HBS Managing Innovation Winter 2012 Course


Empathy as innovation.

Design for social impact is hot these days. The need for client-centric design was stressed relentlessly at this weekend’s Social Enterprise Conference, no matter the topic—microinsurance, governance, sanitation, or technology. Its applicability to all of these areas—and beyond—was clear.

It’s so hot that several sessions of the conference focused specifically on the design process, from brainstorming to proto-typing for product design. One of the most salient workshops for me was an IDEO introduction to its design process, albeit in hyper-condensed format. The team guided us through the brainstorming & prototype stages by introducing us to the current OpenIDEO challenge, “How might we design an accessible election experience for everyone?

I’ve participated in OpenIDEO challenges online before, but this was a different beast entirely, and participating in both formats helped to process some of what emerged in class discussion on the platform.

There were concerns in class that the OpenIDEO platform may suffer from too much involvement of IDEO and OpenIDEO staff. Professor Lakhani asked us to use this insight to think about the importance of management and facilitators for collaboration. And while I agree that this is one driver of their involvement, I believe that a more fundamental truth is at play here. It is incredibly difficult to empathize.

Yes, although IDEO and OpenIDEO staff and community managers participate to provide feedback on submissions (or by providing submissions themselves), the more essential contributions (in my opinion) are their ubiquitous efforts to nudge people to immerse themselves in the situation or problem at hand.

During the brainstorming session at the conference, staff tried a number of methods to get us thinking deeply about our challenge. To jog our brains about the difficulties that we might face if disabled (and the potential for creative solutions to overcome these), we were shown a video of an analogous situation—that of blind sailors navigating in open water. Then, still keeping this video and a few other inspiration prompts in mind, we were asked to think about the values that one might strive for if disabled (community, safety, happiness) and the needs that one might have (guidance, independence, support).

Each team was asked to come up with its own question to brainstorm, combining these values and needs in a, “How might we achieve __VALUE__ through __NEED__?” format, keeping in mind the broader goal. Towards the end of a structured brainstorming session on these questions, we acted out our proposed solutions in lieu of building actual prototypes.

Most surprising was that of the 7 or 8 groups presenting, the majority of us had lost track of the original prompt—rather than thinking about the difficulties of voting if we faced a physical or mental barrier or restricted access due to language, location, or other factors—nearly all of us presented ideas which seemed to answer the question, “How might we design a more accessible election experience for us?”

Despite it being the end of a long day with a very short period in which to complete the whole process, this was a room full of ambitious, engaged individuals (many Ivy League educated) being handheld by IDEO staff, and we still couldn’t get out of our own shoes.  Although, as one of the IDEO facilitators told us, “Brainstorming starts with oneself.”

Doing so online, as you can imagine, is infinitely more difficult, particularly if one is new to the process. It’s critical for OpenIDEO community members to usher us through each stage and prompt us to get out to understand the individuals that we are trying to address in each challenge, and in creative ways. For this reason, also, I’m not convinced that OpenIDEO is a disruptive technology—yet. Instead, I feel that it could more appropriately be dubbed an evolutionary technology for IDEO given its fluid organizational nature—one that allows it to, yes, harness the power of 50,000 minds to complement its 500.

And though I don’t doubt that the route to empathy can be manifold, including stemming from an online platform, I believe that innovation through empathy is much more likely to occur given a singular focus, persistence, and above all, firsthand experience in the steps of those one wishes to serve.

Posted by sushmita_meka

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