Seizing the Damocles Sword of Parkinson’s Disease: the Emotional Core of Innovation

I recently accompanied my father to Solothurn, Switzerland for a neurosurgical operation to treat his Parkinson’s Disease (PD). The surgery has led to an incredible, life-enhancing outcome for Dad. However, by meeting the neurosurgeons and learning more about their little-known but world-leading work, I’ve learned the power of human emotion in driving groundbreaking innovation.

The Damocles Sword of Parkinson’s Disease

Imagine constantly feeling like you’re trapped inside your own body. A withering body. Exhausted from years of uncontrollable tremors and rigid, sore, aching muscles. Lifting a fork to your mouth is such an effort, you consider giving up after each bite of food. Food that you can no longer smell or taste. Your partner has now become your full-time carer.  Feeding, dressing and catering to your every need. This was a small vignette into the daily life of my father who, at 63 years of age, suffers from Parkinson’s Disease.

But that was 5 days ago. Today, just days after a pallidothalamic tractotomy on his brain, Dad is regaining his motor and sensory functions. He can now lift a fork with ease, taste and smell his food! My Dad suffered for 12 years with a disease that was slowly breaking his body down and destroying the very essence of who he is: a keen sportsman; ever-loving husband and father; and, highly successful business person. It’s impossible to describe the joy I’ve experienced observing his self-rediscovery since the operation.

The Customer Experience & Emotion

So what does this have to do with business?

Dad’s procedure had its genesis in the recognition of the role emotional stress can play in the development of Parkinson’s.

This experience suggests that understanding the emotion behind a patient’s disease or a customer’s problem, reveals opportunities to resolve the core issue or problem. The little-known team of neurosurgeons in Solothurn is just one incredible example of the power of emotion in driving innovation. They challenged established wisdom to create a therapy that doesn’t just improve symptoms. It also removes the fear PD patients have of further deterioration (the Damocles sword).

Whether undertaking customer journey mapping or co-designing for innovation, understanding the whole customer and their emotional experiences is essential. Through this knowledge the opportunities to innovate and improve customer experience arise.

Unfortunately, this remarkable treatment for Parkinson’s Disease is not available to all PD sufferers.  Why not?

Three reasons:

  1. Availability. MRI-guided focused ultrasound technology is relatively new and only a small handful of neurosurgeons have used it to perform the procedure Dad underwent.
  2. Access. The particular procedure is offered in limited locations globally.
  3. Price. Public health systems and private health insurance do not fund the procedure. The exception is Switzerland, where the procedure is fully funded by the country’s basic health and accident insurance.

The Opportunity of Emotion

The lessons from Solothurn for business?

  1. Understand the whole customer and the emotions at the pain points in their journey with your organisation.
  2. Assuming your goal is to create products and services for a market niche, ensure it is both accessible and affordable.
  3. Customer-centred design is the key to innovation.

Is your organisation fully understanding the emotional foundation of the problems faced by your older customers? Speak to Three Sisters Group today for deep customer insight and the opportunity to transform your customer experience.


Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash


Is de-greying your workforce hurting customer experience?

Companies are adaptable, creative and profitable despite the age of their workforce. At least this is what a growing body of research is showing. So why do we have HR policies and practices that, however unintentionally, work to de-grey our workplaces? What are the impacts of our unconscious biases and ill-conceived stereotypes of older people on innovation and service delivery? Ultimately, what is the impact on the customer experience?

An Enormous Missed Opportunity

As author and activist, Ashton Applewhite, affirms,

“we live in a culture that tells us that getting older means shuffling off stage”.

Nowhere is this culture more pronounced, and damaging, than in the workplace. We’ve all heard stories of older customers (and workers) being treated less than favourably on the basis of their age or perceived age.

Baby boomers represent a vast, unprecedented, untapped market. In fact, they represent a quarter of the Australian population. And according to the Property Council of Australia (2015), almost 80% of baby boomers own their home, representing an enormous financial resource. Yet, this generation is often either ignored or neglected when it comes to customer experience. Engaging all staff to improve the customer experience of older customers is crucial to realising the potential of this market. To do this, organisations must create:

  1. An organisational culture and workforce of engaged employees committed to stopping ageism in its tracks.
  2. An environment that seeks opportunity amongst older customers by encouraging the development of new products and services and/or modifying existing offerings.

Why De-grey the workforce?

Already, McKinsey has revealed the bottom line benefits to companies offering an exceptional customer experience. The gross margins of these companies can exceed those of their competitors by more than 26 per cent. However, the recent Deloitte report Missing Out reveals the missed opportunity of capitalising on a diverse workforce – including older workers – to improve the experience diverse customers have with an organisation. For example, the report found that less than half (41%) of customers surveyed believe that organisations treat customers respectfully, regardless of their personal characteristics.

What’s Your Organisation’s Pulse?

Given the current and future size of the ageing population and workforce, it’s essential companies examine the attitudes and beliefs of their employees towards older people. Through an Ageing Attitudes Pulse Check, companies not only get a snapshot of the current mood of the workplace when it comes to older people, they potentially  have access to deep insights into how this could be affecting the quality of service delivery and levels of innovation among workers – both young and old.

The pulse check can provide companies with the opportunity to:

  1. Enhance the awareness of unconscious biases and stereotypes held about  older customers and workers.
  2. Educate their workforce on the value, diversity and capabilities of older customers and older workers.
  3. Explore options, through market research, to re-design or co-create products, services and business processes that are age friendly.
  4. Examine the role of older workers for enhancing the experience of older customers.

For a Hollywood example of how older workers can improve the customer experience of older customers. Take a look at this short scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel of Judi Dench training younger call centre staff.

If you’d like to know more about how an Ageing Attitudes Pulse Check will benefit your company, contact us.


Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash