It was a moment made for instant Internet fame. At the RNC, actor Clint Eastwood delivered what was supposed to be a rousing take-down of the sitting president of the United States of America. The moment was spoiled, however, by the fact that President Obama was not actually there. Instead, viewers laughed uneasily as Clint spent 11 long minutes lecturing to an empty chair.

Clint had barely exited the stage when the Internet meme was born. Eastwooding, as talking to an empty chair came to be called, spread like wildfire as Twitter users extolled how ridiculous it was to fake a conversation with someone who wasn't actually there. 

But Eastwooding is far more common than people think—especially during ideation. Think about it. Has your team ever gathered to generate ideas and left your consumer out?  My point is, when you're creating a new product or service that is designed to fulfill the unmet needs of your consumers, they should have an actual seat at the table—not an imaginary one.

Here's why it's so important to fill that empty chair:

Data sheets are no substitute for personal stories and insights.

If you're trying to generate ideas, no doubt you’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand your consumer. You've done statistical and focus group research to learn how your consumer behaves and how they react. You've compiled data about how they buy and use your product, and other products. You know what is important to them.

But when you're doing that kind of research, you're missing out on the very personal stories that crystalize why your consumers behave the way they do. There's a vast difference between clear, concise quantitative data that says moms do laundry because they love their kids, and listening as a consumer sitting feet away from you holds up a picture of her sons and says, "I really hate doing laundry. There's nothing that annoys me more. So I put this picture above my washing machine so that when I have to wash their filthy, disgusting clothing yet again, I see their faces smiling at me and reminding me how much I love them." 
Data sheets and consumer polls are tools that tell you what's most important to your consumers. But hearing consumer insights straight from their mouths is what solidifies that data's importance in your mind and emphasizes the importance of including it in your idea generation. 

An empty chair means someone else's perspective is ultimately the most important. 

If the chair is empty, it's easy to assign your own assumptions about beliefs and behaviors onto your consumers. When Clint was talking to an invisible President Obama, the only voice the President had was the one assigned to him. Obama couldn't explain why he made certain decisions, or what was most important to him, or even attempt to change the tone of the conversation. Instead, what mattered was how Clint thought the President would respond—and what responses best suited Clint's objectives.

As much as people wish it was, ideation is not a neutral activity. There are always people who want to direct how it goes and the types of ideas that emerge. Maybe a leader wants their ideas to be recognized. Maybe team members want to make sure that the ideas of their leader rise to the top. Maybe a scientist or a lawyer want to make sure that the team goes nowhere near ideas that the company can't make happen. Maybe the entire team wants to enter a new market in a certain way. Those factors all influence ideation sessions.

But when consumers are sitting there, they cannot be ignored. If an ideation session goes completely off base, they can tell you. If you start making assumptions about why they behave in a certain way, they can tell you that's not the case. Or if your team can't figure out why consumers do something, they can shed light on the situation.

When consumers’ chairs are empty in ideation, they're at risk of being the least important people in the room.

There's no way to build out of the box.

When the consumer's chair is empty, you’ll ultimately find yourself at an impasse during ideation. Your team knows all about your product or service—and all about what is possible in the real world. That expertise about your subject area ultimately puts a box around the possibilities you can generate.

On the other hand, your consumers know nothing about the rules, regulations and natural laws around your product or service. They are, however, experts on themselves. You might have research on hand about your consumers’ lives—but they live them. They live in the situations that lead them to make purchasing decisions and they have the unmet needs you're trying to fill.

As a result, when you seat the consumer at the table during an ideation session, you can combine your expert knowledge about the product with their expert knowledge about how they live their lives. And, most importantly, use it as a launching-off point. You can pitch an idea over to them, and then they'll put a different spin on it when they send it back.

During ideation, your consumers will push your team to open their minds to new possibilities. Then your team can challenge your consumers for new possibilities in order to make something crazy work. Both groups are challenging each other to go beyond their relative expertise in order to come up with something that they wouldn't have on their own—and the results are often something completely new. That can't happen with a one-sided conversation.

Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention is generating such attention online because he pretended to have a full conversation with someone who wasn't there. But the real problem with his speech wasn't that he looked silly talking to an empty chair, it was that by doing so, he missed out on the most important parts of an actual conversation. Without the President in that chair, Clint could only talk about facts from his own perspective and couldn't have that healthy back-and-forth discourse that truly moves breakthrough thinking forward. As a result, his speech ultimately had much less impact than he wanted.

Don't risk doing that when you ideate. Giving your consumers a seat at the table during idea generation allows you to bring in their personal experiences and their expertise about their own lives—and ensures that their voice is heard over all the other competing objectives in the room. That's how to come up with ideas that truly resonate in the market.

This post was originally written by Katie Konrath. Ideas To Go is a company that develops customer-centered innovation for Fortune 500 companies. 

©2012 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Katie Franke

Katie Franke is a Marketing Communications Specialist and Concept Writer at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.