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Innovate With Empathy

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I had the good fortune to hear John Marshall Roberts speak at Sustainable Brands '10 this week. Roberts is a psychologist and communications specialist who works with corporations and government agencies. Many of his lessons, however, apply extremely well to innovators who want to tap the unconscious needs of their target.

Roberts broke down his learnings into two rather simple points:

1. Be authentic.
2. Know your audience.

In essence, these points are two sides of the same coin - authenticity describes the human qualities that make us all the same; and knowing your audience describes the differences that make us all unique.

Authenticity - the big 'why'

Corporations today are struggling with authenticity. As Roberts posits, it's because they increasingly need to redefine their reason for existence.

Prior to the rise of corporate social responsibility as a force in business, companies could sum up why they were in business with a simple to make money. However, today's consumers are expecting more.

Successful new companies like Method and Tom's Shoes are including an uplifting, socially conscious mission in their why. Tom's, for example, describe their why as 'To help poor children'. Making money by selling shoes has been relegated to what they do and how they do it - both in service of their socially conscious why.

The advantage of the uplifting why is that it ignites inspiration; it connects the corporation to the humanity in stakeholders, shareholders and consumers; it ties into the dna of the brand; and it rings genuine and true.

The lesson for innovators is clear - if your reason for innovating is simply to make more money, you need to start digging deeper.

You think you know your audience?

Roberts went on to talk about worldviews, the differing visions of the world people have. Like imbuing your innovation with a why that connects, communicating with an appreciation for your audience's worldview helps break down barriers of mistrust that surround the introduction of anything new.

These differing worldviews are usually a factor of:

1. Different values lenses - different shades of values people have, which give them different perspectives on a story.
2. Different filtering styles - individual means of screening information based on triggers and internal sorting mechanisms.
3. Degrees of social optimism - Ways of interpreting realities based on the optimism or pessimism of the viewer.

Renowned social psychologist Clare Graves was an innovator in this field, breaking down audience worldviews according to eight levels of evolving human behavior systems.

1. Autistic thinking. Traced back to 40,000 BC, this type of thinking was characterized by living in the moment, and feeling helpless before the terror of nature. A strong desire to live in tribal units for security helped mankind evolve beyond this behavior.
2. Tribal thinking. Post 40,000 BC. Civilization was tribal, and suffocated by tribal rules. The chief factor contributing to the demise of this behavior system was the desire to break free and set out on journeys of self-determination.
3. Heroic thinking. 8000 BC. A behavior system favored by early conquerors like Atilla, Genghis - but very much alive today in dictators and gang lords. This form of thinking favors taking what one wants, creating empire, and domination. Clearly not a form of thinking for the meek, it was largely supplanted by the search for deeper meaning and a true, spiritual leader.
4. Absolutistic thinking. 4000 BC. A backlash against heroic thinking, absolutism favored the clarity and discipline of rigid morality. Honor, self-sacrifice, a fear of contradiction and a strict code of behavior characterize this behavior system. Today, absolutism is personified in conservative thinkers.
5. Individualistic thinking. 1300 BC. This behavior system is the ultimate meritocracy. Supremely focused on the ego, individualistic thinkers regard life as a game to be won - even at the expense of others. It is alive and well on Wall Street.
6. Humanistic thinking. A recent evolution. Humanistic thinking favors community, empathy, inclusion and sharing. Humanistic behavior rose to prominence in the 1960's in the hippie generation.
7. Systemic thinking. An even more recent evolution. Systemic thinking favors reinventing and redesigning life's systems with pragmatic idealism. A form of thinking that favors innovation, it has come into prominence with the sustainability movement.
8. Holistic thinking. Nascent and still evolving. All about following inner intuitive guidance and acceptance of all life, this behavior system is not yet fully defined and practiced.

Breaking down worldviews into these categories is an incredibly effective tool for providing context and understanding to those wishing to build empathy with different audiences. In fact, it was practised with great effect by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign - helping convince even conservative 'absolutist' voters to embrace a very 'systemic' concept of Change.

So where's the value to innovators? We define communication as one of the three pillars of effective innovation. Communication helps us socialize consumers to new ideas that may challenge their perceptions. By modifying our messages to reflect the worldviews of our audience, we can ensure a speedier, more enthusiastic uptake of the innovation.

Think human

Creating the new is never easy. And ignoring the very human characteristics of our audience only makes it harder.

By creating an innovation with an uplifting why, and explaining it to consumers with empathy for their worldview, we boost the odds of our own success.