Igniting Innovation through Deep Empathy: Part I

By Jandie Lane

Part I: The Design Thinking Model
Design-thinking in innovation is essential to creating the passionate buyers that will flock to buy your product or service and remain loyal over time.

Innovation is the #1 CEO agenda item. It is crucial not only to deliver transformative or disruptive growth, but to remain relevant in the marketplace and sustain existing businesses and brands. Yet we’ve all seen the statistics: as many as 80-90% of new products fail. Why? Over the course of my 30 years leading innovation initiatives for Procter & Gamble and other Fortune 100 companies, I’ve found that one of the critical factors contributing to the success or failure of an innovation effort is the degree to which it is built from a truly deep understanding of the end-user. Finding that emotional connection and empathy is essential to creating passionate consumers. And passionate consumers are essential to innovation success.

What is empathy in the context of innovation? The common definition of empathy, walking in another’s shoes, is incomplete. True empathy is more than just imagining someone else’s experience; it is about choosing to have an experience that puts you in touch with the mind, heart, and gut of the matter, including mining for subconscious motivations for decision making and purchase. Arriving at this deep level of empathy is essential to move innovation initiatives from opportunity identification to problem definition, all of which are foundational steps in the Design Thinking model of innovation.

Getting to the heart of the matter. Design Thinking is a model for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. It takes an open view and welcomes risk and new, sometimes “wild” ideas. It is a repeatable process in terms of how options are considered, ideas are refined, and selections are executed. Unlike critical thinking, which is an analytical process associated with “breaking down” ideas, Design Thinking is a creative process based on “building up” ideas. It leverages creative tools and techniques to truly identify the needs of people and integrate them with the possibilities of technology and the economic requirements for business success. The Design Thinking Innovation Process helps teams break through to the bigger ideas, grounded in deep human understanding.

There are many innovation approaches. Whether the process is bucketed into three, four, six, or more areas of activity, the essence is the same. Successful innovation requires:

  • Opportunity identification (or problem to be solved), including the trends, socioeconomic, and business environment factors causing, impacting, and/or influencing the opportunity.
  • Deep, truly empathetic understanding of the person you wish to serve (sell to), including the ability to articulate what they are seeking.
  • A method to generate ideas that address your end user needs and turn those ideas into products, services, or solutions.
  • A way to evaluate your ideas.

This is true whether you are a small start-up, a Fortune 50 Company, a large innovation hub within a corporation, or a rogue entrepreneur trying to make a difference.

Identify Opportunities. This first step is grounding your team by identifying the landscape and scope for your innovation project. This includes the following:

  • Company, category, and brand strategy (current and future years)
  • Current and emerging trends
  • Unmet needs
  • “Jobs to be Done”
  • Segmentation and targeting strategy
  • Competitive review
  • Any other key areas which have impact on the future of your business (e.g. regulatory specifics)
  • Scope, both hard and soft lines

Empathize. Once you have your hypotheses about the best target consumer or client, learn about them so that you can create something that the target will become passionate about. Remember, you and your close circle of family and friends may not be representative of your target – don’t make assumptions without going out and truly learning about them. Value comes from looking first-hand at what people do, understanding what they need and are trying to accomplish, and then using that knowledge as a source of inspiration and a springboard for generating new ideas. Any time humans make a decision, there is a large measure of irrational decision making and behavior, even if it is disguised within a voice of reason. Neuroscience has proven that roughly 80% of our thought process is subconscious. Most of our decisions are based on subconscious needs and desires, even though we can articulate a perfectly logical justification for our behavior. This is true of the people we are designing products and services for, and it is true of us and our innovation teams. By observing and speaking directly to end-users, you can solve the problems that real people face. Getting out of the office and engaging in the process, product, and shopping experience is fundamental. This user-first approach taps into feelings and experiences to provide purposeful and informed concepts and changes, versus blindly adding features based on assumptions. I will discuss tools and techniques to develop this level of deep empathy and connection in greater detail in Part II of this blog series.

Define. This step defines the important aspects of your target and the environment in which you intend to innovate. This is about pulling together all the information you have gathered and the learning from the empathy exercises and research. This stage lays out the consumer needs, desires, tensions, and deeper insights. It defines the right (and root) problem to solve and focuses on what needs to be done, not necessarily how. Well-defined problem statements are functional, open up possibilities, and drive clarity and alignment. Alongside those, an innovation brief reflects the business vision and innovation strategy, is grounded in deep consumer insights, and focuses on a tightly defined, clearly articulated problem to be solved. It requires cross functional insight, relentless questioning, suspension of judgement, and finding the precise words to truly articulate what we mean.

