Tag Archives: innovation tools

The Art of Empathetic Observation


revealI just returned from delivering a talk at the Project Management Institute Spring Symposium in Michigan.  The main message I had for this group was while many organizations have ample skill in solving problems and managing projects effectively, the untapped opportunity comes from doing a better job in selecting the right problem to solve.   Most problems are fuzzy, having many facets to them.  In today’s world where we value speed, efficiency, and cost minimization we can too often rush to solving problems without taking time to amply understand them, and their various root causes.

Sometimes slowing down, being more exploratory, and striving for deeper understanding before launching into problem solving can pay big dividends.

In the Creative Problem Solving Process (See Slowing Down to Move Fast), the first important aspect of understanding the problem better, called “problem formulation” is to collect facts and information, driving us to ask more questions and consider more aspects of the problem.

Some of this comes from doing research on Google, or collecting readily available historical data.  However data alone can often present a fairly limited view of the situation.  So, we always like to challenge organizations to add to their empirical data, intuitive information that comes from consumer observations and interviews.  David Kelly (founder of design firm IDEO) likes to call this process one of “empathetic observation”.

Many technical people immediately presume that we can’t learn from ordinary people who are not experts in the technologies related to our business.  One of the participants in my session this week quoted Henry Ford who once said:  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Yes, it’s true that most people can’t imagine something they have never before seen or experienced.  (If you asked people 15 years ago how they wanted to communicate, it is doubtful they would have described an iPhone 5.)


So if we can’t ask consumers what they want from us, how do we gain the understanding we need to create breakthrough innovations?     The art of empathetic observation is a means to observe and listen to customers as they

–          Make their own purchase decisions

–          Use our products or services

It’s not so much about interrogation, more like looking over their shoulder while trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling as they do.

I like to think about it as asking open-ended questions that cause them to talk about their lives in as personal a manner as they feel comfortable and then we have to do the “heavy lifting”.  We need to listen for the current and future possible intersection points between their lives and our products/services.   We are “tuning in” to the things that cause our interviewee joy, frustration, fear, or anger – looking for unmet needs that we imagine our organization might be able to do something about.


Imagine the coffee retailer Starbucks, trying to solve the problem: “How Might We Better Grow Our Same-Store Sales?”  As you can imagine growing only by adding more brick and mortar is expensive, so if we could somehow increase traffic in our EXISTING stores, wouldn’t that be far less capital consuming?   We can increase store sales by growing traffic, or by getting people to spend more each time they come by.

So to explore this question we create 2-person interview teams (one to ask questions, and one to write and help observe) and we begin to interview current Starbucks customers asking them questions like:

–          Tell me about a typical week in your life.

–          What are some of the biggest challenges you are experiencing in your life right now?

–          What are the things that you feel you need help with that would make the biggest difference for you?

–          What are the things that currently cause you to visit a Starbucks outlet?

–          When you do stop in, tell us what the experience is like for you.

–          Etc.

Notice that nowhere are we asking the consumer directly what they want Starbucks to create for them.  We are just getting them talking about their lives as we try to understand them better.

Empathy Map_StanfordWhen the interview is completed, our interview teams try to summarize the highlights of their conversation on a simple one-page template called an empathy map (see graphic at the left).    The map is divided into four sections: Quotes and Defining Words (3-5 bullet points of significant things the interviewee said); Actions and Behaviors (what they described that they did or how they behaved in their life), Thoughts and Beliefs (what we sensed they might have been thinking but never articulated to us during the interview); and Feelings and Emotions (what we imagine they might have been feeling when they were describing their life that they did not explicitly share).

Now the first two sections are relatively easy to create as they come from direct quotes we took from the interview.   But it is the last two quadrants that are most interesting since we are asking the interviewers to be amateur psychologists to go beneath the specific words and deeds to the underlying motivations.  This requires our empathy, plus a little instinct and intuition.

To give you a better idea of this concept in practice, here is an empathy map (see below) for one of our Starbucks Case interviewees, we will call “Alice”.   As you read the summary points on this map, you can begin to imagine how the actual interview went.   The interviewers in their summary seem to be “tuning in” to a host of issues related to Alice’s unmet need to meet new and different people in her life who might be a better influence on her.  You can sense that she may be looking for new people who can become personal friends, as well as professional contacts that might help her in her career.

