Let’s face it: working on a corporate campus is sometimes not a particularly exciting or adventurous experience. For decades, employees with “desk jobs” inside corporations could expect a fairly standard daily ritual: commute in traffic, badge in, sit at a desk, power up a computer, mix in some meetings, drive home, eat, sleep, repeat, day after day and year after year. The routine that develops can pervade more than just a daily itinerary, it can actually begin to affect one’s mindset and approach to risk, innovation, or trying anything new.
Corporate campuses sometimes reinforce an inward perspective, keeping outsiders from entering buildings and incentiving people to stay on site via on premise cafeterias, fitness centers, and other conveniences. Those amenities offer convenience, but often contribute to an inward focus. Due to security concerns and recent breaches, some companies elect to restrict internet access from their corporate network, possibly adding to a culture of inhibiting exploring and outside learning.
Add to all of this the practice of focusing on increased efficiency and continuous improvement and it is no wonder that companies often struggle to innovate and employees lament that their organization lacks a “culture of innovation.” In my work at Batterii, I have seen leaders stress the need for employees to “get closer to customers,” not realizing that these basic corporate policies and infrastructure make doing this either difficult or (in regulated industries) virtually impossible. Luckily for both employers and employees alike, getting started is easier than you might think.
Innovation begins before the idea. It begins with exploration.
Being tasked with “innovating” can be overwhelming, in part because in the abstract sense that term is about as hard to grasp as jello with chopsticks. In reality, employees innovate every day, they just know the activities by different names.
Brainstorming, trendspotting, researching, interviewing consumers, prototyping - all of these are part of the process that is innovation inside any company. Companies that present innovation as a series of unique activities stitched together in a creative process can simplify the experience and provide opportunities for each employee to contribute where he or she adds the most value.
For many, the chance to be the “Explorers” for the company is an accessible, simple, fun way to add value to the innovation process. As the “eyes and ears” of the company, these explorers can capture clues and inspiration, spot signals and trends, and build the research substrate all departments can use to develop their disruptive new products, services, and experiences.
Exploration builds empathy.
Freed from the physical and perceived barriers of the corporate campus, your company's explorers will build empathy for your customers and develop fresh new perspectives of the market and competitive landscape. Beyond the value of the information they gather and share with internal teams, the new perspectives and understanding they bring back to the organization pays dividends when applied in solving the next big challenges and creating fresher, more disruptive ideas.
Sometimes, even exploring internally can improve a company’s culture and capabilities. I recall a time when I was an enterprise IT manager inside a Fortune 50 company and we had been going across departments and markets retiring beloved local payroll systems as part of the rollout of a corporate standard platform.
Being “in the hub,” I remember our group being dismissive of (valid) complaints about the new tool, chalking up dissent to a “not invented here” mentality. I took exploration quite literally in this case, moving to South America for several months to work with the local IT group with whom I developed a great deal of empathy quickly. By working every day with the local team and having a shared accountability to their customers in market, I was able to understand the core issue, and frame it in a way that the team at corporate would understand.
With this revelation, the corporate team was able to confirm the issue with other markets and adapt the roll out plan accordingly. Thinking back, I used many of the research methods from design thinking - immersions, shadowing, interviewing, etc. - before I knew what those were. What mattered, and what made it successful, was that my company was willing to fund my exploration, and that I (unknowingly but necessarily) used empathy as my guide.
Exploration is for EVERYONE.
Companies won't be successful unless they accept that understanding the customer is no longer the domain of the Insights team. Every function inside a company can be more impactful by putting human needs at the center of everything they do.
Whether an IT department understanding the needs of its internal clients by shadowing them for a day, an HR representative going undercover to better understand the onboarding process for new hires, or a product team co-creating with its most passionate customers, exploring and researching can do more than just lead to new ideas.
In some cases, it can help you remember why you do what you do every day. A friend and former coworker who now works at a children’s hospital drove this point home to me recently. She noticed hospital staff working across functions - receptionists, finance, nurses, and doctors - complaining about the number no-shows and showing a distinct lack of empathy for their patients who are predominantly receiving public assistance. To change that, she is designing activities that force the staff to “walk a mile in the shoes” of these patients to help them understand why making an appointment might not always be top priority. Doctors could be dropped off in the inner city with a mission to make it to an appointment at the hospital while holding a 20-lb sack of flour (to mimic carrying a child), having just $2 to spend, no umbrella, in the rain, using only public transportation. Receptionists might be forced to role play, calling in the day after a missed appointment (due to lack of funds) to reschedule, and understand what it feels like to be chastised by hospital staff.
By building empathy and understanding, these exploration activities might not only surface ideas for improving the patient experience, they could just remind employees who it is they come to work for every day and why.
While there’s no blueprint that will work for everyone, the most important thing for most companies is to just get started. Here are 4 easy ways to tap your inner explorer and start building empathy for your customers today.
- Do a “Weekly Walkabout.” Block out-of-office time on your calendar once a week devoted to Exploration. Work with your manager to ensure that this is valued and there is time for it or, if you’re a manager, encourage your employees to share what they’ve learned. Visit your customers, do a store visit, or just find out what your others in the organization are working on by grabbing lunch together.
- Be a Fly on the Wall. Whomever your customer is, ask them if you can spend a day observing them at work. Be in the background and out of the way, but take notes, pick up on non-verbal cues, and look for ways you can make their daily routines better.
- Trade Places. If you’ve got a customer, swap roles with them for a day. Learn more about what they experience beyond the narrow slice of their responsibilities you might be involved with and build a complete picture of their routine.
- Do Store Visits. Whatever your product or service is, go to the place where it first touches real customers and capture everything you see. Take notes, capture photos, shoot videos, interview customers, suppliers, store managers, etc. Circle back with your team and look for patterns, themes, insights, and ideas.
Ready to take innovation to the next level?
Use Batterii for research, trend spotting, business model development, product service and design, and concept development. Instead of carrying a backpack and notebook, use Batterii’s mobile app, now available in Android and iOS. Download this presentation given by John Klick, an innovation leader at Pfizer, and Batterii's CEO Kevin Cummins, to see how Pfizer is using design thinking and Batterii to foster a spirit of innovation among their 70,000+ employees worldwide.