By Lac D. Su, M.S. and Nick Tasler, M.S.
When one thinks of world class inventors and innovative thinkers, such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, we tend to think mostly of creative geniuses who occasionally channeled their boundless mental power into light bulbs and Macs. We imagine them disappearing into the sort of mysterious, isolated place where only the truly brilliant ever venture, only to reappear days or months later to boldly proclaim “it’s alive!” or at least “it’s an iPhone!”
We don’t typically hear about the important role that emotional intelligence (EQ) plays in the process of innovation. Some still regard EQ as that ‘touchy-feely’ force that makes us work and play well together. We know that leaders with higher EQs are much more apt to retain their employees, and that sales and service people with high emotional intelligence log far better numbers than their low EQ counterparts. That is probably why most of us tend to see emotional intelligence as the yang to the yin of technical skills that we credit with product and process innovation.
But as the Industrial Revolution continues to become a more distant spec in the rear-view mirror of the new knowledge economy, the rules of innovation are being re-written. According to innovation Guru Tim Brown, whose design firm was recently named by Fast Company as the 5th most innovative company in the world, the design of innovative processes and products requires a more “human-centered” approach than traditional R&D methods incorporate. It requires skills such as empathy, optimism and collaboration. In other words, it requires emotional intelligence skills. The reason, Brown argues, is that a skill like empathy allows us to see things from the perspective of many different kinds of people, which is a key ingredient for creating a consumer product or redesigning a people-driven process. The increased complexity of today’s products and processes mandates interdisciplinary collaboration.
So, engineers must be able to connect not only with other engineers, but also with professionals outside their department, and with the perspectives and the preferences of customers they’ve never even met. It’s a tall task, especially when you consider that many engineers—the people most often charged with innovation—tend to have the lowest EQ skills in the workforce.