Empaty Map_AliceWhen the interviewers presented their Empathy Map summary, they talked about how the sensed Alice was somewhat shy, and that “breaking the ice” with strangers was one of her challenges.

Now I imagine that two different sets of observers who witnessed the session with Alice might have summarized the interview differently.   That’s because we all observe and listen with different lenses based on our own personal biases and experiences.

But when we collect interview summaries from multiple groups and interviewees, a diverse array of observations start to emerge that can create a rich fodder for subsequent problem definition and idea creation steps in the Creative Problem Solving Process.

In a sense, each of the separate bullet points captured on the empathy map is a new problem to be solved for Alice.   To me this is an interesting example because this leads Starbucks to think not about another variety of beverage product, but to how they might engineer their store environments in new ways to help Alice and the other customers like her.

Effective brands make emotional connections with consumers who use them.  One way we can do this is by being relevant in the world of the people we serve, making a difference that really matters.   The empathy mapping example described here will help you and your colleagues go deeper in your understanding of the problems in front of them as you search for breakthrough innovation possibilities.

Other Resources

Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions, by Len Brzozowski, lenbrzozowski.wordpress.com

IDEO and The Art of Innovation: The Role of Listening in Consumer Product Development, from businesslistening.com

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

How to Use an Empathy Map, from Stanford’s d-School

Empathy Map, from Gamestorming: a playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and change makers


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Innovation Tip: Design Your Failure System

I’ve written before about the importance of failure in organizations.   Well, not that our goal is to fail, but that innovation (trying anything new) has risk.   And without the willingness to accept some risk (and the possibility of failing), it is hard to imagine how any innovation can be possible.

Most of us can speak from experience (because most of us have plenty) that making mistakes, almost always creates a learning opportunity.  Anyone with kids can attest that when they make their own mistakes and have to live with an undesired consequence, they learn far better than from any lecture or lesson you could deliver.

So today, I want to explore this topic of failing in a little more depth.

If failure leads to learning, this is a GOOD thing.  So maybe . . . making mistakes is something we should be more deliberate about.    Maybe these are things we should showcase, talk about, and relish for the new insights they help us to see.   This seems hard in some organizations I see, where people feel they must hide them from view –engaging in their own mini cover-ups.

Why do we think mistakes are so bad, and failure is not a good thing?

It has to do with how we typically think about it.   Dictionary.com describes a mistake as “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”      With that definition, why would it be permissible for anyone to make one?  Couldn’t we have been LESS careless?   If we had insufficient knowledge, weren’t we responsible for getting educated?

So we feel that failure is shameful, something to be dreaded. Over time, our fear of failing makes us so risk averse, that we only pursue small incremental changes and improvements, rather than reach for game-changing ones.  How unfortunate.

Wouldn’t it be better if we thought about failure in a different way?  When I speak to my son who works in Silicon Valley, he tells me he has met a number of people who have worked for a failed start-up venture, or perhaps have led one unsuccessfully.  Yet out there, there is no negative stigma attached to people who were in a failed business.  In fact it is kind of the opposite. These people who have experienced failure are highly sought after for the depth of their experience.

We need to think about, and manage failing in a more strategic way.

We need to make “Smart Failure” something we appreciate.

In most companies we recognize and reward those who succeed . . . as we should.  But why nor recognize smart failures as well.

In one story I read in the Wall Street Journal, an ad company executive took a bold risk when making a presentation to a client who made kitty litter.   She took a box of the company’s product and loaded it with droppings from her cat and pushed the litter box under the conference table without telling anyone.  When she finally pointed out what she had done, some of the client executives seemed “shocked” by the act, and actually stood up and walked out of the meeting.   Her employer, the ad firm Grey New York, awarded her their first quarterly “Heroic Failure” award—for taking a big, edgy risk.  In their case it seemed appropriate.   This firm talked often about their goal to always make a memorable experience.  Well, the litter box did this regardless of the outcome.

We need to stop thinking about innovation as a discrete event.

