Friday, September 4, 2009

Innovation Begins With An Eye

What is visible is an important first element in our process of perception. Common to most creative people is the concept that “Innovation begins with an eye.” Joan Fulton Suri of IDEO noted, “The starting point for most of our projects—whether related to products, spaces, or services—is observation of behavior in its natural setting. Teams do this together, along with clients, as a way of learning firsthand about the context, habits, rituals, priorities, processes, and values of the people we are designing for.” IDEO CEO David Kelley also asserted that, “Focused observation can be a powerful source of innovation. As you observe people in their natural settings, you should not only look for the nuances of human behavior but also strive to infer motivation and emotion.” Mark May said that revising your view may yield different results: “The value to innovation in learning to see lies in changing your perspective on the problem. Viewing the subject from every possible angle is a technique artists, sculptors, and photographers use regularly to enhance their ability to capture and render ‘the truth.’”

Because of the importance of first-hand observation to perception and innovation, Kim & Mauborgne said that field research should be the purview of corporate employees: “Send a team into the field, putting managers face-to-face with what they must make sense of: how people use or don’t use their products or services. This step may seem obvious, but we have found that managers often out-source this part of the strategy-making process. They rely on reports other people (often at one or two removes from the world they report on) have put together. A company should never outsource its eyes. There is simply no substitute for seeing for yourself.”

In the 19th century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth's crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” If we have not noticed God’s dynamic presence in the world, perhaps it is because we have outsourced our eyes.

Dr. Gary Oster
Regent University
School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship


Innovation, market research, empathic research, observation, customers


Browning, E.B. (1864). Aurora Leigh. London: J. Miller.
Kelley, T. (2000). The art of innovation. New York: Currency Doubleday.
Kim, W. & Mauborgne, R. (2005). Blue ocean strategy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
May, M. (2007). The elegant solution. New York: Free Press.
Suri, J. (2005). Thoughtless acts? San Francisco: Chronicle Books.