Innovation is one of those tricky words that may mean different things to different people. Like other words that are ripe for misunderstanding — “creativity” and “strategy” come to mind — innovation requires a refining conversation to demystify it.

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.

So, what is it? Innovation is a repeatable process of generating new value for an organization. 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. 

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. Here are several examples from our portfolio:

For a manufacturing business-to-business company:

Instead of spending $10 million-plus and several years to create a new tankless water heater that may not meet the real needs of plumbers and their customers (both residential and commercial), we spent several weeks going on service calls with plumbers, discerning their unmet needs, and then created a range of concepts for them that included new products and services.

In the end, by applying empathy in key phases in the project (specifically in learning the needs and testing the prototypes) we came up with an easy-to-launch program that increased loyalty, greatly increasing product penetration. Compare the old way of planning to manufacture and the uncertain return versus the market-based and inexpensive way of finding a meaningful solution. In a few weeks, rather than years, we had a tested prototype. A learning pilot took a quarter, then a quick, assured launch and fairly quick top-line growth.

For a leading non-profit:

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. 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 another single event participant 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 was ready to engage much more deeply and make the leap from transactional givers to around-the-year fundraisers and brand ambassadors. 

For a leading consumer brand in the allergy space:

This particular brand was in a predicament, a vexing set of problems without a solution, when we starting working with them. They had started the category, were the undisputed branded leader of it for 50 years, but now a private label was the leader in the space. Any move they made was quickly ripped off by the fast-following private-label brands.

The client had 50 years of market research — and its brand position was treated as a matter of orthodoxy based on this history. Working directly with allergy sufferers we learned that there were indeed new ways to meet unsolved needs; however, the brand had to learn to flex and get over itself.

In this case, the brand had been using survey data to meet its unconscious confirmation bias. Once we went into the homes, purses, and medicine cabinets of allergy suffers, we saw the obvious flaw in the whole system. People lie on surveys, answering from the point of view of their idealized self instead of being honest. Doing in-home interviews unlocked the key to growth in this case.

As a consultancy with more than a 10-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 a willingness to leave the building and engage people.

Michael Graber is the managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, an insight, innovation, and growth firm, and the author of Going Electric. Learn more at