How to Build Your Culture of Human-Centered Innovation

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True Leadership entails building empathy for those you are entrusted to help.

I see headlines every day about failed innovation efforts.  88% of Fortune 500 firms that were alive in 1955 are gone or diminished, having missed their chance to innovate.  Only 8 out of 100 startups survive past 10 years.

Did you know Macy’s came up with home shopping channel QVC in 1980?  They thought their key value to their customers was their stores and since this was where they got all their revenue, they didn’t want to risk alienation.  Macy’s management stated that their customers wouldn’t be interested and declined the opportunity; QVC launched as a separate brand a few years later and took off. 

Startups are even more susceptible to failure.  Most of these businesses fail because they run out of capital; the biggest barrier to making their sales numbers is because there is no market need for their products or services.  For example, the first pacemaker was built to record your heart rhythm and was huge, bigger than a television.  Had they stayed with their original value proposition, they would no longer be around but instead, one of their engineers mistakenly fitted the machine with a resister that created an electrical stimulation instead of recording the oscillation and the pacemaker was born.   

Many of these companies closed their shops because of a failure to innovate, to be agile enough to change as the world changes around them.  Typically, this happens because companies fear new, bold ideas will take business away from their current cash cows.  Even though we’ve seen it again and again, established companies think they are too big to fail and their business … or even their whole industry … is disrupted by new products or new business models that deliver more value to their customers.

Do you want to harness the power of curiosity in your team?  Make 2020 your year to innovate  Learn more in this free webinar.

Humans at the Center of Innovation

Even worse than company failures are the people, the employees who discovered and diligently pursued great ideas only to have them ignored.  Kodak is the classic case in point, and one near to my heart because I watched it happen, and then was part of a similar failure in the company I worked for.  If you’re not familiar with the Kodak failure, Steven Sasson, an engineer at Kodak developed the first digital camera in 1975.  He was just a few years out of college.  But his invention was dismissed because it disrupted their core film business.  While they could see how to evolve their technology, they could not see how to evolve their business model.  And while Steven stayed at Kodak and continued to work on his digital camera for the next 15 years, his digital camera never saw the light of day. 

To see your life’s work, your passion, dismissed only to find that it was your company’s undoing is incredibly frustrating.  Kodak didn’t sell the digital camera and Steve along with it (which is what happened to me) but he stayed around to watch it die a slow death.  This doesn’t have to be your path!

What is missing from these stories?  The customer, the human at the center of innovation efforts.  Knowing the intimate details of the people you serve, what they are trying to achieve with your product, why they do things a certain way – this is the difference between an innovation that ends up on the back burner and a solution that is given a chance, that makes a business impact.

There are two reasons for this: 1) a simple design that elegantly solves a problem for your customer will be the preferred solution, every time; 2) clear evidence of customer validation of your idea will be hard for your leadership team to ignore.  Involving your customer in innovation will help you home in on the right solution and give you the ammunition you need to sell it to stakeholders.

Beyond developing your great ideas to change the world (or just your organization), there’s another reason to learn about human centered innovation: the skill in the highest demand in the coming years is not technology or management.  The next era has been called the fourth industrial revolution, where machines are handling even routine tasks such as manipulating spreadsheets.  In the coming years, the highest demand skill will be something that can’t be automated: empathy, the ability to understand people’s needs, collaborate with others to design solutions and clearly communicate their value proposition.

Another reason your business needs to invest in human centered innovation: in today’s global economy, the war is not over territory or price, its over knowledge.  The company that knows the most about their customers, market and society will be the clear leaders of the future.  Don’t believe me?  Compare today’s news vs the news of 50 years ago.  Then it was about litigation over territories, where first to market was a winning strategy.  Today’s news is about cyber security, where knowledge is coveted and leaders like Apple win by creating the experience customers love best.

Human Centered Innovation Learning Loop

A Human Centered Innovation Learning Loop goes through the following steps:

  1. Customer Discovery – using interviews and observation, build on the collective knowledge of the organization to discover a customer problem and hypothesize a desirable resolution, a unique way we can help.
  2. Solution Design – involve the customer to co-design solution prototypes, explore organizational and technical feasibility, and validate the idea.
  3. Measure and Refine – explore viable business and operational models, developing measurements for long-term sustainable delivery


This is a loop, where the desired outcome of each iteration is an increase in institutional knowledge about the customer and solution space.  In some cases, the innovation team will learn what not to pursue; this knowledge is just as valuable as a desirable, feasible and desirable prototype because it minimizes investment in the wrong ideas.  And it frees the team to pursue the right solution.

The right prototype will quickly emerge, and the team will spend subsequent loops refining the experience, design and business model until their learning reveals the game changing sweet spot innovation for their organization.  And I say organization because this works whether the team is exploring internal or external innovation.

If you are ready to explore Human-Centered Innovation for your team, join us in this free webinar.

How to Make Human Centered Innovation Work for You

Innovation is a team sport.  And counter to what we have been led to believe, it is the collective intelligence of the team that determines the outcome of your innovation efforts not the existence of individual talent.  Many organizations believe that if they just find the right rock stars for their team, they will innovate.  But if that team doesn’t “click”, working together to problem solve and ensuring everyone is engaged to contribute their best ideas, the best they will achieve is that of a single individual’s level contribution.

Many of us have never experienced what it is like to work with a team that is collaboratively innovative.  In school we are graded on our individual contributions and we compete with our peers to achieve those grades.  We are hired as “talent” based on our personal accomplishments and our performance is measured based on how well we contribute to our organization.  In the work environment is where we first encounter attributes like collaborative or team player.  But think about the typical way new ideas are collected: there is a suggestion box or an employee brings their idea to their manager. 

What if instead of searching for innovative ideas, these organizations developed teams that worked together to innovate?  Instead of hanging their hats on one individual or one idea, these organizations would have a culture that supports innovation, a worn path for how innovation works for them, their employees and the people they serve. 

To intentionally develop the collective intelligence of teams that work together to innovate requires you step back and focus your efforts not on coming up with new ideas but instead discovering how to collaborate, communicate, and problem solve in a way that brings out the best in everyone on the team.  The human-centered innovation learning loop methods and tools provide a way for your organization to innovate but to successfully become a culture of innovation requires that you make it part of how teams works together.  In my coaching program, we introduce the human-centered innovation learning loop as a way to collaborate and then spend time guiding the team to build contribution and cohesion.  We assess weekly how well the team is working together to innovate and guide them to make improvements.

While the methods of human-centered innovation help you to develop the constraints that are necessary for the right ideas to flourish in your organization, it is the development of innovative teams that ensures these ideas are developed and delivered to the people you serve.  And it is the creation of a culture of innovation that ensures every employee can contribute at their highest level.  At the end of the day, that contribution is what sets your organization apart and makes your organization the best place for each person to bring their creative best to deliver your unique mission.

What are you waiting for?  Make this your year to innovate!