28 May 2008

How important is empathy?

Lots of great innovations have happened with out it. Obviously, technology drives innovation right? Not so much. In an industry that few would call immerging, high tech or even innovation, A.G. Lafley of Proctor and Gamble goes to great length in his recent book to describe the virtues of field research and empathy. He constructs his arguments under a very appealing umbrella focused on driving revenue and profit growth, something that ought to get the attention of every executive no matter how mature their industry.

In the 40’s a innovation was derived from basic radio technology that allowed the musical notes from guitars to be electronically reproduced and amplified. The goal was to increase the volume so that the musician could engage a larger audience. The result was something completely different.

Neither Leo Fender nor Seth Lover were musicians. Leo was primarily responsible for the acceptance of electric guitars as a successful technology. Leo was a military trained radio repairman that recognized and opportunity and stretched his knowledge of technology into innovation. Seth, also military trained, took things a step further when he designed the Humbucker pickup that most all Gibson guitars sported. Many historians will tell you that the combination of Seth’s Humbucker and the high output Marshall amplifier created a magical combination of tone and energy that was largely responsible for the late 60’s and early 70’s explosion of guitar oriented rock and roll. Yes, more important than Clapton, Beck or even Hendrix’ genius in shaping the music. They could not have done what they did without that specific technology.

But curiously, both companies have had multiple encounters with corporate death since those pioneering days. The electrical guitar has largely stayed the same since the early fifties. Almost every guitar built today is based upon a half dozen designs developed by either Fender or Gibson in the fifties. Gibson has nearly gone under a couple of times. New ownership groups have had to reinvent the company and they still struggled in a thriving, growing market. Fender nearly collapsed in the 70’s when they were acquired by CBS. Their products were awful. Both companies had plenty of technology, cost management, good business strategies, state of the art manufacturing and huge product demand. Both companies ended up making huge and completely unintentional contributions to an emerging after-market product industry and aided many new competitors. How did this happen? These companies invented and dominated the industry.

Simple. They fell out of touch with the musicians. They fell out of touch with their customers. They let accountants and engineers and MBA’s run the company into the ground. They were not in touch with guitar players. They could not get a handle on what was coming around the bend. And they did not invest in research or empathy.

So how did P&G out pace their competitors? They invested in ethnography. They invested in and leveraged design. They put designers in key management roles (CEO and CMO for instance). And, designers want to know how the product is used, how it works and how it doesn’t work. It seems so simple in hindsight doesn’t it? Embrace and leverage design, be in touch with the customer.