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Empathy & Co-Creation

Throughout its existence, the Swiss furniture company IKEA has taken an approach of empathy and co-creation with its users. They use collaboration in creating solutions in product design and a business strategy that mandates that IKEA co-design their products with users. This has been such a winning strategy that they decided to scale their co-creation efforts in 2018 by launching a digital platform “co-create IKEA”. This platform allowed them to source, for free, innovative strategies around the globe from their users.

Before the digital co-create platform, IKEA employees would conduct in-home visits with their customers around the world. Now with the digital platform, they have the ability to source strategies for innovation and have dialogue in the “problem phase” with thousands of people around the world in the early product development stages. After all, users are the experts when it comes to their lives at home.

When I was a cabinetmaker, I would come to people’s homes and talk with them… together, we looked at their needs, the problems they wanted to solve, and how the solutions could play a role in their lives. Interestingly, when we looked at problems and solutions together, we would come up with more ideas.

—Johan Ejdemo, Ideas and Exploration Lead at IKEA

IKEA is not alone in this approach. Many of the world’s most innovative companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and LinkedIn have policies where they allow and encourage free time for their employees to work on passion projects, connect with end-users, and develop ideas. These innovative companies understand that their users are the ultimate champions of their brand and their best disruptors/innovators.

To harness the power of co-creation and transform it into scalable, innovative strategies, companies must listen to the people closest to the problem they’re trying to solve—1) your users and 2) your employees most connected to your users. Active listening with users and front-line employees means prioritizing empathy as a business strategy. Demonstrating awareness and commitment to that sentiment means providing research-backed, user-tested justification for business objectives and innovation strategies.

Many companies already have the right employees and the right target users, but don’t possess the culture to drive empathy. In this way, corporate culture can be an innovation strategy. By actively listening to your people to understand their point of view and championing their ideas and opinions of others, companies can begin to elevate new perspectives on how their business or products can evolve.


Actions that demonstrate empathy are more dynamic and complex. By implementing the following five methods into the innovation process, leaders can create a culture that promotes innovation regardless of scale.


Allow innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities. The first method for creating an innovative culture is to allow people to question everything.

  • What are you missing?
  • Why do you do things this way?
  • What can you offer that is not a standard expectation for the industry or for your users?

Questioning the process and expectations is a truly innovative strategy to challenge the status quo.


Help innovators detect small details that suggest new ways of doing things. Many companies get caught in the trap of how they expect people to use their products versus how people actually use them. Ethnographic research, or simply watching how users interact with your business and other businesses, can easily reveal pain points and areas of friction that can be solved by innovative strategies in your product and marketing departments.


Enable innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds. Reaching out to users of your business’ product or service, as well as disbelievers can provide valuable insights and help innovative strategies emerge. These fringe use cases can oftentimes reveal hidden opportunities or looming challenges that can help inform your innovation roadmap or spur new ideas for how to capture these outsider audiences.


Promote innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart, and test new ideas. Experimenting can be as easy as piloting new products, services, features, and ideas and then putting them into action for more active feedback. Creating a space for experimentation, whether as an official outlet for the company or as an opportunity for individuals to explore, reinforces a culture of innovation by institutionalizing the idea that you are open to new ideas and approaches.

05—Associational Thinking

Draw connections from questions, problems, or ideas from an unrelated field. One of the most powerful innovative strategies is the introduction of new inputs or data to an existing process or approach. Triggered by questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and the outputs they generate—associational thinking expands the realm of possibilities and connections to inspire creative ideas and drive innovation.

The Research

No matter what phase your company is in, it takes a certain level of trust from both internal and external stakeholders to foster a continuous cycle of innovative strategies. The problem facing companies that have outgrown their initial successes is that individuals feel their creativity is stifled by the corporate structure. Employees would oftentimes rather go to a colleague than a manager for value-added feedback. This suggests that there’s room for improvement in the corporate structure and that the modern employer/employee relationships could be ready for the next big phase of disruption.

Research further suggests that leaders and executives are disappointed in their ability to stimulate innovation, with 65% of senior executives not fully confident about their decision-making in innovation. Sustaining innovation at scale, the kind which has a significant financial impact is even more difficult and requires a perpetual, actionable understanding of your users. Given there are no best practices to grow and harvest innovation or empathy, the relationship with users becomes more difficult to maintain as innovation is generated at this scale.

Empathy Based Rewards System

It can be natural for a leader to avoid diving into the darkness and embrace empathy to grow and cultivate innovation. Many may feel a loss of control in the process spiraling toward chaos and confusion. Although it can seem like a large leap of faith at first, and completely disruptive to the organization, this disruption ultimately unifies the brand, its stakeholders, and users. Think of it as an emotional component of investing to ensure that your company’s mission is achieved. A bottom-up, empathy-based reward system demonstrates that the value is in the user. A belief that has the potential to transform them into both your best innovators and brand ambassadors.

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