strategy expert & futurist | author & keynote speaker | helping us prepare for change at exponential scale
Author: Kate O'Neill
Kate O'Neill, founder and CEO of KO Insights, is a researcher, consultant, advisor, speaker, and writer, primarily focused on how data and technology can empower meaningful human experiences. She founded [meta]marketer, a digital strategy and analytics firm, and previously held strategic and leadership roles at Netflix, Magazines.com, HCA, and a number of other digital startups. She is the author of a forthcoming book on meaningfulness in data, marketing, business, and life.
Well, the groundhog has spoken. Six more weeks of winter, in this economy?
And look, whether or not groundhogs seeing their shadows has any bearing on the weather, we who have already been through a heck of a year have work to do and goals to reach. We don’t need some rodent dictating our schedule to us.
Think of it as Groundhog Goals Day
On the other hand, maybe this is your chance to review the goals you set a month or several months ago for 2021 and see if they still make sense by the light of early February.
If you need a little longer — say, six weeks? — to make something work before you launch it, and no one is counting on it today, why not take that time? Whether in six weeks or six months, the world as we’ve reluctactly gotten used to it is going to start changing again, and the liminal sense of time many of us have experienced will also shift.
It hits a little different this year anyway
Back in November, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about how people were starting to abandon their yoga pants and sweats in favor of dressy clothes. But that wasn’t the vibe I was getting on Twitter. Instead, while few people could say they have really enjoyed our collective quarantine/lockdown time, some of us appreciated the few perks it offered, like day-to-night-to-day-again loungewear.
The pandemic has been devastating, no question — tragedy upon tragedy unfolding daily. But even while that’s true, for many of us, the extra time at home has meant that life is a little quieter, and despite our complaints about that, there’s a tiny part of it that we’re going to miss when it’s over. Did we do organize every corner of our homes, alphabetize our soup cans, and fold all our socks, while writing a novel and learning to play harmonica? Perhaps not. But we don’t need to finish every project we had the audacity to start in order to feel like we made good use of this time. We just need to emerge in one piece, alive and intact, and be ready to adapt yet again to whatever the world throws us next.
So maybe these “six more weeks of winter” can offer us the chance to review what we want to finish, and what we want to start in the next chapter.
What scale you build at and what has your focus shows your priority. If you want to prioritize human safety and human experiences, you have to build at the human scale.
In contemporary business, influenced as it is by big tech, we often talk about our aspirations “at scale.” When we do, we mean large scale. Enterprise scale. We mean 10x returns on investments, if not more. We mean accelerating workflow through automation. We mean optimizing for the 3rd or 4th decimal point in super-computing systems that analyze four-dimensional data.
These are not human-scale impacts. But the market forces compelling us to strive for them are not imagined, and most leaders have to operate from the realistic constraints of the world shaped by these demands.
That’s why the KO Insights mission has long been to “make human experiences more meaningful at scale.” This is a recognition of the business drivers that build experiences at accelerating rates and exponential growth, while centering one of the most fundamentally human-scale concepts: meaning. The tension inherent in that challenge keeps us honest, and keeps our clients improving their user experiences and customer interactions.
What can you examine in your work that will bring you face to face with the human scale?
I happened to run across an old copy of the values for my old company, [meta]marketer. (Well, I have them in my Evernote. I have everything in my Evernote. I’m bound to run across something random every day. Which is fun.)
Anyway, I read them over again because I was curious what kind of perspective on them hindsight might give me.
And it turns out, I think we were really onto the right stuff, and that I still try to follow these guidelines in my work today. Perhaps they may be useful as thought-starters for you. See for yourself.
Make everything easier, better, or faster each time you do it. Every time you perform a task, you have the opportunity to observe the task from multiple levels of abstraction: the doing of the task, and the overview of how the task is being done. In other words, if you can tell that there is a way to improve the way a task is being done, by all means make it better.
Relevance is a form of respect. Champion meaningful experiences. In marketing, it’s easy to get caught up in pushing the message that the company wants to push. But the way to treat customers with respect — and usually, the way to make more money — is to present potential customers with relevant opportunities in language that speaks to their needs. It’s often our job to remind our clients that their best chance at long-term success lies in creating lasting relationships with their customers. We believe, and have seen it play out in results again and again, that an emphasis on customer experience leads to profitability.
