To find the truth you have to look within

Peter Drucker famously remarked, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”. The same could be said of innovation techniques such as direct observation and journalistic interviews. You might ask people questions and have them tell you stories about themselves, but they can’t tell you how to matter. Finding the WHY is similar to uncovering market insights, you’re piecing together a puzzle and then suddenly the missing piece to the puzzle pops into your head. But that missing piece was founds as the result of perspective shifting and synthesis.

Last week I spent some time with a client who wants to develop his own brand. I literally shadowed him for 4 days in an effort to help him find his truth. In industry parlance this is called ethnography. For me it’s simply Finding The Truth.

As discussed before, ethnography isn’t widely practiced as an innovation activity; though I believe it is the most important and valuable innovation technique available to entrepreneurs and innovators. A common way most businesses go about developing a brand when businesses they don’t do ethnography is to look at examples from businesses who are like them, examples they’d like to emulate.

Another common way to help people find their truth is by asking them questions, and these usually come in the typical “what do you like?” format. This usually yields more of the same answers. And the most common way of finding the truth is the dreaded focus group.

The problem with these approaches is that they yield more of the same ideas, not unique perspectives.

Learning how to find the truth

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A few years ago I helped a company launch their product, originally born in Mexico, into the California market. Part of my work was to “become one of the brand characters”. In this case I became Lalo in about 7 different activities, including going out trick or treating to be able to interact with kids and see firsthand what it was like to see their facet lit up when they approached Lalo.

Though the activity of becoming a character is fun, it really comes down to trying to see what isn’t there. Asking questions such as “who does Lalo want to be to his fans?”. The characters had become somewhat famous in Tijuana, but I thought it was a superficial thing, and taking a brand to another market meant we could build on that, start with a blank slate and define the characters a lot better.

You see, to help people and businesses find their WHY you have to free their mind of preconceived notions of what they do. You do this through direct observation, by asking questions that have never been asked, putting them in unlike scenarios and situations; all in an effort to help them see and hear what isn’t being said and have an AHA moment.

Bottom line: When it comes to branding and innovation, focus groups can give you an opinion, but they can’t tell you how to make meaning from it. You don’t find the truth by simply asking for answers. You uncover it by understanding the right questions to ask, by listening and by learning how to really see your customers.


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