Pull: A Key for Empathy-Driven Innovation

Nancy and I bought our house about three years ago. Since then, we have planted over 300 native trees and shrubs on the property. Most of those are meant to be bird-attracting, but quite a few are also supposed to attract butterflies. A couple of months ago Nancy noticed some huge caterpillars eating some of the plants we’d put in – after a bit of research, we decided that they were Orchard Swallowtail caterpillars. A few weeks ago, we started seeing Orchard Swallowtails (and many other types of butterflies) all over the yard – it’s been great!

Seeing all the butterflies in our yard reminded me of a conversation that I had with one of our research partners at the end of last year, who said:

A lot of people say that knowledge management is like herding cats, but I say that it’s really like herding butterflies. You can’t make butterflies go anywhere – if you want them around you have to create a garden that attracts them.

This idea has combined with several other things I’ve run across this week to help me develop this hypothesis: the best way to be innovative is use empathy-driven innovation, which should be set up as a pull strategy.

Here are the building blocks of the hypothesis. First off, a couple of weeks ago I said this about Roberto Verganti’s Design-Driven Innovation ideas:

I think that Verganti’s examples show innovation from leaders with vision, and a deep understanding of customer objectives. When you combine this with empathy, you are able to figure out which of the customers at the fringe are the ones that will lead to the next mainstream. Design-driven innovation can’t just be based on intuition alone. It has to be anchored in empathetic understanding of the people that will respond to your proposals.

Next, there was a great post by Irving Wladowsky-Berger discussing the upcoming book by John Hagel and John Seeley Brown, The Power of Pull: how small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion:

By pull they mean “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.” “Pull,” they add, “gives us unprecedented access to what we need, when we need it, even if we’re not quite sure what ‘it’ is. . . The power of pull provides a key to how all of us – individually and collectively – can turn challenge and stress into opportunity and reward as digital technology remakes our lives.”

Extraordinary performance generally comes not from people at the core, but from those at the edge, “ . . . because it is exactly at the edge that the need to get better faster has the most urgency. Incumbents at the core – which is the place where most of the resources, especially people and money, are concentrated, and where old ways of thinking and acting still hold sway – have many fewer incentives to figure out the world, or to discover new ways of doing things, or to find new information. They’re on top, and they’re ready to keep doing what got them there.”

The book looks terrific – you can read some excerpts from it here (thanks to Kristin Wolff for pointing that out to me).

Finally, there’s this from Umair Haque’s Awesomeness Manifesto:

It’s the most hackneyed phrase in the corporate lexicon: adding value. Let’s face it: most value is an illusion. Nokia, Motorola, and Sony tried for a decade to “add value” to their phones — yet not a single feature did. Food producers and pharmaceutical companies claim they’re “adding value,” but mostly they’re just mega-marketing.

The vast majority of companies — in my research, greater than 95% — can only create what I have termed thin value. Thick value is real, meaningful, and sustainable. It happens by making people authentically better off — not merely by adding more bells and whistles that your boss might like, but that cause customers to roll their eyes.

When we put it all together, this is what Empathy-Driven Innovation looks like:

  • Empathy-Driven Innovation is empathy-driven because it requires a deep understanding of what the people that will use your innovation need and want. This does not mean that there is no role for basic research, or for technology-driven innovation. But it does mean that we need to undertake research (and thinking) in Pasteur’s Quadrant (described nicely here, the source of the diagram) – where the ideas that we develop are use-inspired.

  • Having empathy for the users of our innovations is the best way to create thick value – this is the path to awesomeness. We can’t create awesome ideas that make peoples’ lives better if we don’t understand their lives.
  • This is fundamentally a pull strategy – we are not creating ideas mindlessly and pushing them on people. Instead, we are creating ideas that entice people. This again depends on empathy.
  • Innovations that pull are inherently network-based. You can’t pull people to your ideas if you don’t have some kind of connection to them. Here is how they put it in a recent blog post:

    In many respects, The Power of Pull can be read as an attempt to reinstate the central role of socially embedded practice in driving knowledge creation and performance improvement relative to the recent emphasis in the management literature of process reengineering. In short, companies need to refocus technology innovation on providing tools to amplify the efforts of communities of practice to drive performance improvement.

Which brings us back to the butterflies. You can’t force butterflies into your yard. You have to create the environments that they thrive in, and if you do it well, then they will show up. We need to do the same with innovation – we need to create ideas that generate genuine value for people. If we do that well, our ideas will spread. But to do that well, we need empathy – we must understand the people that we are innovating for, and create awesome ideas for them.

(Orchard Swallowtail photo by flickr/kookr under a Creative Commons License, and the cartoon is from Hugh MacLeod’s awesome daily newsletter.)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “Pull: A Key for Empathy-Driven Innovation

  1. Timely Post. In most situations people will say oh but this is the soft stuff as if this was one of the most insignificant of things to do.

    It is really all about putting people and their needs first. It is about focusing on what matters most and remove all the jargon and dogma too.

    The question though is putting these thoughts to practice. What seems right has to be implemented too. What is required is that more people act on this and not sit on judgement ( hard vs soft stuff ).

  2. I fully agree with your last point! The importance of execution is another idea that we have pushed pretty hard here – and it is definitely critical.

  3. Another great post, Tim – your combination of thoughts is terrific and absolutely inspiring!

    As you know, I’ve been recently reading a couple of posts on empathy, consumer insights and how to approach innovation in the FEI.

    I am still struggling a bit with the meaning of ’empathy’. For most of us, the term primarily suggests a deep understanding of people’s current needs, attitudes and motivations. But isn’t it as important to understand and anticipate the evolution and change of these factors through ’empathy’ for the socio-economic environment / ecosystem the people are embedded in? This would be ’empathy’ in a broader sense. I think this would also fit to the concept of innovation across different time horizons, consequently requiring a time-dependent approach for empathy and market insight. Would you agree?

    You say “…we are not creating ideas mindlessly and pushing them on people. Instead, we are creating ideas that entice people.”
    In this sense, isn’t the meaning of ‘creating ideas that entice people at the edge’ equal or similar to ‘pushing (visionary) proposals to the market’ in Verganti’s terminology?

    Looking forward to your response.


  4. Thanks for the comment Ralph. I’ve definitely been thinking about your broader sense of empathy as I’ve been writing these posts. I think that the way that you characterise it is correct. And enticing people probably does map on to Verganti’s proposal idea pretty closely.

  5. Innovation is a ‘simply stated’ a search for opportunity.
    Opportunity is the absence of a solution.
    What is the ‘best’ sustainable solution…?
    That is the answer that comes from the questions.
    What is the simplest question for discovering that answer?
    Can that key question be scaled into aggregate benefits?

    I was recently ‘drawn’ into a challenge to describe meaningful business improvement – in just SIX words. The wisdom of the responses was notable and the simple sound-bites were highly ‘quotable’.

    Perhaps we(here?) could also find the “best” question – if we just asked for it…..and what if we asked for it from those who need the benefit?. What ‘question’ would they want to be asked – that could discover opportunity and result in innovation? – would that seem as ‘pushy’..?

  6. That’s an excellent angle to take on it George. I would definitely view that as a pull strategy more than a push. It’s based on needs, & the sustainability filter is a useful addition.

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