First Friday Fast Takes – The Comeback

A vase of budding roses in an assortment of colors

Fridays are for winding down, wrapping up, and if you’re like me, maybe getting to those creative exercises we often let slip down the to-do list each week. Selfishly, to stay/force accountability and supercharge my dream time I created G+A’s Friday Fast Takes series.

On the first Friday of each month, I share musings from each area of our XD focus: culture + people, content + brand, spaces + places, and events. Topics range from real-world observations of XD in action to hypothetical challenges of long-standing beliefs. Some of my musings may evolve into long-form posts, and some may not. Heck, I may discontinue the series entirely because I determine it, in and of itself, no longer stands up. For now, though, I’m making my creative time a very public priority. Happy Reading!


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November Overview

I had the most uplifting conversations on Monday + Tuesday of this week that I decided to scrap my original draft of the November 2020 First Friday Fast Take blog post in favor of what you\’ll find below which highlights unconventional ways that professionals in two divergent industries, art, and healthcare, have woven experiential design thinking into the fabric of their organizations. (\”Names have been changed to protect the innocent\” as the old Dragnet voiceover goes.)
Culture + People
Content + Brand
Spaces + Places
Events
Culture + People

Through a former client and current friend, I connected with a healthcare leader based in the southeastern United States who I had been assured was a forward-thinker, and even more interestingly to me, a different thinker not only about healthcare but about how organizations should be built and should operate. My friend could not have been more right and our conversation could not have been more fascinating.

I began our conversation by asking Jim* how he’d joined the care network he now helms. To my surprise and delight, his beginnings with the group were serendipitous.

“They were just a group of good dudes,” he said of the practice’s (and now system’s) three founding doctors. “I could tell their business had the making of something special and they had a desire to grow.”

Curious, I probed further about how he and those three good dudes had grown their burgeoning practice of 40 into an integrated healthcare system employing more than 400 staff in just seven years. In response, Jim offered a simple yet powerful premise relative to one endeavor, expanding their system to include clinical research, but which I could tell likely formed the core of several others:

“We had energy around the projects. Turns out, it was a really profitable business.”

That answer put a tremendously large grin on my face.

Your Takeaway: Ask a Better Question, Get a Better Answer

In my opinion, designing incredible experiences requires a foundational shift in thinking from a mindset of “Solve first, feel next.” to “Feel first, solve next.” Too often we (and I do include myself in that “we”) conflate problem-solving, the supposed means of creating dream experiences, and feeling creation, with the feelings we hope creating those dream experiences will evoke in ourselves, our teams, and our customers.

I call this conflation The Lottery Effect, the idea that if I win the lottery (an unsolvable problem), I’ll be able to quit work/travel/buy a home (the outcomes), and I’ll feel carefree, calm, and happy (the desired feelings). Applied to more common, day-to-day scenarios, The Lottery Effect crops up as in the examples below:

  • If I increase sales of this product, it will improve the company’s financial position and the team will feel more secure.
  • If I land my dream job, it will put my mind at ease and I will feel calm.
  • If I scale back operations, it will allow me to focus on creative work, and I’ll once again feel energized.

The problem with Lottery Effect thinking though is that it almost never works.

In most cases, once we cross a proverbial finish line be it selling the product, landing the dream job, or scaling back those pesky operations, that is once we solve that seemingly unsolvable problem, a new, more distant finish line appears just beyond the horizon. We feel those desired feelings we thought would be omnipresent only fleetingly, instead hoping there is truth in the hollow ring of an empty promise of future fulfillment just a bit further down the road. Once more, we convince ourselves to endure fatigue, exasperation, and burnout in order to keep sprinting just a little while longer toward the supposed promised land.

Thankfully, there is another option; invert your own Lottery Effect statement, whatever it might be.

Yes, you read that right. You can simply stop running marathons at a sprinter’s pace, and pause long enough to determine how you want to feel during the run regardless of its length or duration. You can ask an entirely different question.

