It starts with empathy

On how a scruffy, primitive, tacit thing may be captured in the wild, kicking and screaming.

The consultant placed his feet carefully around the spatter of clay that decorated the work-shop. He traveled at the mercy of the firm, but he cared enough to spare his Testoni dress shoes the ordeal of a deep clean.

The potter seemed intelligent enough, except that he rambled every time he was probed about his craft. “Tell me again, where do you get your ideas from?” asked the consultant.

“I watch people mostly” said the potter. “I observe what causes people pain and what they derive pleasure from. I pretend I am them and think about how a pot could fill the holes in their lives. Then I sit among the reeds by the lake and watch herons picking through the silt for frogs. Sometimes, it also comes to me when I’m on the toilet…”

Huh… This isn’t going anywhere, thought the consultant. The problem with artists was a lack of discipline, a lack of rigor. Getting a straight answer was like pulling teeth.

“What happens after you have an idea” asked the consultant.

“Then I mix the clay, and try making a few test pieces. Sometimes something goes wrong in a wonderful manner…” droned the potter.

“…did you say, goes wrong in a wonderful manner?” asked the consultant, seeming to circle something vigorously in his notebook.

“Oh yes” beamed the potter “Happy mistakes are the best, but they are rare. When I find a form I like, I show it to the other potters in the guild. Maybe to a few family members and friends, and then when I’m satisfied, I make the final piece.

“right… right…” mumbled the consultant, tapping his notebook. Then he looked up thoughtfully and frowned at the ceiling. Eventually he looked at the potter, closed his notebook and said “That was great. I hugely appreciate you letting me pick your brain on this. There were some huge new learnings here, and I’m going to circle back to you on this one.”

Then he left before the potter could ask him what any of that meant.


The rest of the team was already assembled by the time the partner arrived. The cool conference room, one of the many at the firm, was as different from the pottery work-shop as a clay pot was from a water-cooler. The consultant had spent the better part of the night turning the hairball of a workflow that he wrung out of the potter into something that approached a business process. This could actually work.

“What do you have for me? Asked the partner. “This better push the needle on the disruptive-innovation program. People are bored to death with Blue Oceans and Goldilocks principles.”

The consultant distributed the two dozen copies of his monograph to the others in the room, then tapped a key on his laptop and switched to the title slide of his presentation – Pot-Thought, An Innovation Method for Solving Business Complexities in a VUCA world, waited a moment for everyone to look up and then moved to the next screen.

The projection displayed 5 boxes connected to each other, the way train carriages are coupled to an engine. The consultant solemnly looked at each person around the massive table and then turned his gaze on the partner.

“This is a 5 step process” he said, “and it starts with empathy.”