior evaluation in order to be a good empath because you have to know, "no, that's just me talking." As opposed to, "I'm aware that's me talking. I'm stepping outside of that and now I can really see it from your vantage."
Kelly: Yeah and that's probably the hardest thing for human beings to do, is to have that self-awareness.
Michael: Absolutely, yeah, and it's not something that is like you get it and then it's good forever. It's something, it's practiced, and I often say it's like a like a muscle you train. The more you work it out, the more you use empathy, the more depth you get with it, but if you don't use empathy often, it starts to atrophy just like anything else.
Kelly: Right. So let's talk a little bit about the applied empathy origin story. How did you really come to develop these like empathetic archetypes and the whole self within the whole applied empathy methodology for your agency?
Michael: Yeah, so I've been running Sub Rosa or a version of under different banner for fifteen years. So this has been a long process in the making. About six years ago, our team came together and we said, is there really any special sauce? Like are we just a good shop who can do good work or is there something actually under the hood that makes us different, or that makes us differentiated, or unique, or what have you? And so, we made a commitment to become our own best client and so we actually built a project team around this and we said let's go investigate this like we would any other problem for a client, and let's see if there's something really there.
And what we came to find as we start to look at the work that we flagged as some of our best projects as well as some of the work that we flagged that some of our less successful work. We said well what was happening in the in the successful stuff and what wasn't happening in the unsuccessful stuff? And as we started to look at that, we realized, it was when empathy was being employed, when we were really making an effort to understand whoever it was we were solving the problem for. The work was great and when we got a little on our high horse and we're like we invest and that's a tendency of every design.
Michael: Yeah. Like they don't know anything. We have the answer. That work never did as well and so we came around to this idea of empathy and we asked ourselves well what about that is meaningful or helping us and what we realized was it isn't just empathy unto itself because empathy unto itself is inherently passive. I could have a lot of empathy for you. I can understand you deeply but do nothing different with the way I engage with you or the way we work together. And so, what’s the point? So it was in the application of empathy that things really started to switch on.
So we created a talk, like a 45 minute talk and I went out and started giving it in different industry events and I got invited to go down to Princeton University and give it there and came off the stage, and the Dean of the engineering school was there and she said, "I think that this is exactly what we've been looking for, for our entrepreneurship, computer science, mechanical engineering track and that we think empathy would be a really valuable skill to teach in that program. Would you create a twelve week curriculum and teach it down here?"
And so, we said yes, because we didn't know any better, and we didn't know what it entailed. And we started to teach a class and in doing that, because you've got twelve weeks and because you've got IV league undergrads who are going to kick the tires on everything you say, we had to start really thinking about methodologically, what are some of the things we could develop that but you sink your teeth into it a little bit more? Because if it stays up at ten-thousand feet, it's hard to really embody it. So we created first these seven archetypes, and the archetypes were designed to help people realize that there are a lot of ways of the listening, understanding. There's not just like this you hear empathy, and say oh, be more empathic.
Okay. Well if you don't understand empathy, how are you going to do that? So we gave them these different archetypes to play with. So an example is they're all have sort of different names. So one is the convener. A convener’s behavior, the way they get understanding, the way they get information is by creating the circumstances that people will convene around in order to share so they know how to set the room, how to set the tone, how to host, how to be a good facilitator, how to kind of create all the soft science around interaction so that people can drop in and feel comfortable and be willing to talk to you in a way that maybe they otherwise wouldn't.
Kelly: So just open up.
Michael: Exactly. Like a good convener knows how to do that, and that's the way they get at empathy. A confidante is a great listener. And inquirer is a great question asker. There's all these, we have seven of them. And what we tell people is you are all seven in in-equally distributed ways so it's not like a Myers Briggs where you're any ENFP and I’m something else. We are actually all all seven but we have to learn our strengths and weaknesses and when we start to do that and I learned, I'm really good at these two but I'm actually pretty shitty at these two, then I can focus on my strengths but also improving my weaknesses a bit.
Kelly: Sure. So one of the things that I thought about when I was reading through all of that was I'm curious, like so you take your own agency on as a client. You develop this whole system. How influential do you think your own work in mindfulness and self-development and just inner self work, how influential do you think that that was in creating this whole methodology?
Michael: It played a role for sure. I mean since my twenties been very wrapped up in self-work and I went on the buffet line and tried literally everything you could. And, like any good buffet you go back for seconds for the things you like. And so there were certain things that I tried and I was like cool, get it, not my thing, and then there were others that were more meaningful for me. And so, as we sat down to build applied empathy, a lot of that ancestral wisdom came into that process, and I am pretty candid about it when people say like oh it's amazing you guys created this whole thing, and I would say, we didn’t actually create anything. We just kind of re packaged a lot of stuff that is already in the world into a format that is now in a systems-thinking, design-thinking mode.