Rather than, “How do I sell this product in order to improve the company’s financial position so that I can feel secure and at ease?”, you can ask yourself how you create feelings of security and ease, while you improve the company’s financial position so that you can find a way to sell your product. You can eliminate the need for a narrow path to a distant solution as the means to infusing better feelings into your team, department, or company without abandoning a single desire to solve, grow, expand, etc. As Jim and his team did, you can start with the feelings first.

“Look for what you’ve got real, palpable energy around right now.” That is where the feelings you’d hoped (and perhaps unconsciously told yourself) you’d experience only after having solved your unsolvable problem already exist. In effect, that is where the real solution has already appeared. Turns out, that beginning there may just allow you too to transform your version of “a few good dudes” into an incredibly powerful team!

Content + Brand

Reflecting further on all the good good I extracted from my conversation with Jim, I contemplated the impressive way in which his team had identified an unconventional yet in-demand niche in the women’s well care field.

“New mothers are typically given one, maybe two days’ support learning to breastfeed before they return home, “Jim shared. “Sure, additional help is available… if you’re willing to return to a space tucked away on the 6th floor of some hospital, but what new mother is really going to be able to do that? Instead, they often feel frustrated and unsuccessful and abandon breastfeeding after just a few days despite all its benefits.”

He continued to explain that the team’s commitment to love and serve with grace and humility, creating an accessible, welcoming, friendly space where new mothers could find ongoing support as they learned to breastfeed was a no-brainer for their business model and their brand.

Love, service, grace and humility, hallmarks of the experience patients had come to expect from Jim’s organization, directed the team’s identification of a service gap, and their assessment of whether filling that gap would enhance or detract from the experience they aimed to create. While I am confident that thorough financial and operational analyses played no small part in the final decision to green light the project, neither was likely the starting point for conversation. Instead, a feeling that building a lactation center would augment the loving, service-oriented experience they aimed to create likely served as the jumping-off point for discussions. The natural byproduct of business decision rooted in feelings first: abundant, authentic content.

Your Takeaway: Focus On Experience, Content Will Naturally Follow

While breastfeeding is a far cry from what many of us market and promote and could easily be dismissed as a non-starter where the experiential design of content and brand are concerned, I would caution against overlooking the broader lesson to be gleaned here: content and branding are a breeze when birthed from the emotions that drive the experiences a business chooses to design and bring to life.

For example, had Jim’s team opted to simply co-brand the proverbial sixth-floor lactation space tucked away in that remote hospital corner, his team could still have built content and a brand campaign around their commitment to serving new mothers. They may even have touted end-to-end care offered at all stages of the pregnancy experience. However, on some level, dissonance would have surfaced either within the content or in the translation of the experience that content presented to its real-world counterpart because the comprehensive experience would not have fully aligned to their vision as an organization.

Instead, Jim’s team likely found themselves swimming in a wellspring of content source material that just felt “right” without having to strain or struggle to force a round peg into a proverbial square hole. Rather than having to explain why a difficult-to-access hospital space was the embodiment of loving, gracious service, they could speak honestly – whether to new patients or in marketing and advertisements – about a space that truly did embody loving gracious service.

So, if you find yourself struggling to position your organization or its products or its services, or to create content that supports that positioning, stop and ask yourself: Is the trouble really the content, or is it the design of the experience itself?

Trust me, you’ll know the answer…when you feel it.

Spaces + Places

First Friday Fast Takes is intended to offer a fluid, fun opportunity for me to dive into the creative process of experiential design thinking. While I have all kinds of ideas about spaces + places, they’re all still simmering this month and not quite ready to be served up piping hot for your consumption.

Check back in December for new musings about how experiential design thinking can impact the spaces + places around you.

Your Takeaway: Be Honest About the Design Process

It seems simple but honesty goes a long way toward great experiential design. Honesty about how you want a space or place to feel or even about where you are in drafting content for your own blog about spaces and places.

