Why good innovation needs the human touch

Why good innovation needs the human touch

The power of human-centric innovation through embracing unusual perspectives

Although different cultural perspectives are often seen as fuel for disagreement and dissent, they can in fact generate a positive creative dynamic. This second article on empathy reveals how embracing apparently opposing viewpoints enables human-centric innovation.

Originally published in a similar format as an article online by Human Resources Media with the title ‘Why good innovation needs a human connection’.

The Japanese have a couple of useful terms for two contrasting creative perspectives.

The word shukanteki, firstly, reveals why they believe it is important to embrace and empathise with all cultural perspectives rather than just taking one point of view. It refers to the concept of subjectivity and means literally ‘the host’s point of view’.

The second word, kyakkanteki, takes another angle in referring to ‘the guest’s point of view’. It implies the ability to perceive oneself or a situation from the outside, as if from the perspective of a stranger looking in.

The Japanese believe that all phenomena can and should be seen from multiple points of view.8 While westerners place high value on detached, ‘objective’ perspective and an unemotional, scientific approach, the Japanese believe that each additional perspective contributes to creating a more comprehensive, connected and holistic picture.

This holistic approach can lead to much deeper insights for authentic human-centric innovation.

Learning to feel what others feel

Watching someone else in pain can give us some sense of going through the same experience ourselves. This is not just the imagination at work; it is about triggering a deeper physiological connection through our innate ability to relate to what others go through.

We can, in fact, literally feel others’ pain. Simply observing someone else receive a pinprick to their finger can elicit in us the same response in the same neuron.

This is a survival mechanism: by learning from others through imitation, we can learn how best to survive. But researchers believe it is also a means of connecting us with others and helping us to relate to them through empathy. It helps us to access and understand the minds of others, which facilitates social behaviour.

People who are more empathetic have been found to be more purpose-driven and more successful, mostly because they have a greater understanding of the reasons why they do what they do. They are able to embrace failure more readily (a core requirement for creative thinking, because it requires the ability to try, fail and try again), and they see setbacks as temporary obstacles and positive learning experiences rather than as indications of failure.

From introspection to outrospection

Philosopher Roman Krznaric proposes that outrospection, as an antidote for the introspective perspective of the twentieth century, can help develop curiosity and creative thinking and ultimately build better relationships and a better world.

By expanding your moral universe, and by understanding others’ world views and beliefs along with the experiences that shaped them, Krznaric suggests, you can expand your thinking and open up possibilities for real transformative change. (It’s worth watching Krznaric’s animated video for a good overview of his ideas.)

We have argued that empathy is a foundation for creative thinking and the first essential step in the purpose-driven innovation process. It should also be the driving force behind transformational human-centric innovation. It is a simple yet potent tool for cultural understanding that takes us beyond our more limited perspectives and into the realm of the possible.

Sure, innovation may be triggered by a competition or hackathon, or it may arise from a casual observation or desire, but the purpose-driven innovation we are talking about here can only come from a connection with people’s deeper needs. It is only through being able to see things from other angles, to experience things the way others experience them, that we can learn to get outside our own habitual ways of thinking and see things differently.

Travel far and wide before zooming in

Human-centric innovation ensures that whatever creative ideas are developed will actually connect with the end user by meeting a relevant deeper need or addressing a relevant challenge. Yet we need to take the time to, at least metaphorically, ‘travel far and wide’ in order to gain the broadest perspective possible before zooming in on a particular experience.

As ex-Stanford d.school associate Dave Thomsen has stated, “To stay innovative you need to stay inspired. Despite the plethora of information available behind the comfortable confines of your computer screen, you risk mental stagnation when you fall into predictable routines. Get out into the world and into the contexts that people are using your product (or service) – you’ll be surprised how quickly unexpected opportunities are revealed.”

Here is a checklist of simple ways you can incoporate other perspectives during the innovation process:

  • Deliberately seek different viewpoints to your own to help frame the challenge: Ask diverse people how they see the challenge in order to ensure different perspectives have been considered
  • Incorporate multiple points of view in the whole process: Include a range of people from different backgrounds in the problem-solving process to ensure different perspectives are considered throughout
  • Consider diverse perspectives when ideating: Try the exercise ‘What would xxx say?’ when ideating to come up with different ideas, eg, ‘What would Gandhi say?’, ‘What would an alien say?’, ‘What would a child say?’ etc.

This process of seeking the broadest possible perspectives before zooming back in on specific connections and potential solutions can ensure a powerful human-centric approach to innovation.


  1. Cushman, D. P. & Sanderson, S. (Eds) (1995). Communicating organizational change: A management perspective. Albany: state University of New York Press
  2. Iacoboni, M. (2009). Imitation, empathy and mirror neurons. The Annual Review of Psychology, 60: 653–670. Retrieved from http://www .annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604 10
  3. Krznaric, R. (2012). The Power of Outrospection, Retrieved from https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG46IwVfsu8
  4. Thomsen, D. (2017). Why human-designed innovation matters, Wired, Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/insights/2013/12/human-centered-design-matters/
  5. Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-turner, C. (2000). Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in business. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.


Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy Gaia and Andrew help to develop innovation cultures for a range of international organisations from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs. The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers, and Gaia is a doctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School. For more information see www.the-innovation-race.com.

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