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It is transcendent when voices join to sing in harmony. Connected through expiration and inhalation, attuned to each other to modulate pitch, adjust tempo, fine-tune volume, convey emotions through the vibration of air across vocal cords. An act of guided breathing that soothes both the listeners’ and the singers’ hearts.

One fateful Wednesday evening in 1974, inventor and scientist Arthur Fry struggled mightily to achieve that transcendent experience. He couldn’t find his place. An avid choir participant, Fry had marked the pages in his hymnal with paper scraps, but they had fallen out at some point, and now Fry didn’t know from what page everyone was singing. As he looked over the shoulder of the choir member in front of him, the seed of a breakthrough began to sprout as a problem to be solved. “There’s got to be a better way to mark your page than a scrap of paper,” Fry thought.   

Deeply focused on this problem, Fry missed the pastor’s sermon. Little did those standing beside Fry know that as they were wishing peace upon him at the end of the service, his wandering mind had landed on a solution for their shared problems of marking up their hymnals so the choir could perform well together, sharing breath in unison to praise something bigger than themselves.  

Innovation and social/emotional intelligence

Fry brought that eureka moment with him to work that Thursday morning at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., or 3M, as it is known today. A product development researcher, Fry zeroed in on insights gained from a lecture he attended from Spencer Silver III, Ph.D., a 3M scientist focused on adhesives.  

Back in 1969, Silver had discovered an adhesive that stuck to surfaces but didn’t bond tightly to them.   The company had been in search of an application for this new adhesive. Fry put the problem (scraps of paper to mark pages) together with the solution (light adhesive that provides stickiness but not bonding), and the Post-it Note, along with its estimated $1 billion in annual sales, was born.  

One of the power skills that Fry leveraged in bringing 3M’s Post-it Notes to market was social and emotional Intelligence. Social and emotional intelligence is the ability to understand how the emotions and social interactions of team members, and yourself, impact others in your organization or customer base. When it comes to innovation, social and emotional intelligence is a key skill to help you observe and listen to the daily frustrations your customers may face, as well as incorporate feedback from your team in the development of new products and services.  

Emotional maturity: a prerequisite to finding lasting solutions

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover is a great example of the impact of social/emotional intelligence on product innovation. In a March 2021 MIT Technology Review article, Gynelle Steele, deputy program executive for NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program described how she trained her team to listen for the insights from small businesses and how to nurture those small businesses to meet NASA’s requirements for the program.

“A sure way to stifle innovation is to not have the emotional maturity to recognize that innovation and creativity can come from many sources,” she said. “I think that our agency has hugely benefited from research institutes, large businesses, small businesses, and individual contributors. The capacity to recognize untapped sources of innovation, then bringing them together in a system, is a great ability to have.”

Who among us doesn’t think that every thought from their head is a pearl of wisdom? If you asked my kids, they would simultaneously roll their eyes and add me to that list. It is easy to think that the solution we have arrived at is the only possible solution and that everyone else has no idea what they are talking about. What NASA’s Steele is arguing is that it is only through taking an approach that has at its core the belief that others have answers to questions we might not even know exist but that will lead to the solution we are seeking. This is the only way to achieve a big, hairy, audacious goal, such as, you know, successfully landing a robot on the surface of Mars.  

Back on Earth, think about all the different stakeholders that can impact your solution-seeking as it relates to the planning, design, construction and maintenance of the health care built environment. The adult child that walks with their aging parent from the parking lot to the front door. The environmental services (EVS) technician that has to maneuver their cleaning equipment around the wonky placement of an exam table. All the staff waiting for not enough elevators to get them out the door at a shift change.  

Every single one of these people has thought through a potential solution, or more importantly, a clear definition of the problem that they are facing. And the kernel of all great innovations is a problem to be solved. So, the question is, are you emotionally mature enough to listen to those people and the problems they face? 

The importance of emotional intelligence in the age of artificial intelligence

If you listen in very carefully at the cusp of transformational shifts, you can hear possibilities that you can help to amplify, turning quiet whispers into bellowing shouts. Thomas Edison on the edge of the electrical age. Ray Kroc biting into a burger made by the McDonald’s brothers along the highway. Grace Hopper literally debugging her computer.  

We’re on the cusp of another of those transformational shifts, as the information age turns to the intelligence age. Artificial intelligence radiology support, robot medication dispensers, virtual surgical training. These advances will no doubt impact the delivery of care and the environments that care will be delivered in.   

But algorithms beget algorithms. Artificial intelligence will replace many things, but it won’t replace the emotional intelligence of a doctor who knows to ask one more time, “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” It won’t replace the emotional intelligence of a supervisor who knows that their crew member needs another day to heal from a concussion. It won’t replace the EVS technician who knows she can make the tools of her trade work a little bit better and fills her journal with sketches proving her theory.  

As technology speeds toward the realm of magic, it will be crucial that we all do a better job listening to one another, adjusting our pitch, our tempo, our volume as we breathe together toward the transcendent.

Adam Bazer, MPD, is senior director of knowledge product development at the American Society for Health Care Engineering.