Relationships matter. Cultivate happiness. We think work can be a place where you’re happy and having fun, all while thinking hard and solving interesting problems. We want our team members to be happy, our clients to be happy, and our clients’ customers to be happy as well. These relationships–between team members, the local community, our clients–all matter.
Have an attitude of willingness and get the job done. We’re big on having fun, but don’t that doesn’t mean we’re not a productive team. Every team member must pull his or her weight, and that means sometimes doing tedious and unglamorous work. If it has to get done, do it.
Empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to insight. Looking at a problem from a different angle–for example, the customers angle–sometimes leads to groundbreaking insights. It’s important to consider issues from many sides to gain clarity.
Learning is more important than success; learning leads to success. Come to work with the desire to learn something new every day. You never know what that’s going to be.
Speak truth to power, but confront with compassion. People sometimes don’t want to hear what they could be doing better, even if it means that they could be making more money. When you have data on your side, it’s important to allow that data to be known and understood. Sometimes people, out of fear, laziness, or disbelief, won’t want to make changes that correspond with the data, but it’s our job to make sure that the decision-maker has the data to make a good decision, even if it seems like bad news, before making his or her decision.
Know the big words, use the small ones. We spend so much of our day thinking about things in the abstract; when we meet with clients, it’s important that we try to translate that abstraction into concrete language they’ll understand, and to try to avoid industry jargon and buzzwords if we can make our point in plain language.
The way strategists and designers theorize about human experience — and specifically customer experience, which is humans in the contextual role of “customer” — is often disconnected from the way business leaders think about strategy and business models. But in practice, for substantive and sustainable results, the efforts must be aligned.
For example, I’ve been vegan for nearly 23 years. The plant-based food revolution of the past few years is thrilling to see. But I see brands executing poorly against it. Dunkin’ and Starbucks, for example, both have introduced breakfast sandwiches with Beyond Meat vegan sausages or with Just Egg, but the sandwiches themselves, as merchandised, are not vegan. So vegan-minded customers who are drawn in by the new products have to know to order them with a whole set of modifications and off-menu tricks. How much more welcoming would it have been for the brands to simply add vegan sandwiches to their menu? People transitioning to eating more plant-based foods wouldn’t object that the bread is vegan, and it would be a far better experience for the actual vegan customers. (And by the way, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew by 600% from 2014 to 2017 while 500,000 people have pledged to eat vegan for the first time for the whole month of January 2021, so we’re talking about non-trivial market share that’s shown no signs of slowing down.) Moreover, it would encourage vegans who weren’t already fans of Dunkin’ and Starbucks to come and buy those sandwiches, meaning incremental purchases the brands never had before. And the kicker? People who aren’t vegan-inclined already had meal options at these brands, so making the vegan-ish sandwich not vegan may actually be cannibalizing (sorry) the sales of the other meal options.
Another example is the trend of high-quality non-alcoholic mixers like Seedlip along with a growing population of people who, whether over short spans of time or long periods, choose not to drink alcohol. (Another non-trivial market segment. Pre-packaged mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages have been on the rise and are expected to continue growing, while an estimated 15% of Americans planned to participate this year in “Dry January.” How many have stuck to it in the wake of the past week’s political turmoil is worth wondering, but the intent was there.) This experience and strategy disconnect would be like a cocktail bar owner bringing Seedlip in only to offer it mixed it into alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile there’s a group of would-be customers who have not been catered to who might otherwise patronize the establishment, and they’re not being accommodated. That’s incremental business, and the bar in this example would be turning up its nose at it — in this economy?!
I witnessed this pattern up-close myself, when I was heading customer experience and product at Magazines.com. The company had historically pushed hard in every channel to sell cheap People magazine subscriptions because they were viewed as loss leaders that would get customers in the door, but something wasn’t working out right in the equation. There were too many cancellations as the first terms were coming up for renewal.
