In 1984, Wendy’s introduced Clara Peller to the world. Featured in a series of commercials, this diminutive elderly woman would forcefully and persistently ask, “Where’s the beef?” I’m not sure how my mind made the connection, but those commercials are what entered my stream of consciousness as I sat in a room at Stanford University.

Thanks to the John Irvine Foundation, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and practice Human Centered Design at Stanford’s d-school. The starting point of that process is empathy. Before you begin to design a solution, a product or a process, you must first understand its user.

That’s why Clara Peller’s question came to mind. I see Clara’s “Where’s the beef?” as analogous to the question all organizations should be asking, “Where’s the unmet need?”

I wonder, if, at times, organizations innovate just for the sake of innovation. Do they get caught by the allure of creativity and the belief that you either innovate or die? To me, doing so is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. You spin around, get dizzy and then take a stab in the dark. It’s not a very effective use of time or energy.

Data has become the primary source that feeds innovation. But, don’t confuse data with empathy. Data helps us understand habits and preferences. It does little to provide us with an understanding of the emotions, experiences, and desires of the user.

So, how do you leverage empathy in your innovation process? What was taught to me at the d-school was that before you begin any work on designing the solution to a problem, the improvement of a service or the creation of a product, you talk with its intended user.

Here is where I think many go wrong. We think we are taking the right step towards empathy when we bring a concept forward and ask its intended user about how our solution might impact them. While that on the surface sounds like a good step, it should not be the first step.

The best empathy process starts before a solution or product is even conceptualized. It begins simply with an identification of a population of users that you want to serve. The job then is to figure out how to get to know them and have real conversations.

The key is to come up with the right questions that will help you gain insight as to their wants and desires. That’s where you find the unmet need. Think about how meeting an unmet need has allowed those who have done so to flourish.

There are many, but a few come to mind. Staying with my 80’s theme, Sony and its Walkman solved the unmet need of transportable high-quality music. Chrysler’s mini-van filled the then unmet need of a vehicle designed for the busy family. Not only did they create a new category, one that they dominated for over a decade, they also brought us the most important automotive innovation since the automatic transmission, the cup holder. Seriously, what would the drive-thru at Starbucks look like if you didn’t have a place to put your Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Empathy is a powerful weapon. Organizations that can open a direct and meaningful dialogue with their ideal customers have the opportunity to innovate with real purpose. It can be a true competitive advantage allowing organizations to create and dominate an entire category. It all starts with genuine curiosity and good listening.