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VOL. 133 | NO. 2 | Tuesday, January 2, 2018


Michael Graber

Start With Feeling

By Michael Graber

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People ask me often about innovation. No one has a clear definition. Innovation is one of those words that mean something different to anyone who hears it. Similar to other words that are filled with misunderstanding, such as creativity or strategy, innovation requires a refining conversation to demystify and better understand. 

The first task is to name what is not innovation. Innovation is not disorganized brainstorming. Innovation is not an online submission form of new ideas. Innovation is not only technology and IT. Innovation is not the job of everyone at an organization. Innovation is not an over-caffeinated synapse of a CEO with a stealthy skunk works team. Innovation is not a room, center or place. Innovation is not a different look at old data with AI. 

So, what is it? Innovation is a repeatable process of generating new value for an organization. It starts with feeling, not an analytical mindset. This value is rooted in pragmatism, solving unmet needs for a specific audience. The trick is to really deeply understand the people for whom you are solving problems. You can achieve this aim by applying empathy, by getting to know them very well. 

The Power of Empathy 

Empathy generates many needs that are not met by the many products that miss the mark and whose remainders fill aftermarket stores and landfills. 

Empathy works for many different audiences: B2B, B2C, nonprofit, health care and more. Here is one from our portfolio: 

For a leading nonprofit: Empathy in this case meant sweating, running the fundraising runs, walking the walks, and hanging out with all of the donors who participate in national fitness events. Whereas before more events were added at a great expense hoping to make a return, we got to know these donors so well, which led to a valuable insight.

This insight was that there was a lot of money and brand loyalty left on the table. In fact, most participants were treated as just runners or walkers or other single-event participants in the database and seen by the default system as annual transactional donors and single-event-based fundraisers. 

Empathic research unveiled the truth. A large group of donors were ready to engage much more deeply and make the leap from transactional givers to around-the-year fundraisers and brand ambassadors. 

As a consultancy with a 10-plus year tenure, we have worked in many industries and with all types of clients: consumer goods, durable goods, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, technology, nonprofits, financial services, even municipalities. 

Here is what we have learned: Starting innovation with empathy will add a dimension of reality to any brand, empowering them to create real solutions for real people, helping them accomplish the task at hand. All it takes is a little time, a small budget and the willingness to leave the building and engage people. 

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at southerngrowthstudio.com. 

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