Eventually a colleague and I crunched enough numbers to work out what was happening: customers were buying the cheap first-term subscriptions in lieu of a steeper-priced renewal (where the company hoped to make its money back). We also saw why. When the subscribers to People magazine were getting their renewal notices by email, those emails often had cross-sell promotions — including, sometimes, for People magazine. We were doing nothing to exclude those promotions for first-term rates from the renewal emails. Once we added programming logic to the renewal emails to exclude promotions for the title being renewed, cancellations went down, and renewals went up. If I remember correctly, it meant gaining about a million dollars a year across channels. It sounds pretty easy to recognize in retrospect, but it is this holistic way of thinking about the entire business model and how it is presented to every customer, one by one, that makes it work in the details.
These three examples have in common that they are relevant to the customers — in other words, the humans you do business with. When I talk about meaningful human experiences, relevance is a form of meaningfulness. Showing that you have a sense about what is suitable, appropriate, and timely for customers helps them feel understood. And being understood is tantamount to being seen as human beings.
Leaders, don’t cannibalize your business success. Think it through, experience by experience. It could be costing you a lot of money to ignore providing better experiences, while it’s also costing you the goodwill and loyalty you might have enjoyed from customers who would appreciate having a relevant experience provided for them.
One of the themes shaping my work this year is “the future of trust and truth.” In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are crucial for us to understand. I’m examining questions such as: What does truth mean to us as humans; how does truth relate to belief, to science, to law; how does truth relate to trust; and so on.
And of course: How do divisive politics figure into our trust in institutions, and how does our sense of truth suffer from exposure to misinformation and disinformation?
And then, the big question as it relates to my work and the work of many of my clients: What does it mean to bring machines into this dynamic? To cross-pollinate these very human concerns with data, with algorithms, with machine learning? For algorithms optimized for platform-specific engagement and retention to shape our exposure to news and opinions?
On that last point, the twin topics of misinformation and disinformation have been a big focus this past year because of the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election, and the widespread racial justice protests as well as the backlash against them. On seemingly every high-level topic, people had opposing views and cited opposing sources to back them up. And this went beyond the U.S.: I had a conversation a few months ago with a journalist from the leading business magazine in Brazil, for example, about misinformation and trust, and what regulations may be needed to address them. Our concerns about Trump’s outsized influence in shaping social media discourse mirror theirs about Bolsonaro. These challenges are simultaneously local and global.
I’m not the first to think about trust, of course. Edelman has been producing their excellent Trust Barometer every year for 21 years. The work I’m doing is by no means meant to be a replacement of their important research, but rather incorporates their findings as part of a view on how trust and truth are fundamental to humanity, how they are important to understanding of technologies that we rely on.
I’ll be sharing ongoing insights in this blog and other outlets as I develop these ideas through my research and work them into my speaking and my forthcoming book, but for now I’ll toss another coin to Edelman, since their 2021 Trust Barometer just came out this week. One of the findings was that, of all the categories of institutions, business has the most public trust right now. Not government, not NGOs, not media, but business. That’s a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for business. It’s a call to purpose and action, a call for transparency, for principled leadership.
And for those businesses we define as “tech businesses” especially, not only is the public watching, but so are the eyes of history. As a crisis of democracy unfolds in the U.S. alongside a deadly pandemic, we come face to face with issues of misinformation and disinformation, of content moderation and platform access, and the consequences of the algorithmic blinders we all wear as we consume social media and our preferred news outlets. Each of these issues comes tangled in its own technical details around trust and truth, but in every case, there is one central truth: the need to frame these debates and their outcomes not around those individuals with the largest reach but around the rights and the future of humanity at large couldn’t be more urgent.
Scratch the surface of any debate about the future of work and you’ll find there an argument for Universal Basic Income.
And certainly from a purely survivalist standpoint that’s an important consideration.
We need to know what it is going to look like for people not to have the financial resources from working. We also need to understand how this model might concentrate power and opportunity into fewer and fewer hands.
But we also need to think beyond this consideration of the future of work. Humans rely on work for more than income; we also rely on work for meaning.
Humans have historically derived associated work with what we do; we have historically derived associated work with who we are.
