by Daniel Hagmeijer, head of strategy & experience design, Mirum
In today’s digital age, new technologies and new competitors are hitting the market at an extraordinary rate. Uncertainty in business is accelerating at great speed, and consumers get better options every day. CEOs, managers—basically everyone is on the lookout for the next billion-dollar product idea.
With more people seeing this opportunity, more employees get pressured by their managers to innovate. The digital revolution has created tremendous demands.
Being asked to come up with an innovative idea sometimes seem daunting, and while some innovations might appear to just “happen,” there is indeed an actual process for generating brilliant ideas that have impact. Cooking up an amazing idea consists of three basic ingredients, plus the proper steps. Let’s dive into the first ingredient: empathy.
How Empathy Can Help You Create Brilliant Ideas with Impact
Imagine the following:
A couple of years ago, near a suburban village in Central Africa, Peter Smith, director at a large non-governmental organization (NGO), saw an opportunity to help the locals. One afternoon, he looked at a map of the area and noticed that people—in particular, women—had to walk more than 10 km each day to get fresh water from the nearby river. Thinking how difficult this must be, he spent $3 million to build one of the world’s most advanced water treatment plants, within five minutes’ walking distance from the village. The water comes from the river, and is filtered and packed in easy-to-carry bottles that only cost one cent per 20-liter bottle.
Mr. Smith felt happy about how he was able to make a change for the better in these people’s lives. No more walking to a river that’s so far away, carrying liters of water for several kilometers. It was the perfect solution—or so he thought.
Two weeks after the new plant had opened, he got information that there were no lines at the plant, and that only a handful of women were buying water there. He decided that it was time to go to the village himself to find out what was going on.
It confirmed what he had heard—the majority of women were still walking 10 km to get the water from the river. He jumped in his jeep and drove to the river, where he saw a group of women walking toward the river. He observed how they were having the time of their lives. He had his translator ask: “Why aren’t you buying it from the plant? It saves so much time and energy.”
“It’s no fun,” one of the women answered.
It turns out these women had no problem with walking all the way from the river to get water; in fact, they enjoyed it! They enjoyed each other’s company and having a break from their village routine. Such a shame, and a waste of money.
So, the first ingredient for creating impactful ideas is empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
If only Mr. Smith had gone into the field to understand the journey these women go through, instead of relying on research where he never left his desk, he’d have seen how the trip for these women was worth the walk because of the social interactions that came along with it. Now, understanding the importance of the social experiences, he could start thinking about how to transform the treatment plant into a place of social interaction, giving women access to clean water and the social escape they desired.
Building empathy relies on research and the ability for each of us to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes. It’s about looking for opportunities by truly understanding the experiences of other people.
Who has time for field research these days? Don’t worry, any time you spend in the field will pay you back fourfold when your innovation is successful.
Think about it: When was the last time you went out and spoke to your target audience, versus reading a brand health report or a report from a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) that was generated in a sterile FGD room in some obscure research facility? Go out and speak to your audience to find out what makes them tick!
Don’t assume anything. Assumption is the death of innovation. Understand and clearly define the problem you are trying to solve. Ensure that you have spoken to your target audience. Don’t put words in their mouths, and don’t show them your idea yet. Figure out what goes on in their lives, and define the problems they are facing that you are going to solve. Does your idea fit with that? Or does it need adjustments?
At Mirum, we do lots of different types of research. We start with an assumption dump: What is it that we already know for sure, and what are the assumptions that we have made? From there we evolve the assumptions into research questions: What are the situations we’d like to understand more about? We utilize different techniques. Interviews are important to understand logical reasoning, even emotional reasoning, but observation is even more important. What are the things that people might not even be aware of? What is shaping that situation? What can you learn from that to apply to your solution?
Last week, four of my team members boarded a flight to four different locations in Indonesia to experience firsthand how we can enhance travel experiences that people have. My team kept detailed diaries of their entire travel experience, from dreaming to experiencing the actual travel, in order for us to build empathy with travelers and understand what they go through. This will feed new ideas that have impact for travelers as well as our client, an online travel agency.
Stay tuned for part II of this series, in which we’ll explore how diversity is necessary to creating brilliant ideas with impact.
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