Solving the innovation problem, with empathy.

Here’s what I’ve learned working in the innovation space over the last many years. Companies don’t struggle with generating ideas. There are plenty of great minds and great ideas to go around. What holds innovation back in most companies is the fact that the teams that come up with new solutions often struggle to get those ideas over the numerous organizational hurdles that lie before them.

Rationally speaking, most of these hurdles make logical sense. You need to prove the financial worth of your idea, you need to create a clear go-to-market plan, you need to show how the idea fits with the overall direction of the company, and you need to make sure you have access to the resources you need to make the idea a reality.

Yet, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve personally witnessed new innovations fail to see the light of day despite having all these requirements in the bag, I’d be a rich man.

All of us in the business world are very comfortable with the idea that our consumers are emotional people. We take all sorts of measures to get inside the mind of the consumer to understand exactly what drives and motivates their decisions on a day to day basis. But somehow, when it comes to selling our ideas to our colleagues, we assume that a solid, well prepared business case and plan should do the trick. And when it doesn’t, we get frustrated and disheartened. And we start to blame our organizations and the field of innovation and everyone and everything in between.

The reality is that our colleagues and the organizations we work for are just as emotional and irrational as our clients and customers are. Yes, they need to see a solid business case for a new idea. But that’s not enough. They also need to feel that they can see the idea working when they imagine and envision it in their minds. They need the story of the unmet need to just naturally bubble to the surface. And when it doesn’t, they look for all kinds of problems to disprove the idea before them.

 

The culprit isn’t your business plan. It’s your research.

I co-founded a research company called MotivIndex 13 months ago. But the funny thing is, it took us almost a year whilst working with some of the brightest minds in the innovation landscape, to realize that the reason we were being hired wasn’t just to help our clients understand the unspoken motivations and unmet needs of consumers. We were being hired because we were exceptional at telling the story of the consumer, through the lens of their beliefs, values, underlying motivations, insecurities, vulnerabilities and of course, their alibis. And that story was valuable not only because it helped stakeholders understand the consumer better, but also because by talking about people through the lens of their beliefs rather than their income, geographic distribution or generation, we were allowing stakeholders in these companies to develop empathy for their existing and future customers. They were suddenly seeing their husbands, wives, partners, brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues in these consumers. And even in cases where they didn’t personally share many things in common with the consumer, they could now empathize with the very human vulnerabilities that lead their consumers to act and behave a certain way.

Suddenly, ideas and solutions that were previously in the “it’s good but I don’t feel inspired to support this” bucket, now went into the “OMG we have to do this” bucket. Why? Because the stakeholders in these companies were able to empathize with the consumer’s needs and see the solution being proposed through the eyes of the consumer.

They now didn’t just have a rational reason to support the idea. They had an emotional one.

 

You have a hard job!

If you have a position with an innovation mandate, I believe you have one of the toughest jobs in the company you work for. And I write this article with the hope that the next time you feel disheartened or jaded with your efforts to get your organization to think differently, you will take a moment’s pause to think about why that is really the case. I hope that before you go down the dark windy road of the blame-game, you’ll think about whether your consumer research is doing the important job of helping you build empathy for the consumer across your organization.

 

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