Our work is in so many cases our identities, as the long tradition of names, last names and family names, derived from professions demonstrates. Carpenter, Baker, Butcher, and so many others — and this happens across languages, not just English. Throughout the world and throughout human history, we have taken so much of who we are and what we are about from what we do for a living, and what our ancestors have done for a living.
As I have previously written:
We derive a tremendous amount of meaning from our work—the sense of accomplishment, of problems solved, of having provided for ourselves and for our families, of having made a contribution, of having value and self-worth.
We have to recognize the possibility of a post-human-work world, or at least a world where human work has fundamentally changed—so that as we look at automation, we see the impact on both the experiences automation creates and the experiences automation displaces. Because in the future scenario where all the human work has vanished, where do humans get the same sense of meaning? That meaning we have historically derived from work will have to come from something other than work. We need a better answer.
My radical idea is that there needs to be some kind of replacement, or reinforcement, for the meaning we derive from work, like a “Universal Basic Meaning” that’s supplied around us.
Not to take the place of work; not to replace jobs. But to enhance jobs and everything else we do, every experience we have. What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.
Because while I do think about the financial implications of job displacement and replacement from automation, I’m nearly as concerned about people not having the resources of meaning and identity.
I wonder about what it’s going to do to us, as human jobs shift away from work we can develop identity around. What I think is going to be needed, even more than ever, are meaningful experiences in the world around us. Meaningful experiences at scale.
One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane and repetitive — and hence, how meaningless — they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It makes rational sense to automate the tedious tasks in our workflow and throughout our lives, but it’s easy to imagine this at scale where more and more of our everyday experiences and interactions are automated, and they’re all meaningless.
Because the interconnectedness of data and algorithms and emerging technologies are more and more part of our everyday environments, and they can create experiences that have outsized impact on who we are and how we live our lives. And it’s important that we appreciate the way these systems change us.
This is why I always say we should “automate the meaningful too.” It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.
In the weeks and months to come, I’ll write more about Universal Basic Meaning, how this idea can inform our understanding of ethical and practical data-based experiences, and how we can build the most meaningful experiences at scale.
Ah, 2021. The year we’ve been looking forward for the entire century that was 2020.
Rationally, we know the calendar year is an arbitrary convention, and that, compared with just a few days ago, nothing is fundamentally different about the laws of physics.
Yet after a year predominantly defined by a devastating global pandemic and its ravaging consequences, we intuitively recognize the opportunity for improvement that this year will bring. Between vaccinations, changes in leadership, and the business confidence gained from everyone starting to feel like they know what they’re doing again, 2021 could be a big year for recovery.
But what else can we expect from it?
While I am sometimes billed as a futurist, I do not typically traffic in predictions. My work, I feel, is to make sense of the trends I’ve observed, note the direction they seem to be taking us, and offer nuanced insights through my writing, speaking, and advising so that people can make strategic decisions with it.
Because of the many divergent patterns of 2020, 2021 is still a bit of a mystery. What the covid-19 pandemic laid bare, vaccines will hopefully begin to put right, but it will take time, it will require public confidence, and the “normal” we eventually return to will be markedly different in several ways.
Still, there are some emerging themes from 2020 that have already determined some of the key themes for 2021. I’ll review some of them below.
Accelerated Digital Transformation
I’ve read a range of speculations by many observers that the past year accelerated digital transformation by as much as six or seven years. If I look at my client company roadmaps, such as retailers, consumer products, and others who have had to overcome barriers to connection with customers and the marketplace as a whole, I would have to agree, at least in one part.
Digital transformation is about transforming business models and practices to align with data-centered commerce and optimization. Part of that is workplace transformation — readying the organization, infrastructure, etc to deal with remote, contract, robots, virtual, etc. We certainly saw that happen (see next section). Part is operational and supply chain transformation. We saw a lot of that, too. Another part, though, is job transformation — recognizing the evolution of roles and job scopes. I’m not sure we saw as much of that this past year, and the delay in facing those changes could mean greater displacement across human job roles.
Companies need to be thinking about re-skilling and up-skilling workers alongside their automation and digitization efforts. As I’ve written and said many times, we’re going to see companies thrive who have prioritized understanding how to lead combined teams of humans and machines. Where automation has been introduced, such as in call centers, human input often means nuanced decision making, contextual problem solving, and judgment calls that are essential to providing worthwhile customer experience. But all of this takes planning and investment.