Engineers seem to like the idea that there is one “best” answer to any problem.  Perhaps we train MBA students to think similarly.   I don’t know if you think that even people like Steve Jobs just sit down and have an epiphany that produces an iPod that is a vast market success in one try.    It doesn’t really work that way.

Scott Anthony in his book The Little Black Book of Innovation describes that most good ideas come out of a process of trial and error.    If you read The Double Helix (story of the discovery of the DNA molecule) ,or saw  the movie The Social Network (the story of the creation of web tools that ultimately became what we know today as Facebook) you can see that innovation is more often messy, random, lucky, and filled with missteps and even near-death experiences.

Facebook didn’t start as Facebook. It started in October 2003 as Facemash, a simple tool that Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg created to allow people to rate the relative attractiveness of pairs of students.  Then Zuckerberg created (or borrowed from the Winklevoss twins) the idea of a social network for Harvard students.  It expanded to other Ivy League universities and then other universities before finally branching out to a mass-market platform.  If you thought that Mark Zuckerberg and three of his best friends sat down one week and created it in one intense blitz you couldn’t be more wrong.

Sometimes successes are born from failures.   Consider the example of Sildenafil.    This was the result of a massive R&D effort by the pharma giant Pfizer that was seeking to develop a medication that could alleviate chest pains.  During clinical trials, in 1994, Nicholas Terrett and colleague Peter Ellis discovered that in many people, the drug had a very embarrassing and unanticipated side effect.   They were failing. Rats.   Four years later, Pfizer introduced the pill as the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra.

The message here is that the failure wasn’t the story.   The real story was about what they learned from the failure and how they adapted.

Design little failures.

We need to think less about trying to prevent failure, and more learning to manage risk.  If our idea has risk, challenge your team to think about how to minimize the impact of a possible failure.  Don’t roll it out nationally.  Try a small test market first.   Built a prototype and test it, before committing to a full commercial version.  Try the idea in one work cell, not the entire operation. Then see what you learn, and plan your next phase based on how you now assess the remaining risk.

This is sort of the idea behind rapid prototyping.  Build a simple model. Test it. Improve it. Test again.

Reward BEHAVIORS as well as performance.

I am not generally a big fan of the performance management systems I see.  Often we focus heavily on results (generally metric driven), and that’s what gets recognized and rewarded.   At some point, of course, we all need to achieve intended business results.  But along the way, when you see employees ACT in ways that you want them to (like the ad agency litter box person) then why shouldn’t this be recognized as well.   The rewards don’t always need to be monetary, but if you want a culture in innovation, you have to accept that this sometimes involves experimentation, and sometimes failures. You want to send a strong message that “smart mistakes” are valuable and make sure your organization highlights them (in a positive way) and learns from them.

Other Related Articles

How to Encourage Learning By Making Smart Mistakes

Innovating Ones Approach to Failure can Reap Large Successes

Why Failure Drives Innovation

Better Ideas Through Failure

Here’s Richard Branson on Learning From Failure:

Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation

Think Better (Through Biochemistry)

Have you ever felt that it would be useful if you could “amp up” your thinking and problem solving skills?  Who wouldn’t?   Would you like to be a more creative thinker?   I know I would.  What if you could do things by yourself that would help you on all accounts?

First a Science Lesson

I came across some interesting work in an article called Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box, by Swedish neuro-researchers Manzano, Cervenka, Karabanov, Farde, and Ullén.  (Warning: it is pretty heavy reading if you don’t have a chemistry degree.)

These people were looking into the link between dopamine (the chemical substance commonly associated with pleasure and some addictive behaviors) and creative thinking.  One crucial skill correlated with creativity is called divergent thinking.   In fact, this skill can be tested.   Such tests typically involve generating a multitude of novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions.  For instance participants might be instructed to propose different uses for certain artifacts, such as a brick or a shoe, within a limited time.

Dopamine’s are neurotransmitters in the brain that promote information flow between different parts of it.  So in theory, the more information you have flowing between and within different parts of your brain, the more ideas you will be generating.   In fact, the Swedish study found high correlation between one’s divergent thinking ability and the flow of dopamine in the frontal lobe of the brain.

So how do we increase dopamine production?

