Two Kinds of Empathy for Successful Innovation

by Michael Graber

Two Kinds of Empathy for Successful InnovationIf you unpack the stories of most successful innovations, you’ll find that a deep immersion into the user experience of a product or service is the key that often unlocks the potential of the concept. Call it ethnography. Call it primary research. Call it field research. Call it empathy.

For more than a decade, getting Research-and Development and Marketing teams to go out into the context of the field has been the missing element in the insights work that drives meaningful innovations.

Getting to know representatives that may use the products or services being innovated and their worldview is such an inherently valuable thing to do—and it’s the essence of smart business, the kind that keeps its hand on the pulse of its market.

But, it’s not everything.

Now, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Consumer-centric, customer-centric, and user-centric studies often led to a one-dimensional knowing of a complex problem—and if you put too much weight on just this primary data set, you miss other worlds of possibilities and other insights into opportunities.

Esoteric Empathy—let’s call it what it is. Getting inside customer (if B2B) or consumer (if B2C) heads in the inner work that mines the psyche for unarticulated needs in the market via their experience. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this work Esoteric Empathy, as it discerns often unspoken needs from a relatively small group of people.

Going deep with real people can be really potent for an innovation project, but it cannot answer all the questions that both started the project and also arise in the course of the project. Here, we must call on a different type of knowing to filter and frame the first-person findings. This is market awareness, or Exoteric Empathy.

Using such tools as market sizing, competitive studies, trend data, benchmarking of adjacent industries (and many others) gives a badly needed context for the esoteric empathy. Let’s call this data that exists in the world Exoteric Empathy.

Wisdom is never original. Innovation is easy—if you work to understand the inner lives of your target customers and the outer forces of the market in which they dwell and you do business. Apply both Esoteric and Exoteric empathy to ensure a successful front end of innovation project.

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Michael GraberMichael Graber is the co-founder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis. Follow Michael @SouthernGrowth

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