Changes to the Workplace
A distinction I make in my work is between the future of work and the future of jobs, but increasingly, especially throughout the pandemic, I pointed out to my clients that it was worth thinking separately about the future of the workplace, as well.
There’s the workplace which is wherever you are working right now: at your home office, on your sofa, in bed — I’m not judging. And then there’s the workplace which is understood to be the center of the work, the headquarters, the office, the campus, what-have-you.
This latter workplace has a whole new set of features, related to its ability to provide for teams that need to be together, to keep people safe, to monitor their safety, to facilitate efficiency so that people may be able to show up for a meeting, get that meeting done, and leave — reducing their time of exposure to one another.
Obviously covid-19 has forced some key changes around remote and distributed work, and many of those are permanent. So remote work will persist. But we will also want to go back to offices and physical workplaces occasionally, when it makes sense. The trick is going to be in figuring out when it makes sense.
But how will the change in our lives from coronavirus further affect how we work and what we can expect from our employers, our employees, and the workplace in general?
Thinking past this moment is critical for us to be able to begin building our businesses for the future we are now creating.
The coronavirus pandemic is a form of exponential change that has affected us all. But collectively we face several other kinds of exponential change: climate change, AI and other emerging technologies, and the fallout of geopolitical upheavals in combination with these things.
This year has also forced some existential discussions about what is “essential” work, and it isn’t necessarily the stuff that can be done remotely or in distributed teams. It isn’t necessarily knowledge work.
A lot of the functions that have been increasingly relegated to gig economy and sharing economy types of work, like delivery, are crucial when people need to maintain social distance. Whether you agree or disagree with California’s new gig economy law, the takeaway seems to be a trend toward fewer protections for this category of workers. We will have to think more holistically about the shifting ecosystem of services and protections to make the economy that’s emerging work for everyone.
Touchless/Contactless Solutions and Remote Services
Touchless goes beyond the pandemic — it’s about speed and efficiency, too.
And while these solutions distance us from each other, we need to recognize what is meaningful in these interactions. We are trading off human interaction, but investing in the ability to trust that we are safe.
Meanwhile it’s been interesting to observe the stock market’s reactions to big IPOs like DoorDash and AirBNB, but also the cycles of enthusiasm — and lack of enthusiasm — around quarantine experiences like Zoom, Peloton, etc.
The category of services that has enabled many people to work at home and work out at home isn’t going anywhere. In fact the sentiment toward them may even evolve from feeling like ‘prison’ accessories to feeling like tools of freedom once people have greater choice in whether to stay home or leave.
The Quest for the Virtual Third Place Goes On
Let’s face it: by April, we were all Zoom’ed out.
While Zoom and the other video call and virtual meeting platforms helped us do almost everything in 2020, we all got a little fatigued.
But because so many of us spent our work life and home life in the same physical space for much of this year, we are craving an opportunity to break free. And even if it has to happen in the same physical space, what people want is a third space, even virtually, that can make them feel they’ve escaped the confines of their rectangular boxes.
From concerts in Fortnite to Animal Crossing and Among Us, people tried a lot of different approaches to re-creating a third place. There were lots of effort to make virtual spaces more immersive, but they’re still not a full third place experience.
The value of immersive games like Animal Crossing and Among Us, for example, is that they simulate movement through space, and for people who are craving a release from the confines of their homes, that kinesthetic stimulation is huge.
Immersive virtual reality experiences are where most people are looking, but I tend to be more bullish about augmented reality than virtual reality. I still think AR is the most exciting tech field yet to be fully realized, and between Apple including LiDAR in its new devices and Google doubling down on AR mapping of places, I think and hope we’re on the cusp of a big wave there.
Take a look at this cool TikTok demo of what LiDAR can add to AR experiences:
We all know it isn’t ideal. But then again, since we’ve demonstrated that we can perform much of the functional requirements of a conference or event by having it online, we will continue to do so, even as conferences move back to physical venues.