Kelly: Just kind of like took Sub Rosa and did what you did for other clients and just basically repackaged it in a way that people could understand and could really digest. And that's right meaningful so it makes sense.
Michael: Yeah, I mean like a quick example of that is so the other thing you asked about a moment ago was the whole self and so yeah we have seven aspects of the self. Those are based on in Chinese medicine there are three dantians or places that we store our life force and we sort of work with energy. And so, we looked at those. We looked at chakras. We looked at how Kant talked about the self and how Jung talked about the self and we looked at all of that sort of stuff and we said okay there's nuggets in all of this that makes sense. But we talk about it like I just did in the past thirty seconds. It's gonna scare a lot of people off because it is gonna sound woowoo and it's gonna sound new age, or it's gonna sound too academic, and we didn't need more of that. What we needed was practicality and so we kind took what worked for that and we re-applied it in a way that would make a strategy and design practice find its utility.
Kelly: Right and I think that's probably why I personally resonated with the books like beyond anything you can imagine because that has sort of been my path as well, kind of exploring eastern medicine and then getting into mindfulness, so I understood that but what you said is really important, because if people don't resonate with that, if that's not been in their journey or their history, they're not gonna get it, so taking the spin on it, and I just thought it was really, really brilliant. And one of the things that came out of that was this whole deck of Q&E cards. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe share one of your favorite applications or stories about how that was implemented?
Michael: Yeah, for sure. So Q&E, Questions and Empathy, is a deck of 49 cards that we developed, and the initial thinking for it was how do we create a gateway drug for empathy?
Kelly: Right. That’s my sound bite.
Michael: How do we create this thing that will let people trial it and feel safe playing with it. And so, 49 questions in the deck. There are seven archetypes and there are seven aspects of the whole self. Seven times seven is forty nine. So what you get is for each archetype, let's say the convener, there's a convener question that corresponds to the physical self. There's a convener question that corresponds to the mindful self and so on and so forth. And so, what we wanted to do was create a way to kind of poke at all of those different overlaps between the interior empathy and the exterior empathy and give someone an opportunity to really play in that space.
So the cards are a permission granting tool in many ways. If someone walks up to you at a bar and sits down next to you and looks at you and says tell me about one time you failed. You’re like "Who's this creep, and like why we are going so deep so fast?" But if the card asks the questions, there's a third party at play. It's like okay like if you're not being creepy, the card is just probing deeper than I would ordinarily let social graces allow for it. So let us go and do it. And so, we've used the cards in a couple contexts.
I will tell you two quick anecdotes. One is I got this one, this is like the warm and fuzzy one. So I get a note from a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco, had been dating a woman for a while. They were driving down LA, down highway one. They were on like a long road trip for the weekend and they took the deck of cards with them.
And I get a text message with a photo of both of them and she's got mascara running down her face and his eyes are like bright red puffy and they're pulled off in like Big Sur, somewhere on highway one. And he's like we just like level jumped our relationship in the past three hours riding the car with these cards, because these are kinds of questions that social graces often don't let us ask or they don't feel always appropriate to poke and prod into. Even with someone you're close with like a significant other. And just like that, that made me feel like there was some alchemy at work in these cards that was doing a good thing.
Another example that is in a different context is that actually next week I'll be going to run a workshop in Downtown Manhattan here with the 9/11 memorial. All of the staff who had been working there since it opened, because one of the things that their team has learned and they reached out after having read the book was they said, "we have a bit of a like sort of empathy challenge here because there's so much emotion that runs through this place every day that we have some people who are like burned out on empathy. We have others that have as a counterpoint to empathy built such a suit of armor that they're not prospective-taking at all anymore because it was too much for them. And there are people who kind of calibrated the right way.
So we'd like to run an hour long session with you in the cards to help people remember that there's multiple ways of being empathic, and that if this is uncomfortable for you, you can try it this way and if you want to play with empathy in a different context, here's a way to do it. And also a way to bring them all together in one moment where they can share some of the things they've been going through over the past few years running the memorial. So I'm excited to see how like it plays out like Big Sur's Highway 1 as much as in a context like this as much as in a board room with other execs and it kind of resonates in the right way.
Kelly: Right. And I think one of the, to add sort of like a third anecdote from the book, one day you get, you see on your caller ID the U. S. government, and it's a captain from West Point which is not that far from where I am in Rockland and he wants you to train the army coaches and the cadets. I'm curious to know what do you think like recalling that experience, what do you think was your "aha" moment between seeing that answering that phone and kind of getting that challenge coin from General Jeb. What was that moment for you where you're like oh my God, this is this is amazing.
Michael: Yeah, I mean it was amazing from the first phone call to be honest because I never imagined the military wanting more empathy.
