Tuesday, April 6, 2010

One Day Without Shoes: Empathy in Innovation

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

Bring some air freshener. The boardroom might get a little stinky.

Podophobists beware.

It might be a little impractical, socially awkward, or perhaps simply violates a long standing human resource policy within your organization concerning personal attire or hygiene. But I invite you to at least consider the possibility of going without shoes for one day…or a few hours…or even just a few minutes this Thursday, April 8. Might make you feel like a shaman. It could be enlightening.

I’ve written before about TOMS shoes. Before it was because I wanted to bring attention to their unique business model. It’s innovative, inspiring, and worth emulating whenever possible. Their One-for-One approach, although not necessarily a realistic possibility for a typical organization, should give all of us something to think about. I mean really, who wants to be typical? (Then again I suppose there are other ways of being atypical.)

Today is not about TOMS shoes’ business model. It’s about feet. It’s about not wearing shoes for a day.

TOMS is “asking people to go the day, part of the day or even just a few minutes, barefoot, to experience a life without shoes first-hand, and to help spread awareness of the impact a simple pair of shoes can bring to a child’s life.” If you visit the One Day Without Shoes website you might actually find an event near you in which you can participate. People are going for walks all over the country barefoot.

If you’re not already aware, TOMS sells shoes. And for every pair they sell, they give one away to a child in need. One-for-One.

One Day Without Shoes, independent from the social impact of such a day, actually highlights for me an interesting, useful element within the innovation process. It’s called empathy. In this case TOMS is asking us to literally step out of our own shoes in order to understand what it’s like to figuratively live in someone else’s shoes. This is not unlike attempting to understand one’s own customers. It’s sort like taking Voice of Customer activities to the next level. It’s about vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of another. Increase your understanding, increase your resolve, increase your innovation success by empathizing with your subject.

Even if you can’t take in a meeting on Thursday, April 8th barefoot. Even if you can’t walk around the office without shoes. Even if you’re slightly embarrassed by your somewhat gangly feet. Even if you didn’t get that pedicure. Go for a walk – over lunch, on a break, after work, whenever – barefoot. Might make you feel like a shaman. It could be enlightening.

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