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Empathy2 – An Innovation Catalyst

Get a behind the scenes look at how P&G's Sion Agami makes innovation happen in this new series with Jeffrey Resnick looking at innovation from the research client side.

Prologue

This blog represents the kickoff of a new series. This series explores the opposite side of my Transformation IQ eBook and blog series. While the Transformation IQ series focused on CEOs of research supplier-side firms tackling disruption in the industry, this new series focuses on individuals within client-side organizations that help make innovation happen. These are individuals who have that coveted ‘seat at the table’ with executives. In this first article, Sion Agami, a Research Fellow at P&G shares his thoughts on innovation and how to be a catalyst that makes it happen.

Empathy2 – An Innovation Catalyst

Sion brings the experience of 25+ years in research at P&G. His experience leads him to extol the importance of consumer-centricity as the core of innovation. Sion, and his team, are at the heart of the intersection of technology and the consumer. When creating a product and package that delights consumers, they also need to find the right midpoint of what is profitable, manageable and can be produced on time. From his perspective, understanding a consumer’s struggle is where innovation begins. Sion believes innovation is driven less by a sexy new tool or methodology but much more by fully understanding the business question and the finding the optimal approach to answer it. New research methodologies play an important role but are rarely the silver bullet. Additionally, a researcher’s active participation is a crucial element of successful innovation.

Sion draws a distinction between revolutionary innovation – truly disrupting a market with a product or service that has not previously existed and evolutionary innovation, where the goal is to better address consumer needs through modifications/improvements to an existing product. Our discussion focused within the evolutionary spectrum. Within this context, he holds a deep conviction on two points:

  1. The insight professional must actively engage in the research process. He or she knows the product and the value proposition it intends to deliver to the target market the best. It is through the lens of this understanding that product innovation must occur. This doesn’t eliminate the potential for powerful co-creation between a trusted research partner and his insights team. In his world, research conducted in the absence of a member of his team who is in touch with both the product technology and the consumer, is largely a non-starter.  
  2. He subscribes to ‘lean’ methodologies, where agile research plays a critical role. Explore a key business question using a rudimentary concept, learn from the results, persevere or pivot, and move on to the next required insight – rapidly. Failure should be fast and cheap. This is a very different approach to product development than historically followed – where the goal was to minimize risk to the organization behind a fully developed product concept that required large-scale investment often over several years. Simply stated – innovation is easier to achieve if you approach it in steps, with each step forward driven by a deep understanding of the consumer’s dilemma.

Augmenting these two basic principles, Sion reflected on several additional themes.

Understanding the holistic customer experience is required to drive customer empathy.
Knowing part of the customer’s story is insufficient. Sion believes we have yet to reach the ceiling on empathy. He believes the future holds achieving “empathy-squared (Empathy2),” deeply understanding the patterns and habits of individuals and how this affects their daily choices. He believes we too often research consumers in silos – the toothpaste bought, the hair products used etc. Understanding the consumer holistically requires approaching he or she as a user of multiple brands with multiple connections, going beyond what they say and observing what they do.  

Innovation requires transforming data into knowledge to drive action.
Empathy helps create the story behind the numbers and consumer insights convince organizations to act on the data. In order to capture the insights, creating a consumer model helps a lot, as it is when data is linked with theory… “Data without theory is just trivia, and theory without data is just an opinion”. Consumer models leverage both data and theory, and formalize the consumer story highlighting the relative importance of product experiences and consumer reactions.

Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb – it won’t always break.
Sion’s current primary area of focus is feminine care. He relayed a story that predates today’s ubiquitous presence of mobile phones and demonstrates the meaning of going out on a limb with a new approach to answer a pressing business question – how could P&G improve the placement of a pantyliner? A timid researcher might take the approach of asking female respondents to show how they place a pantyliner on a pair of underwear within a focus group or research lab environment – give them a pair of women’s underwear and ask them to place a pantyliner on them. Sion took a less timid approach and asked women to take a picture of their panties with their smartphone (when smartphone penetration was just 15%) once they had placed the pantyliner on the underwear they were wearing. The ability to see the placement in a realistic environment led to a deeper, better understanding of how P&G could improve the process.

Co-create research solutions with passionate partners.
Sion sees leveraging the intelligence of strong research partners as accretive to the innovation process. He identifies research partners suitable for co-creation as those who not only bring new tools but also passion and the ability to innovate– the conviction that their solution will provide insights other solutions cannot, penetrating deeper in consumer’s minds. Again, the operative word is co-creation. The researcher must be actively involved in the process, not simply a bystander waiting for results.

Harness the power of AI/machine learning.
Machines won’t replace humans in Sion’s viewpoint but they will be able to see patterns across large-scale multi-source information that will enable the generation of unique insights. He gets visibly excited when contemplating the impact machine learning can have on our understanding of the consumer. From his perspective, leveraging this technology will create new frontiers in insights.

Challenge yourself to always learn – or become extinct.
Driving yourself to continually learn is a core principle to which Sion holds himself accountable. In this fast evolving industry, where technology is growing exponentially, you need to take action. The reason is simple, he fully believes that if you fail to continually learn, “you can become obsolete in the blink of an eye.”  

Sion’s wisdom and experience permeated the interview. My primary takeaway from the interview, however, is that the active participation by the researcher is the secret sauce. This will be very difficult for a machine to replace.

 

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Sion Agami – Research Fellow.  Procter & Gamble (Feminine Care) Insight Alchemist

Research fellow in P&G, but likes the “Insight Alchemist” description as it reflects what he does.

25 years of experience in Product Research/ Product Innovation, inventing and launching new products that have left a mark in consumer minds and in business across the globe, transforming knowledge into action.

Started in Latin American R&D, with assignments in Detergents and Fabric Softeners. In US R&D worked in Air Care, Snacks, and Feminine Care. Well known for unlocking business building insights with cutting edge Product Research methodologies.

  • A change agent, developing new methodologies, consumer relevant test methods, and creating consumer/ technical models.
  • Modernized how Product Research is done by establishing contact with consumers’ real time and at relevant moments.
  • Recognized as a master in translating consumer insights into product innovation, and creating holistic product propositions.

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