As someone who makes the better part of my living from keynote speaking, the switch to all-virtual-all-the-time was a big adjustment, from a technology and equipment perspective, from a content perspective, from a presentation skills perspective, and yes, from a financial perspective. Event planners often weren’t confident they had the budget for “normal” keynote fees, because they weren’t confident attendees would pay or that sponsors would back them. But we dug in, found where we could solve problems and add value, and ended up having a pretty successful year, all things considered.
Certainly the value proposition is different with virtual-only events, or even with a virtual offering that complements an in-person event, as we’re about to see a lot of throughout the balance of 2021.
Still, at a fundamental level, the challenge is much the same as it is across industries this year: The overarching theme of 2020-2021 is “solve a problem of actual value.” Attendees need to know that this experience will be different from the hours they already spend on video calls. No one wants to pay a registration fee just to sit at their desk and be bored. And sponsors especially need to see ROI, which can be challenging in a virtual format — despite some of the more creative attempts I’ve seen to make virtual show floors and have sponsors available to book virtual demos with attendees. There needs to be a better way to involve attendees in reviewing the sponsorships and fostering sales opportunities when it makes sense.
Across the board, it’s going to take going back to that old chestnut: creativity. We need to rethink the value pipeline, and savvy sponsors will have already started. Whether that means creating a wrapper around the entire experience so that the ROI is less contingent on showroom demos or facilitating some sort of immersive content that speaks with targeted relevance to the attendees, the best results will come from good old fashioned marketing strategy and experience design.
Stories and Ephemeral Content
Last year we got “stories” on every platform. What does this trend towards ephemeral content mean? Philosophically perhaps it gives us a chance to think about what time means in the human experience. Meanwhile, strategically it means acknowledging the difference between content of durable substance and content that is of a shorter-term, more whimsical, more time-sensitive, promotional nature.
Trust, Truth, and What Happens Now
One of the projects I’ve been embarking on is a deep dive into the nature of trust and truth, how they relate to human experience, how they shape our relationship with technology, and what happens when truth is questioned and trust is eroded. In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are critically important for us to understand.
I’ll leave this section brief because I’ll be writing much more on this topic very soon (watch this space) but in the meantime, it’s worth taking this question back to your own work and asking some probing questions about how these shifting dynamics affect your products, services, and interactions.
Commitment to Climate Mitigation Needed
The pandemic was the big story, but over and over we kept hearing how we had the opportunity to turn the momentum we gained from temporary carbon reductions during lockdown into real climate progress. But those reductions often reversed whenever restrictions were lifted, and a late 2020 UN report showed that the world is still heading for a temperature increase this century in excess of 3°C.
It’s clear that we need commitments from governments, industry, and all stakeholders to make substantial impacts while we can. Sustainability must become intrinsic to strategy, and operations must follow.
Social Justice and Reform
No review of 2020’s overarching themes would be complete without acknowledging the push for social justice, and how that showed up in efforts that brands and platforms made — whether that was to perform wokeness, or to strive for real relevance, to genuinely try to amplify BIPOC voices, and to begin to redress disparities in representation and leadership. The opportunity in 2021 will be to put real resources behind these efforts, because as I pointed out in “Tech Humanist“:
“Diversity of backgrounds on a team not only feels good and is the right direction to pursue, but it leads to significant improvements to the bottom line. Diverse firms have been shown to be more innovative, with more diverse companies 45 percent more likely to enjoy growth in market share and 70 percent more likely to break into new markets. A 2009 study also showed that companies with more racial diversity had fifteen times more sales revenue than those with low racial diversity.”
— Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans by Kate O’Neill https://a.co/4slIpoC
There’s more, but let’s leave it there for now, because that’s a lot.
We’re at a critical moment for action across much of our existence. In the Sustainable Development Goals framework established by the United Nations, we are now in the “decade of action.” In the year and years ahead, it’s critical that we make progress on climate mitigation, AI ethics, a plan for human workers displaced by automation, and much more — not to mention, of course, overcoming the current pandemic and preparing for one in the future. It’s going to take big-picture thinking that centers humanity. It’s going to take a strategic sort of optimism. For businesses, the right investments in human-centric digital transformation will pay dividends. For cities, the right investments in meaningful human experiences will be worthwhile. For all of us, it’s an opportunity to focus on what matters, and what is going to matter.