Ideate. Ideation encompasses the process and tools to generate lots and lots of ideas so that you can get to a few good ones. Originally coined “brainstorming” in the 1950’s Osborn-Parnes Model, it is important in this phase to shoot for a large quantity of ideas without worrying about quality…at least at first. Think of it as a numbers game: you have to generate a thousand ideas to get to twelve good ideas, five great ideas and, perhaps, one revolutionary/disruptive idea. This is partly because 1) your team needs to first clear their head of all the stuff they have already thought of; and 2) initially “silly” or “outrageous” ideas often lead to very good ideas. I’ve seen this happen time and time again! Someone says something as a joke and other team members build on it, until it ultimately becomes a great idea. Wild ideas are welcome, since these often lead to the most creative solutions and encourages maximum input and participation without fear of judgement or failure.

In some circles, ideation or brainstorming has gotten a bad name. This is typically because the sessions don’t include important elements, and/or no action is taken after the “event” to further refine, develop, prototype and test leading ideas. I’ve found the most effective Ideation sessions include:

  • Structure: defined phases of diversion and conversion
  • Clear and deep understanding of the target audience and the problem to be solved: their needs, desires, tensions and hopes
  • Time: ample time to really be creative – you can’t rush greatness!
  • Play: people think more creatively when they are having fun and don’t feel judged
  • Inspiration: rich material, including interactive tools, images, guest speakers, and thought provokers to spur fresh thinking and stretch creativity
  • Expertise: participants with deep expertise in the business and across functions, plus experts from outside the team, the client company, and the category. Diverse industry experience brings the ability to quickly connect observations and build on ideas as they are created from an entirely different perspective. Looking at a problem from more than one perspective always yields richer results.
  • Outside Expert Facilitation: I’ve learned this over and over through the years; it is critical to separate process and content. It is impossible to fully participate as a team member and properly facilitate the session.

Coming out of ideation, a handful of promising ideas need to be refined and explored directly with the target audience. In some cases, options are combined, and smaller ideas become part of the broader selected themes that go to the next phase.

Prototype and Test. Rinse and Repeat. I’m commenting on these two steps together because they are an iterative cycle of co-creation with your target end-user. A critical aspect of the Design Thinking model is rapid prototyping and experimentation to gather end-user input. The first prototypes can be a concept, digital prototype, or a very rough physical rendering made with cardboard, Duck Tape® and stickers. The first physical rendering doesn’t have to be functional. In fact, you don’t want to have all the functionality built in because you might lose an opportunity to learn more about what your end-user “wishes it would do.” The idea is to put something in your users’ hands or minds, so they can help you learn. Depending on the project dynamics, investment, etc., the testing can be anything from small qualitative discussions, to in-home usage tests, to test panels, to purchase panels, to social media engagement, and more. Through the course of this process, the opportunity is fully uncovered, solutions are refined, and the problem is solved in a way that ignites passion and purchase.

Uncovering the deep consumer insights and empathetic connection that ignites passion is foundational to the Design Thinking process and finding breakthrough solutions that create a better future for your target end-user. This approach rethinks and reshapes challenges and problems entirely, often leading to simpler solutions that are more intuitive, humanizing, and, yes, successful.

Make sure to watch our webinar, focusing on the big picture surrounding innovation through deep empathy.


About the Author: Jandie is a consumer/shopper/human behavior expert with a passion for helping companies elevate and accelerate their innovation, branding, targeting, and communication strategies. Jandie led client-side innovation within Procter & Gamble for 28 years; she now leads innovation workshops and training for Fortune 100 companies, non-profit organizations, teams, and individuals around the globe. A YourEncore Expert since 2013, Jandie leverages her background in behavioral psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to help her clients succeed. She uses tools and approaches from a variety of fields, including Design Thinking, the Osborn-Parnes Model, Improv, Sensorial Exploration, and The Grove Strategic VisioningTM and Graphic Facilitation Model. Jandie received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology from Miami University in Ohio. She has advanced training and certification in Design Thinking from Stanford University, IDEO Innovation, P&G Gym, and Innovation Facilitation from the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI).

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