Connecting the Dots Within
  • Innovation

Connecting the Dots Within

How social outreach and cultural intelligence can drive innovation

Tuesday 09 May 2017


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Last summer Whirlpool, the giant US domestic appliance manufacturer, launched its Care Counts social outreach program that puts washing machines in certain US elementary schools. The goal is to allow underprivileged pupils, who for different reasons, do not have ready access to clean clothes, the ability to have their clothes laundered at school by generous and caring school teachers and staff. As conveyed to me by managers and leaders of this program, Chelsey Lindstrom and Greg Boothroyd, Michigan Ross School of Business Alum, it has seen a dramatic increase in attendance from pupils that were previously frequently absent.

The route to this solution for an enduring social problem came about from the sensitive awareness of one school Principal to the issues affecting her most underprivileged pupils. Melody Gunn, Principal at the Gibson Elementary School in St Louis, Missouri, picked up that a significant reason for non-attendance by pupils could be the lack of clean clothes to wear. She approached Whirlpool to see if they would provide some machines in school, and intrigued by the idea and concurrently taking a deep dive into the perspectives of people that could find novel value in their products, the company surveyed 600 teachers across the country to see if the situation was widespread – it clearly was.

What Melody Gunn was displaying is what I have been researching for over a decade: the importance of social attunement in creating better innovation. Social attunement-a notion that includes emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and a keen sense of perspective taking — is a skill we all possess and use widely in our lives, but in our working days it is often suppressed. This is particularly the case in many work cultures, where ‘getting the job done’ and ‘acting professional’ is seen as the over-riding objective to the exclusion of how co-workers feel and react. Though such intense task-focus can, in certain contexts, be effective, it severely restricts our ability to understand the real drivers of other’s behaviour and therefore, key insights that can lead to successful innovations.

The key when innovating is to be able to identify the unmet needs of others. To do this we need to be highly attuned to subtle cues in what others say or don’t say, their fleeting emotional and non-verbal reactions and signature behavioral patterns. With new technologies appearing constantly around us, we find ourselves in the situation of over a century ago, when if you had asked people how to improve on private transport options their solutions would have been adaptations to horses and carriages rather than the concept of the automobile. Famously, and more recently, there was no great clamour a decade ago for smartphones, we were all happy with our Nokia 3310s, until Steve Jobs awakened our insatiable need for iPhones and their competitors.

It is not that we did not have a desire for mobile cameras, internet, and Snapchat then – we just had not been exposed to the opportunity. It is this ‘psychological bricolage’ – the ability to bring disparate concepts together to create new solutions for unmet, and un-awakened, needs that is also central to successful innovation.

In our ‘Leadership Impact through Innovation’ program at Michigan Ross, we explore how leaders can develop these skill sets. Shifting innovators’ mindsets from what people think about their products to people’s needs. The two key facets of social attunement here are firstly a heightened emotional intelligence, the ability to pick-up on people’s reactions and responses to situations and the sense-making capability to see what can be done to improve those situations to produce a better outcome. Secondly, a cultural intelligence, to see how those reactions are driven by cultural factors and may differ from society to society.

These skills come from adopting the practices of cultural anthropologists: building rapport with those around you, and appreciating that these hidden needs often lurk in the qualitative data and not the quantitative ‘crunchable’ data. The good news is that outside of our work persona we show much greater ability to engage these skills. Particularly in the West, we are sensitive to when our friends and relations are responding differently to situations to a much greater degree than we allow ourselves to do with our work colleagues. This indicates that that ‘attunement’ ability is there, just frequently deactivated at work.

When it comes to opening-up to new ideas, and drawing-in new thinking, we need to re-activate that sensitivity. Understand potential needs and drivers from being more relationally attuned to situations, and then leverage solutions by exploring the rich experiences we have all had, inside and away from work, through the bricolage process. Humans dominate the world by our ability to innovate, but to innovate also requires us to be human – relational and sensitive to the world around us.

This short video profiles the Whirlpool - Care Counts™ Program:

Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.

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