It turns out that you can do quite a lot, including:

  • Improve your diet.  Eat bananas, and other antioxidant rich foods like blueberries and red beans.   Reduce saturated fat, sugar and alcohol consumption.
  • Exercise more. Studies show that even mild exercise (30 min) will stimulate natural dopamine production.
  • Get adequate sleep.  Sleep relaxes the mind, and therefore aids dopamine production.  For most of us, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

OK, you should be doing these things already.   But among the most interesting ways to increase your dopamine’s, is to experience new things.

If you want to read this article, it is called Exposure to New Experiences Rewarding, from the University College of London.

This seems right, doesn’t it?  When our lives are filled with sameness every day, we get bored, even lethargic . . . like going through life on auto-pilot.  Our brains are not stimulated and we are not at our best in terms of our cognitive output.

When you think about most of the innovation tools and methods out there, they are mainly designed to “surprise” participants with a new situation or assignment they did not expect and then challenge them to look at things with a totally different perspective.    For example, you could ask a group of engineers to list all of the assumptions that they felt were behind the design criteria for a certain product.  Once they have listed their assumptions, try reversing them, asking “What if none of these constraints were true . . . how would that change your design criteria?”    In an environment where it is suddenly OK to think in a different way, people can become amazingly energized and creative.   One assumption they might have listed is the need for a specific low price.   Instead of thinking about how to drive costs down, what about making the ultimate high-priced, high-performance version of your product?   (Why do some companies, for example, think about motorcycles as a low-cost means of transportation (like Suzuki with its TU250X that sells for under $3,800) while others see a bike as the ultimate luxury good (like Harley Davidson whose Electra-Glide CVO motorcycle sells for more than $37,000)?

So challenging people with new ways of thinking can be an effective catalyst for creative thought. Here are some other strategies (guaranteed to stimulate dopamine production):

  • Get out of your office.  Meet offsite.  A new location, venue, or destination can help you clear cobwebs.   Combine your meeting with some activity that your people have never done.   (Personally, I prefer ones that have a learning purpose, like our Cincy Chef program that teaches team planning, problem solving and executions skills in a competitive time-constrained cooking challenge that we do in a specially designed kitchen design studio.)
  • Visit and talk with customers.  Be prepared to have you assumptions challenged, all you need to do is go out where customers are, ask them questions, and listen without getting defensive.  Conduct surveys, or have a focus-group.    Be on the lookout for the unexpected things that they dislike, find value in and where they find it disappointing to do business with you.
  • Visit other companies.  I have never visited another company (whether a supplier, customer, client or competitor) where I did not learn something valuable.   Everyone is good at some things that you are probably not.   At some level, many of us are trying to solve the same problems (like drive down cost, improve our customer experience, safeguard our information, develop successful new products, etc.)   Sometimes others will have thought of solutions you have NEVER considered.
  • Look outside your industry, or region.  In my business, we operated in Asia, Europe, and North America. When traveling throughout our markets, I was always struck by how differently customers in these regions saw our products, defined quality, sought features, or expected support differently.    Each difference (even subtle ones) you observe just might trigger ideas that could be applied elsewhere.  Also your “home team” is not likely to have a monopoly on all clever ideas.
  • Play (like you once did).  See also my article Play . . . Seriously?   Take a group of adults, give them pile of Lego blocks or Tinker Toys and then challenge them build something in a way that relates to a business problem they are facing.  Here again, in the right environment, the inhibitions will melt away, increasing dramatically the flow of ideas. Good facilitation helps.
  • Go to a conference.   I’m convinced there is a conference addressing almost every imaginable problem or issue you can imagine across the globe.  Do your homework by researching the conference, checking out the social media comments, and evaluate the speakers before you sign up, but pick some that are strategically important to you and your business, and go immerse yourself in a world filled with thought-provokers and thought-leaders.   You only need to meet one key person or hear one key new idea to make the event worth it.   Then come back home and talk with your colleagues about what you learned and how it might be adapted within your business.

You might feel that these ideas or activities take too much time, or cost too much.   You may feel “how can we afford it?”  I would ask you “How can you afford not?”

Other Source:

Here is an interesting TED talk on the chemical drivers behind creativity and how we interpret patterns.

Leave a comment

Filed under Innovation, Personal Leadership