In a 2013 interview, Kaaren Hanson, then vice president of design innovation at Intuit, was quoted as saying: “fall in love with a problem, not a solution to it.” Since then, it has become a mantra for many in the field of innovation and product design. But is it that simple? How to properly understand the problem? For me, the key to innovation is empathy for unmet need; identifying this need requires awareness and observation.
Innovation as protection
The late Clayton Christensen, who is revered as one of the greatest thinkers in innovation, introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his 1997 book, The dilemma of the innovator. “Breakthrough Innovations” describe how startups that develop offerings that meet previously unmet customer needs can overtake markets. As their new offerings gain popularity among customers, these startups often end up creating new markets and new value chains that disrupt the way old large businesses worked. This puts these large companies at risk that their markets and products will become less valued by consumers. As a result, today companies of all sizes are constantly looking for ways to keep track of their backs and develop a culture of constant innovation. However, what we learned about stress and the brain, which I wrote about in September, makes us wonder if we can really be innovative if we try to force creativity out of fear, as many companies do?
Innovation as a crime
Nearly 20 years later, Christensen presented a different perspective on innovation: “The theory of jobs to be fulfilled.” Noting that not all innovation comes from failure, job theory examines a product that exists or will be created, and asks the question: what kind of work will this product do? At the beginning of his book, Competition with success, Christensen talks about trying to understand what margarine as a product will do, especially in a world full of substitutes like butter. But trying to understand work is only part of trying to understand the customer. People may change the preferences of what they buy beyond their personal tastes. For example, what is a specific recipe or what substitute is on sale? Therefore, understanding customer needs may be more important than understanding the role of the product.
When these two ideas about innovation are in context with a pandemic global environment where alastasis and stress have a significant impact on decision-making, the question arises: is innovation purely competition? Perhaps the question that drives innovation should be: what are customers struggling with and how can we create solutions to these problems? It is, by definition, compassion: the desire to alleviate suffering.
Innovation as compassion
It seems that’s where design thinking comes in, a concept that was popularized by Tim Brown in his 2009 book Design change. The focus of design thinking is on identifying unmet customer needs, followed by using a series of rigorous exercises to test desirability (how great this need is and what it is), viability (whether it can be profitably addressed) and feasibility (whether it is based on strong sides of our current operating model) creating a new proposal.
This approach is so popular that Stanford University has an Institute for Design Thinking (Hass Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school), and Google includes information on how to use these principles in its Primer app, which aims to bring the basics of business to the masses for free . (Primer is a great example of responsive innovation: it gives entrepreneurs an MBA degree at hand. It was a significant unmet need, especially for those who could not afford an MBA.)
So when it all comes down to empathizing with your customers and trying to meet their unmet needs (namely, why every business started in the first place), why continue to innovate to meet customer needs is such a challenge?
Compassion requires impartial observation and analysis
Perhaps the answer is less relevant to our customers and more to ourselves. Do our biases prevent us from seeing the need from the customer’s perspective rather than from our own? That’s the difference between the question “what can’t customers do today, what would they like?” and “what work for the customer will be performed by the product I want to lay out”. Vacuum cleaners with canisters, which can be emptied without changing the vacuum cleaner, can make it easier for some customers to empty the vacuum cleaner, and this can be considered a job well done. In contrast, Roomba from iRobot eliminates the need for a vacuum cleaner, which is different from the needs of customers among those who deal with a vacuum cleaner. Obviously, there is a market for both, but the question you ask and the bias you have regarding the current system define the boundaries of innovation.
Here comes compassion and awareness. Instead of trying to solve a problem, the first step in innovation is to redefine the problem. To do this, you need more observations than ideas. Leaders from Warren Buffett to Oprah Winfrey are known to spend most of their time reading to help raise their awareness and expand empathy. Attentiveness exercises, such as meditation, have been shown to increase awareness and compassion. Even if you ask yourself how a local business makes a profit, you can start thinking more openly.
Today’s world is fundamentally different from what it was just two years ago. The opportunities for innovation are endless, and only more opportunities will appear in our path. Perhaps for innovation, each of us should spend less time on our own needs and ideas and instead spend more time listening to and observing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. Their needs will help you find opportunities for innovation in your future.