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.
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.
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,
I am a professional speaker, and while I don’t speak about speaking, I do often get asked for input on how people can get into speaking, become better speakers, grow their speaking business, and so on. And I like to be able to be helpful when I can.
So at one of the recent opportunities to speak to a group of speakers, I was asked to talk about speaking strategy and how to really hone in on your topic.
By way of an answer, I put together the following model, and I’m sharing it with you. Maybe you’re working in a field where you occasionally get invited to give presentations at conferences. Maybe you are already a speaker but you want more clarity about what your topic area should be. Even seasoned speakers will benefit from this exercise every so often — perhaps make it part of your annual review, and it will keep you directed toward your own true north star.
How to Draw the Model
Start by taking a full-sized sheet of paper and drawing three circles that overlap a bit, like so:
Next label those circles as follows: “What is your unique experience, your credibility?” “What do people pay to learn?” “What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”
Pause here and take some time to fill in a few answers to the three questions.
“What is your unique experience, your credibility?”
Or is your story more personal? Are you a cancer survivor with a unique observation about your journey? An early childhood educator with a unique perspective?
Dig deep and capture some of those characteristics here.
“What do people pay to learn?”
Now think about what you can speak about that people will shell out money — their own or their employer’s money — to learn. Companies will always pay good money to teach their employees better sales and leadership skills, and many invest heavily in other professional and personal development topics. Every business discipline has industry events full of paid conferences. Individuals are often drawn to skills that can increase their marketability and value as employees, or skills that help them become more independently successful.
Of course people often pay to hear about and learn about squishier topics too that they hope will make their lives better, like improving their interpersonal communication, strengthening their relationships, finding their purpose, and so on.
Think about the topic areas adjacent to your expertise where you know people are willing to pay to learn, and list a few of those.
“What are you endlessly curious and passionate about?”
To me, this one is the kicker. If you only thought about what you’ve already done and what you already know, you’d have nothing pulling you forward and keeping you current. But think about the subjects that fascinate you, that you maybe collect articles about, that you always stay up to speed on, that you could talk for hours about at a cocktail party if you found someone equally as interested in the subject.
Ask yourself what you wish you knew more about than anyone else in the world.
Go ahead and write one or a few things in that circle.
Your X Factor
Now that you have your three circles and you’ve labeled them and filled in some answers for each one, take a look at the section where all the three circles overlap: this is your X factor. Think about what gives you credibility AND what people pay to learn AND what you are passionate about knowing.
Try to articulate this X Factor in a few words or a short phrase. If you can capture it just right, your X Factor should reveal something about your unique selling point in the marketplace. Not bad for a few circles, huh?
Bonus: The Overlaps
What I find so interesting about this exercise is that you also get meaningful insights from the overlapping areas.
Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What People Pay to Learn = Event Themes
When you think about the overlap of your credibility and what people pay to learn, that should lead you to some ideas about the themes of events you may want to search for to find speaking opportunities.
What People Pay to Learn + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Media Hooks
When you look at what people are willing to pay to learn and what you’re passionate about, you have a great formula for satisfying media outlets with up-to-the-minute hot takes that people care about.
Your Unique Experience and Credibility + What You’re Curious and Passionate About = Content Ideas
And when you look at the overlap of what you have credibility in and what you’re curious about, you should have a rich source of ideas for content that you can create as a thought leader.
The Grand Slam: Add Your Purpose Statement
Of course in all areas of my work and my life, my mindset is that purpose plays a big role in strategy. So I added the question: “What is your driving purpose for what you do?” Theoretically you should begin with this question, but I think it can be as clarifying after you’ve taken inventory of your experience and credibility and all the rest of it, too. It can help you go back through your answers and refine them, bringing them all into alignment.
So that’s the model. When I presented it to the last group of up-and-coming speakers at a weekend-long speaking bootcamp, one woman came up to me the following morning and said with a smirk, “It’s all your fault I had to throw away everything I had and start all over again.” But I heard her talk the day before the exercise and the day after, and the clarity she had after working through the exercise was inspiring. When you want to communicate powerful ideas, clarity is a gift.
Speaking of Gifts: Have a Free Download of the Full Model
To make this as easy as possible for you and save you some drawing and labeling, I’ve put together a worksheet you can simply download and get going on. There’s no email signup, no obligation to buy anything from me, no program I want to upsell you into. If you find value in it, please share it with other speakers. The best way to thank me for sharing it is to use it to make a great speech that helps make the world a better place.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Koyaanisqatsi again, but for the first time on the big screen. (I’ve owned this movie and the rest of the Qatsi series on DVD for decades.) If you’ve never seen it, it’s a 1982 movie with no dialogue about a way of living that is out of scale. For a 38-year-old film, the idea feels stunningly contemporary. I was fortunate enough, thanks to the Museum of the Moving Image, to be able to see it with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio in the audience and then listen to a discussion with him about it. (And to shake his hand afterwards and tell him how magnificent his work is. It’s always a joy to be to connect directly with creators and other significant people in our lives and let them know their work matters to us.)
During the discussion, he shared so many brilliant ideas: that at the premise of the film are the “wonders that are our afflictions;” that we speak technology and we breathe technology; that “what’s happening in the future is rooted in now;” and so much more – I took four pages of notes!
A great deal of the impact of the movie is the sped-up or slowed-down nature of the footage. As Godfrey Reggio said several times during the discussion, “that which is most present is least seen,” so sometimes we have to change the way we see our surroundings to notice them.
This aligns with research and thinking I’ve done around the relative experience of time in our lives, and how we can think about it in terms of the design of experiences both now and as we move into an increasingly automated future.
