The Fire Starter: Igniting Innovation with Empathy by April Bell, New Degree Press, 2022

Mike Carlon reviews April Bell’s book, The Fire Starter: Igniting Innovation with Empathy. Carlon and Bell both work as qualitative researchers, and Carlon outlines why Bell strongly builds and then outlines why and how empathy should be the cornerstone for innovation.

Reviewed by Mike Carlon, Uncorking a Story, Stamford, Connecticut, michael.carlon@uncorkingastory.com

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a core attribute that I believe many qualitative researchers share. While this can be a strength many times, it can sometimes make it hard for qualitative researchers to sit in a room with strangers, hear some difficult stories, and maintain their objectivity and professional demeanor. However, this shouldn’t be seen as a weakness or deficit; rather, it can be a strength when one taps into this feeling of empathy to help more clearly and effectively communicate breakthrough insights to our clients. In her debut book, The Fire Starter: Igniting Innovation with Empathy, empathy researcher April Bell outlines the power of empathy in the innovation process.

Bell has lived and breathed research on the client and supplier sides of the business for more than 20 years. Armed with an Executive MBA from Southern Methodist University and experience with research giant Ipsos, she started the research and consulting company April Bell Research Group in 2008. Her extensive moderating career includes over 11,000 hours of interviewing, which translates to a lot of problems getting solved!

In The Fire Starter, Bell starts off by introducing an ongoing barrier to creating innovation. Bell thinks that many executives and CEOs maintain a well-established belief that while innovation and empathy are key to their company’s growth, most don’t know how to incorporate either into company culture.

The Fire Starter is divided into three very clear and distinct parts: 1. Map to innovating with empathy; 2. Barriers to innovation; and 3. Amplifiers to empathy. In each section, Bell weaves in her personal experience conducting empathy research into practical solutions for companies looking to innovate through empathy.

Bell shares a simple framework she uses that helps connect to greater human truths and solve big problems. To help illuminate how the reader can use their own curiosity to become empathetic, Bell also invites the reader to do a fair amount of self-exploration using exercises she designed. Additionally, her belief that perfection isn’t required, and is often the antagonist for innovation, really spoke to me and will resonate with any researcher who is familiar with the term “minimum viable product.”

Maybe what I appreciate most about this book is its backstory. Bell divulged that she never really thought of herself as a writer. She started conducting empathy interviews during the pandemic, with people who were experiencing COVID-19 differently than her, which led her to create an online course. After showing the course to some colleagues, they encouraged her to write a book about it, and that’s where her story as an author began.

Will this book totally solve the empathy crisis in corporate America? Of course not, as no one book can. But it will give readers, especially qualitative researchers who work in innovation, some useful tools they need to be more empathetic as they approach their work. Bell’s highly personal and inviting writing style helps set it apart from many of the formulaic business books I’ve read. If you are looking for a good book on how empathy can be applied in a commercial setting that doesn’t read like other business books, April Bell’s The Fire Starter should be on your list of books to read.

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For more behind-the-scenes glimpses into writing this book, check out Mike Carlon’s QRCA Podcast with author April Bell here.
For more about the empathy crisis, check out Pam Goldfarb Liss’s Summer 2022 QRCA VIEWS book review of Rob Volpe’s book, Tell Me More about That, here.