But while 2020 may have a lot to answer for, and while 2021 has many of us feeling cautiously hopeful, life doesn’t happen because of the calendar year. Life just happens. And we have to do the hard work ourselves of dealing with it, and doing what we can to make the future better.
Why should anyone be optimistic about the future?
Between the covid pandemic, the climate emergency, chaotic political upheaval, and accelerating technology changes, it would certainly seem that optimism is a weird viewpoint to bring to the future.
But personally, I think optimism gets a bad rap.
Instead of being wielded as a tool for envisioning the best outcomes, it is roundly mocked as a folly of the naïve. Or it is scorned for willfully ignoring real harms.
The truth is that optimism can actually help us acknowledge the whole truth of our circumstances and direct our focus to the best way forward.
A few years ago when a team at Google first hired me to deliver a keynote at a team offsite, I asked the team leader on our prep call why she had chosen me, and she said she liked that I was ”optimistic about the role of tech in the future yet with a firm grasp on reality.” I was charmed by that description, especially because I believe that’s what the next phase of our collective tech future for humanity needs to be: optimistic but also cautionary, but with a heavy dose of realism and clarity.
I don’t really traffic in predictions, as I suppose most futurists do, but because I talk about the future, I’ve sometimes been called a futurist. In fact, I think it was a podcast interviewer who first described me as an “optimistic futurist” and now that is a title I have come to embrace for myself. I see optimism is an important part of future-ready strategy in the sense that without it, leaders can too easily adopt the status quo mentality and not visualize the better outcomes they could work toward.
I don’t see optimism as blind hope. On the contrary, I see cynicism as a cop-out.
An optimistic view of the future can allow us to envision bold new ways forward.
An optimistic view of the future implies that we have a responsibility to work toward better outcomes.
Really and truly, my underlying focus is on how to rally our considerable resources as humans to create the best futures for the most people. I centered that theme in Tech Humanist, and that emphasis continues in my research, my writing, my speaking, and throughout my strategic advisory and consulting practice.
Perhaps predictably, over the past year, throughout the pandemic and the big pivot to virtual events, this theme of Strategic Optimism gained resonance with people and teams who wanted to be offered hope — not as platitudes or mere reassurance, but in a useful framework that applied to their strategic direction. In one of the most serendipitous* examples, the Google Geo team (which includes their Maps, Earth, and Street View products as well as AR and other emerging products related to geographic information) brought me on to engage with them about a combination of Tech Humanism, Pixels and Place, andStrategic Optimism, all around the theme of ‘navigating ambiguity.’ A great pun and an inspiring topic. Win-win.
(* À propos of nothing, “serendipity” is my favorite word. I mean, seriously, what a great word. Don’t get me started on how much I love geeking out about words and language.)
The Work to Be Done
So in 2021, KO Insights remains committed to improving human experiences at scale, and within my work I’ll be continuing to dig deeper into how technology can benefit humanity, both by creating more meaningful experiences and by solving human problems at scale. That will offer further opportunities to examine the potential in technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and others, for their impact on human experiences, and to explore what can go right and what can go wrong along the way.
Looking at what can go right as well as what can go wrong is a key part of my Strategic Optimism model. We have to look at the whole picture, acknowledge the risks and the potential harms, and then actively work to mitigate them as we steer toward the most helpful, most meaningful outcomes.
Oh, and my forthcoming book will explore these topics. I very much look forward to sharing it with you.
Here’s to a great 2021 for all of us, and here’s to the work we must all commit to doing to ensure that the future is the best it can be for the most people.
KO Insights is in quiet strategy and planning mode through the rest of the year — we have big plans for 2021, and can’t wait to share them — but if you have a business need you are of course still welcome to reach out.
A very happy festive winter season to you all, whether that includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or any other holidays, and all the best wishes for a 2021 that offers joy, opportunity, success, health, and togetherness.
