How empathy enhances an innovative mindset: An exploratory Case Study at HEMA

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One of the most pressing concerns of each organisation is innovation. It can be reached through product differentiation, but innovation is also obtained through having the right employees. Corporate cultures that support to take the risk and think creatively will be led to new products, services and strategies. However, these innovations are only beneficial if they manifest superior value in the customer-driven marketplace. To do so, companies should act upon customer-centricity: the act of placing the customer at the centre of everything one does, by listening to what they have to tell, studying their needs, and afterwards using these gained insights in one’s process. By putting consumers first and empathising with them, one gains an understanding of the target group, but even though this is very important, it is often not sufficient for successful NPD (New Product Development). Instead, consumers need to be present and cooperating in NPD stages to provide valuable feedback. This involvement can be managed with the well-known principle of Design Thinking, primarily through the first step of empathising. Empathy is described as an identification process of “becoming” the experience of the client, and it is based on the two components of affective and cognitive empathy. By balancing these two and with that optimally empathising with customers (understanding the customer; recognising the customer), innovation and profitability are reached. Hence, a new type of innovating was introduced: Empathy-driven Innovation. One in which companies focus on the deepest underlying needs of their users and the quality of those, by putting the customer first and performing all company-energies while thinking on behalf of the consumer, to stimulate innovation.

However, based on a Case Study at HEMA, it was found that there is currently limited contact with (and involvement of) customers happening in (design) processes within the studied company. The goal of the Case Study was to find out how much innovation was currently happening through both qualitative and quantitative research. The study discovered five lacking factors of innovation to be improved. Firstly, employees should not only acknowledge Customer-centricity but also act upon it. Secondly, employees should use (more) customer insights in the fuzzy front end to build a foundation for their products to make. Also, the perceived level of innovation among employees should be enhanced. Fourthly, all employees should take ownership of innovation: it is not a one man’s job. Finally, HEMA should become a frontrunner, whereas they are right now following other businesses to get ahead. A strategy was created to integrate customers in HEMA working processes, to become therefore more innovative. The HEMA framework, based on empathising with the customer, is short for Hear, Experience, Melt and Analyse. These four steps in the HEMA model are in the first place easy to remember for employees because of the acronym and second of all, they support the employee to engage in customer interaction. The designed HEMA Empathy Toolbox takes care of the company’s lacking factor of innovation. The toolbox contains, amongst others, a HEMA Empathy Card Deck with 42 questions that enable the employee to take on the perspective of the customer. While supporting employees to take on this perspective or to even act as if they are the customer themselves, it stimulates active customer participation in company processes. A Customer Involvement Panel is the end-goal of the strategical roadmap to this issue and is recommended to support employees even more to have direct contact with their user. With this panel, employees can set up meetings themselves to, together with Empathy-driven Innovators, facilitate co-creation sessions with real customers. Ultimately, this HEMA Empathy Framework will improve the rate of customer engagement, and with that stimulate and reach innovation.