Human Understanding of Time
After all, even humans have different understandings of time: people who know more than one language have a different perspective on time because we’ve experienced other approaches to temporal framing, other terminology for concepts like “the day before yesterday” or “the year after next.”
People who have experienced the traumatic loss of someone they love have experienced time differently as well; in my own life, I found that dates accrued significance with time and life experience. There’s an additive effect of milestones on calendar dates, so the date a loved one died means something very different to me in the years after it happened than it did before.
Designing the Meaningful Experience of Time
For experience strategists and designers, in order to make a human-centric digital transformation it’s important to think about the practical side of these insights: how does an understanding of time affect your customers, users, visitors, patients, students, residents, and whatever roles humans play in your company, organization, city, museum, etc? How does it speed up or stand still? How is it associated with progress or delay? How is it light and how is it heavy? Does urgency matter? What can you do in the design of experience to enhance the appreciation of time relative to the experience of your brand, place, product, etc?
Last August, Greta Thunberg took a slow boat across the ocean to her appearances in New York and beyond rather than accept the carbon footprint of flying. How does time relate to value and to values for the people in your communities?
The Relative Value of Time in Automation and Acceleration
And then, a big question: How might all of this sense of time change with the continued rise of algorithmic optimization and automated efficiency? What will increasingly machine-led experiences do to the human experience and meaning of time? For most of us, automation implies acceleration, and in a sense the devaluing of time. How will we preserve the value of time in an increasingly automated world?
As machines speed up certain tasks, are there likely to be others that we deliberately slow down? We’ve already seen the rise of trends in the past two decades that prize slowness and involvement, like the methodical and very hands-on approach to making pourover coffee, for example.
It seems important that we somehow be able to retain our humanistic, nuanced, compassionate model of the passage of time amidst the acceleration of the world around us.
Which means we’re going to need to do more to understand how our sense of urgency has changed because of faster modes of communication and always-on gadgets with push notifications. We’re going to need to do more to understand how our addition of the human values of nuance, context, judgment, and such will be measured and understood in the context of sped-up workplaces driven by intelligent automation.
There are no fast and easy answers here. But for those of you designing experiences, it may be worth taking a little time to ask some of these questions, so you can design a more nuanced experience with a more humanistic understanding of time.
If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me to advise or as a keynote speaker at an event in 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to more meaningful experiences of time for us all.
One thing I said during last night’s “future of work”-themed event for Envoy in Atlanta (which will be re-broadcast as a webinar on January 30th) that I probably haven’t said enough elsewhere about human-centric digital transformation is that when it comes to people and productivity, we shouldn’t start with efficiency. That shouldn’t be the leading measure. In general, efficiency is for processes. People contribute to processes, but what they contribute to those processes is often of higher value than efficiency: it’s good judgment, context, decision-making, knowing when something needs to be slowed down or stopped in order to keep damage from happening — which is not efficient in the short term, but far more effective in the long term.
Whatever humans are being measured for that only comes down to efficiency is almost guaranteed to be replaced by machines. Which is fine! In most cases, we need to recognize and cultivate the higher value that humans bring to the work around those tasks and processes, though, which is where the new jobs of the future likely come in.
Ideally humans at work shouldn’t really be measured, per se, at all, but evaluated on performance according to values. Make people more effective at their work, help them do their work more thoughtfully and meaningfully, and more in alignment with the company’s purpose and goals, and inevitably their output will be better in every dimension, including efficiency.
A recurring theme throughout my research, writing, and speaking has been the “future of work.” Er, or maybe the “future of jobs.” One reason they’re so hard to talk about is they’re not the same thing.
The future of work has to do with the way companies will achieve productivity in an increasingly automated ecosystem. The future of jobs, meanwhile, has to do with the way human beings will make their living, or in a theoretical system where resources are provided, how human beings will carve out their identity, which they have traditionally done at least in part through their chosen occupations.
As we head into 2020, I’m still obsessed with the integration of human experience. My work over the last two decades in technology has often been centered on the user or the customer. What I began to realize was first of all that when we talk about the “user“ or the “customer“ that we are always talking about humans, and that it benefits us to think in a more holistic human context when we do that.
Now I find I’m not as interested in user or customer experience as I am in human experience: what does it mean to optimize for the human experience; what does it mean to be human at all; how can that apply to businesses, marketing, to schools, to hospitals, and well beyond.
But I also find that when business focuses on improving human experience in alignment with what the business objectives are, the chances for success increase. This is why in my books and keynotes and beyond I always talk about “human-centric digital transformation.” With emerging technology, because of the increased capacity and scale that it offers, it’s becoming increasingly important that that alignment is in place so that we don’t scale unintended consequences.
I believe some of the biggest opportunities right now for the future of human experience — and indeed the future of humanity in general — are in looking at the ways online meets offline, customer meets user, employee meets candidate, global meets local, how the gig economy is shaking up the work landscape, and on and on.
We’ll have to think about context, environment, culture, aesthetics, identity. We’ll have to think about the human journey instead of the customer journey.
We’ll have to think about metrics that measure the human experience. What will those be? How do you measure fulfillment? A life well lived?
This moment in history feels very chaotic, where automation, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies are rapidly changing our vision of even the near future. Meanwhile, 70-80% of CEOs think the next 3 years are more critical than the past 50. We’re clearly in a truly transformative time.
So there’s tremendous opportunity for UX and CX professionals to put a stake in the ground on behalf of a wider lens on humanity, and advocate for integrated human experiences in the midst of machine-driven interactions and transactions, to make them as meaningful as possible.