If you are looking to innovate, try looking out the window instead of staring at the white board.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

In a 2013 interview, Kaaren Hanson, then vice-president of design innovation at Intuit, was quoted as saying: “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” That has become a mantra for many in the innovation and product design space ever since. But is it that simple? How do you get the problem right? The key to innovation, for me, is finding compassion for an unmet need; finding that need requires awareness and observations.

Innovation As Defense

The late Clayton Christensen, revered as one of the greatest thinkers on innovation, introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. “Disruptive innovation” describes how startups that develop offerings that meet previously unmet customers’ needs can overtake markets. As their new offerings gain traction among customers, these start-ups often end up creating new markets and new value chains that disrupt the ways that older, larger businesses had been working. That puts those larger companies at risk of having their markets and products become less valued by consumers. As a result, companies of all sizes today are constantly looking for ways to watch their backs and develop cultures of constant innovation. Yet what we’ve learned about stress and the brain, which I wrote about in September, makes one wonder, can we really be innovative when we are trying to force creativity out of fear as so many companies are doing?

Innovation As Offense

Nearly 20 years later, Christensen introduced another perspective on innovation: the “Theory of Jobs to be Done.” Noting that not all innovation comes from disruption, jobs theory looks at the product that exists or will be created and asks the question: what job will this product do? In the beginning of his book, Competing Against Luck, 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 the job is only part of trying to understand the customer. People may have changing preferences for what they buy beyond their personal tastes. For example, what does a certain recipe call for or which substitute is on sale? So, understanding the needs of customer may be more important than understanding the role of the product.

I’m not here to challenge Christensen or his thinking, but when I put these two ideas around innovation into context with some of the recent articles where I’ve written about allostasis and stress, I can’t help but think something is still missing. Is innovation solely about competition? Perhaps the question that drives innovation should be: What are customers struggling with and how can we create solutions for those challenges? That, by definition is compassion: the desire to alleviate suffering.

Innovation as Compassion

That seems to be where design thinking comes in, a concept popularized by Tim Brown in his 2009 book Change by Design. The focus of design thinking is to identify an unmet customer need and then use a series of rigorous exercises to test the desirability (how big is this need and what exactly is it), viability (can it be addressed profitably), and feasibility (does it build on the strengths of our current operating model) of creating a new offering.

This approach is so popular that Stanford University has a design thinking institute (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school) and Google includes information about 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 a compassionate innovation: it gives entrepreneurs an MBA at their fingertips. That was a significant unmet need, especially for those who can’t afford an MBA.)

So, if it all comes down to compassion for your customers and trying to meet their unmet needs (which is what got every business started in the first place), why is continuing to innovate to meet customer needs such a challenge?

Compassion requires unbiased observations and analysis

Perhaps the answer has less to do with our customers and more to do with ourselves. Are our biases getting in the way of seeing the need from the customer perspective instead of our own? That, to me, is the difference between asking “what can’t customers do today that they would like to?” and “what job will the product I want to put out perform for the customer.” Vacuums with canisters that can be emptied without changing a vacuum bag may make emptying the vacuum easier for some customers, and that may be considered a job well done. In contrast, iRobot’s Roomba takes away the need for a human to vacuum, which is different customer need among those who vacuum. Clearly there is a market for both, but the question you ask and the biases you have about the current system are what determine the boundaries of innovation.

That is where compassion and awareness come in. Instead of trying to solve the problem, the first step in innovation, to me, is to redefine the problem. To do that, we need more observations than ideas. As someone who writes about new ideas to challenge current thinking, a form of information innovation, I rely on observations of what is happening in the business world, what are academics and authors saying that might relate to the problem, and my own past experiences to help develop new ideas and innovative solutions to the challenges I hear about. I spend hours each day walking in nature (often along the Boston harbor) listening to ideas, hearing the problems people are facing, watching what people do in their environments, and trying to connect the dots between them. That is innovation. I can’t do it solely at my desk or with a team around a white board. It comes from observations of how the world works. It also comes from a place of compassion. Seeing there is a challenge or an opportunity and wanting to do something about it–or at least wondering what else could be done.

The world today is fundamentally different than it was just two years ago. Innovation opportunities are endless, and only more opportunities will come our way. Perhaps, then, to innovate, we each should spend less time on our own needs and ideas and instead spend more time listening and observing the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. Their needs will help you find opportunities for innovation in your future.