Aristotle understood, and wrote about it in Nicomachean Ethics, that every thing has its own ergon (function) - what certain things do best. Additionally, each thing has an arête (virtue) - that which allows a thing to do its function well. For instance, a knife’s function is to cut, so a knife’s virtue is sharpness.
An important related concept is called eudaimonia - essentially, a Greek term for happiness. This state of happiness, is not one of perception, but rather objectivity. Just as a tree has roots, a person who achieves eudaimonia is happy – there’s no questioning it. Aristotle said that eudaimonia is the "activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.” Aristotle was clear in his writings that eudaimonia is the proper goal of humans, and that it can only be achieved in the human community. Why do we need others to be achieve eudaimonia? Well, because you have to have other goods as well like friends, money, and power (1153b17–19). If you are lacking in the goods humans naturally desire, you will be short on opportunities for virtuous activity. And really, what good is the sharpest knife, if there is nothing to cut?
Using that logic, an innovator job is to identify what others in the community are trying to achieve. In Aristotelian verbiage – identify their ergon. So, if you’re a product developer for Proctor & Gamble trying to figure out how people clean their floors, you’d want to do what Continuum did and observe people in their natural environment mopping their floors for hours. People wanted to clean up easily and quickly. Researchers saw that people were spending as much time cleaning their mops as they were cleaning the floors! They determined the prevailing arête – the thing that is most important to achieve a specific end. When you are diligent in your observation, and ask the right questions the results fall right into place.
Essentially, this is Design Thinking 101 – spending time researching how people do things naturally gaining inspiration from what simply is – not what just what you want it to be. This is what Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO and author of ‘Change By Design’ says is stage 1 – “inspiration.” After you’ve identified the correct opportunity, you can then move on to stage 2 – “ideation” where you come up with general strategies to solve for the opportunity and lastly, stage 3 – “implementation” – where you get to execute.
Aristotle made it clear that eudaimonia doesn’t happen by chance, we have to exercise our virtues to achieve it. Similarly, to create the most virtuous innovation we must first identify the consumer’s true needs.