At the beginning of March, I published a post here sharing my Speaker Strategy Clarity Model. But in the weeks since then (which have felt more like years), conferences and events large and small have been canceled or rescheduled, our everyday vocabulary now includes phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve,” and — hopefully — everyone who can isolate at home is doing so. In addition, much of the global economy is on pause, and the financial markets are thrashing around like a live electrical wire. All the while, every speaker and would-be speaker on Planet Earth is firing up Zoom and other virtual platforms to try to reach the audiences they miss seeing from the stage. And in the midst of all this chaos, I hear from even longtime professional speaker friends that now they really don’t know what to speak about.
So with not only the meetings and events industry upturned but the whole world seemingly in chaos, where can this possibly leave you as a speaker? When your work has been about helping others by sharing insights from a stage, what can and should that work look like when the audiences all stay home? More to the point: when they’re all coping with the stress of a global pandemic and worried about their health and finances?
Solving Human-Level vs. Humanity-Level Problems
I think the original Speaker Strategy Clarity Model still applies broadly, but an addendum that may help us in this moment is to think about the problems we solve and how to uplift them.
We must stop and recognize a new truth: when there is a humanity-level crisis, it’s natural to feel human-level panic. One of the ways panic manifests is that we feel the inner call of our survival instincts, and we may hurry to put out a promotional message, trying quickly to make money to save ourselves and our families from the financial ruin we fear is coming. That’s an understandable response, but it’s one we have to try to quell within ourselves.
Our best impulses at this moment will require us to respond to humanity-level crisis by empathizing our way down to human-scale problem-solving, and in doing so, trying to lift our work up to humanity-level problem-solving. If you are in a position to solve problems directly at the scale of humanity, with actions such as manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, then by all means, please do so, and I wish you all the very best and will support you however I can. But most of us are going to be better positioned for work at the human scale, which means empathy is our strongest asset right now.
(Of course, empathy was always our strongest asset, but in ordinary circumstances it may feel like a luxury that requires patience to deploy. In times of crisis, it’s absolutely vital.)
What about B2B?
Even if your work is directed at business leaders, the best and highest work you can do right now is to help leaders lead with our best and highest human attributes, especially empathy. I listened in to a brilliant webinar my friend David C. Baker, who is a keynote speaker and author of The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth, gave for his clients and followers about how their businesses would likely have to adjust during this period, and while it was all very sensible and pragmatic, it was also clearly heartfelt and human, even while talking through the unfortunate realities of staff reductions. Our audiences look to us for perspective and insight; let’s not let now be the moment when we fail to connect back to the human impact of every decision we and they make.
Perhaps you can think of that model sort of like this:
Marketing? In This Economy?
The urge to market and promote is going to be strong, and it is an understandable impulse to want to stand out above the crowd of other voices asking for attention right now. But as I watch emails from brands come in, a few of them stand out as being well done, and they illustrate the best approach that we who are speakers and thought leaders can borrow as we plan to promote our work:
acknowledge the reality we’re in, preferably in a way that shows you’re doing something useful about it
offer ideas with some kind of value that creates relevance between your core brand and the recipient’s reality, and then
Here’s a promotional email from Crate and Barrel that I thought walked that fine line well: it stayed on brand, the offer was relevant, and the promotion wasn’t so heavy-handed as to be in poor taste.
Perhaps you disagree with this example or with any of these guidelines. That’s OK — do it the way that feels right to you.
Just don’t oversell, and likewise don’t turn the communication into pageantry or melodrama. For once in our lives, everyone around the world is experiencing a version of something that has everyone’s attention at once — there’s no need to dwell too long on what we all already know.
Twist, Don’t Pivot
We also all need to be especially sure we are offering value right now that’s as close to our expertise as possible while relevant to the moment. Not all of us are experts in virtual presenting, so it doesn’t make sense for everyone to try to sell that offering in webinars and online courses.
What’s especially elegant about what ends up happening when you do that is that you can take a human-level problem — the need to come across well on video while everyone is working and presenting from home — and solve it upwards towards a humanity level, because if more people learn how to communicate well on video, it seems possible to imagine that human communication could improve at scale.
You’re uniquely suited to something, too. What human-level problem can you solve upwards towards humanity?
Be safe, be well, be sensible, and, of course, be as helpful as you can.
Here’s to getting through this by solving upward to our highest and best work,