Kelly: Yeah. I was blown away when I read that. I was like what?
Michael: Yeah, it seems super incongruent, but then I get there, and I'm walking around the base and the thing that was the most abundantly clear the fastest to me was that these cadets and the administration there are genuinely wired as lifelong learners, and they want to scale up in everything. They want to be really as capable in as many ways as possible, more so than, way more so frankly than the interactions we had at Princeton. And no knock against them, but those students were in in their path, in their track, very vertical, at the sacrifice of some widths, some real horizontal exploration. They knew what they wanted to be and they dove deep into it.
And at West Point, they're a leadership development academy when you really think about it, they're breeding leaders. And so width is critical and just as critical as depth and so I got to sit down with the coaches. The coaches actually were first because of just timing and scheduling so I had something like fifty or sixty of the coaching staff across all the sports sitting in a room and these are athletic coaches at the army. You have an archetype and many of them are ex-military themselves. And, I know what I look like. I mean I look like my hair is tied back today but it's even worse usually and I'm walking around campus and I look like who let the hippie on campus.
Kelly: Check him for drugs.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. My ID does get checked quite a bit there.
Kelly: That’s awesome.
Michael: And so I get up there and I do our initial presentation and then I said does anyone have any question. 15 hands raised like simultaneously and everyone was leaning in and asking questions. How do I use this, this way and could I think about it this way and then we disseminate the cards. And they start having their conversations and they start using them with each other and people are laughing, people are giving each other high fives, people are trading cards with each other. "Oh ask yourself at this one, this is a good one." And I saw in that ninety-minute session with those coaches how learning, and how self-discovery, and how inquiry is such a core part of the DNA of West Point that as I went on and then met students or cadets, other members of the faculty, I actually also got to train fifty career military officers so three star, two star, one star generals and sit in a room with them. It was the same across everybody like curious, hungry, and desirous of learning, believe empathy is a critical leadership skill and wanted more of it. It was amazing.
Kelly: Such a cool story. So as we start to wrap up a little here, I'd love to leave our fellow agency leaders with a little bit of information on one of the ongoing rituals that you have implemented at Sub Rosa, Sub Rosa Days. And just kind of talk about how important those twelve days per year are to the success of your agency.
Michael: Yeah sure, so we had this obvious epiphany I guess, if that's kind of oxymoronic but if we said we only have finite amount of time in the year, and we spend all of it, spending our time on our clients, couldn't we take a day a month for ourselves? Couldn’t we take one day a month to turn the lens inward and look at us? And if we can't spend twelve days a year working on our own business, we're really selling ourselves short. So we decided to create Sub Rosa Days which are sort of like mini onsites if you will. There are some things that still have to happen, because we're in service business, and sometimes someone needs to take a call with a client, totally fine, but what we structured into that day are a couple things.
One is always going to be a workshop where someone from the team will run a workshop in something. It doesn't have to be one-to-one relevant to our daily work that we do for our clients. We've had people do everything from an improv workshop, a whole host of stuff, just kind of flexing your muscles, learning a different skill, playing in a way you haven't played before. We’ll always have one presentation. So someone typically someone who's maybe not getting up in front of clients as much gets an opportunity to really get up and give a thirty or forty-five minute keynote on something they're passionate about and share with the team in a way that A it builds them up a little bit as a presenter, but also B, to really kind of celebrate something they love.
We tend to have a couple breakout sessions to focus on our internal efforts. So for example, that might be updating case studies for our website, or credentials decks, or having an opportunity to onboard new hires who maybe haven't had a chance to go deep with some of the leadership team since they’ve started, so they get to like sit in a room with us for an hour and ask questions that they want to know. We also have a thing we call Fresh Eyes, which is we take everyone who's been here for less than six months and use that as an opportunity to ask them, "What are you seeing with your fresh eyes here that we are probably blind to at this point because we've been here for too long?" Because if you’re here more than six months, you lose that perspective.
Kelly: Very true.
Michael: So that ritual is something we run every month and it's something that people look forward to, but it's also something I really look forward to as an opportunity to learn more about our business.
Kelly: And I think that's really the reason why I wanted to wrap with that question, because I think that is probably a really large gap in most agencies, and most agency leaders they aspire to have things like that, but their own work just gets pushed to the back burner, but you're saying the takeaway here is don't push it to the back burner. It's only a day per month and again try to get a hundred-percent participation but if it's ninety-five or ninety, it's fine. The point is that you're keeping that continuity and you're bringing in fresh perspectives and all of that. So I love that and I hope that some of the agency leaders that are listening and watching today really, really take that to heart.
Kelly: Yeah, so thank you so much Michael. I really, really appreciate it. This has been awesome, and I can't wait to talk again soon.
Michael: Same here. Thank you very much.