Rather than try to jam an editorial round peg into a literary square hole and bend one of the conversations I had with two brilliant people back around to space and place design, I returned to the tenets that underpin G+A’s XD thinking approach: simplicity, ease, and fun. With those in mind, I could be honest with myself (and with you, my beloved readers) about the fact that none of my space or place design ideas were quite ready for this week’s post.

Some may advise against the unvarnished truth in a forum like this one. “You can’t say you simply don’t have an idea ready yet,” they might think. But the experience I aim to design both writing this blog and engaging its consumers is one that generates feelings of ease, fun and simplicity which are much more profound and pervasive when I tell the truth about my writing process. Interestingly, the same applies to choosing paint… you know, just to bring back to space and place design somehow 😉

Events

What happens when your growing, global art fair suddenly has to contend with a crippling pandemic? That’s what one European team wondered as they prepared to bring their May and October 2020 events to life in wholly unprecedented circumstances. For nearly a dozen years, the upstart group whose founding premise, to create a global stage for a massive, dazzling body of underrepresented contemporary artists, had produced a fair whose surging growth was rooted in place-based experiences.

From a single, inaugural event in 2013, sprung a continent-spanning triumvirate of multi-day, artistic, and culture immersions that garnered a devout following of collectors and galleries alike. The translation of something that complex to a virtual or even hybrid delivery platform was no simple copy and paste affair no matter how many bells and whistles any platform might be able to offer. Not to mention, many loyal attendees of previous years’ events simply could not participate due to myriad travel restrictions around the globe.

For many event producers, such limitations would have yielded a frantic scramble to fundamentally change what had made their experience great for the sake of rapid delivery via a new media and without regard to whether they could re-create the intrinsic feeling at the heart of what had become a much-beloved experience for participants. Artfully, however, the fair’s team remained laser-focused on creating an experience steeped in feelings of connection, inspiration, and contemplation all while respecting the new constraints and challenges of a COVID-19 reality.

Ultimately, that meant scaling the fair back and modifying procedures to account for very real public health and safety concerns but continuing to host it in-person nonetheless. Their gambit paid off. In 2020, they welcomed more than 110 artists and nearly 30 galleries, many of whom experienced solid sales and more than a few of whom achieved total sellouts during the event.

Your Takeaway: Don’t Default, Discover

So many of those I know in the place-based event community moved swiftly and decisively to port in-person activities to digital environments without much consideration for how they would create or re-create similarly strong experiences in the virtual world. Certainly, that is understandable. Triage requires a quick assessment, parsing, and prioritization of work in order to do the most good where it’s needed most, but what might we actually consider the most good?

In the case of the resilient art fair, the most good meant the redesign of the external packaging of their event’s experience informed and directed by the internal feeling at its core. Specifically, that neither full virtualization nor cancellation and redirection of their efforts to other projects could create equally powerful feelings of connection, inspiration, or contemplation. Of course, many might argue that the socially-distanced, place-based third option the fair had was a luxury not available to most. I would counter, though, that a third option (place-based option or otherwise) often reveals itself only after we’ve told ourselves that it exists and have begun to seek it out.

Case in point, the burgeoning art fair could easily have defaulted to virtualization or cancellation as many of its other, more established contemporaries did. Instead, they determined that the experience they felt so passionately about, not the circumstances they faced, would drive their decisions, small and large, and in doing so likely generated greater loyalty and admiration not only from those who participated but also from those who most certainly will in the months and years ahead.

I’m not advocating that people should mindlessly default to place-based events or even that they are the only real way to design a worthwhile experience. In fact, I’m advocating quite the opposite. What I believe the art fair team did well and what is at the core of how I work with organizations facing similar challenges is what The 4D Framework is all about.

  1. Discover how you want an experience to feel first.
  2. Define the dream solution to your unsolvable problem and the designable touchpoints that will get you there.
  3. Discard unhelpful ideas about why feelings-led experiential design thinking isn’t practical or can’t work.
  4. Design a plan that makes feelings the only litmus test against which you measure progress and evaluate possible courses of action as you bring your dream solution to life.

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