Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mediocrity Part III – Visioneering (Inspired Design)


 
Inspired Design

Everyone knows you can’t compare apples and oranges. On the other hand, people do it all the time.

Take, for instance, my recent blog posts about the “ordinariness” of Disney Springs’ new Town Center – you can’t help feeling you’ve seen it all before because you have, many times at malls and resorts, for at least the past decade. I was writing about how the design process can inadvertently default to mediocrity as the most cost-efficient outcome, how that process works, and what should be done about it – particularly if your brand is based on creating magical, memorable experiences.

Some people took that to mean that Disney Imagineering had lost its position as the Gold Standard in park design to Universal – citing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ and Diagon Alley™ as attractions that left Disney scrambling to offer a crowd-pulling alternative from their non-Disney Star Wars and Avatar properties.

Disney doesn’t usually play defense, but that doesn’t mean that Universal Studios is the new Disney. What Universal had was J. K. Rowling’s very compelling, remarkably detailed, proven vision in her book and film version of the Hogwarts universe to build on--with the financial support to do it right. This last part is important.  The Imagineering path is littered with the ruins of creative visions destroyed by a single guy in a suit who shrugged and said, “Just give it a Marriott-level finish.”

There is no lack of design talent.  But for a vision to work, it has to be shared all the way to the top. This all goes back to the original genius that illuminated Disneyland in taking a set of mental images (as story) and giving them unexpected power in three dimensions to create a walkaround artform no one had experienced before. In the Disneyland case, the vision was driving the outcome. As the late legendary Imagineer John Hench once told us about creating the original Disneyland, “Even we didn’t really understand what we were creating, but we trusted Walt’s vision.”

To bridge the gap between the creative vision and practical economics, we need a new way of thinking about what people really value about experience – what we think of as Visioneering – in which the value proposition is built into the Vision itself. One aspect of this is behavioral design, a discipline parallel to neuroeconomics in that it merges psychology, neuroscience, and social science with the “rational man” theory of classical economics. Economic theory has come to recognize that money and wealth theories must be grounded in the way people actually think about and handle their spending and saving, far from the left-brained numbers scan of money experts. In the same way, experience design, to succeed on the ground, has to be based on the ways people intuitively consider their personal issues and opportunities in using architecture and space.

As a parallel example, despite many decades of trying by the financial sector, they have come to the reluctant conclusion that it’s really not possible to re-engineer the customer.  People don’t buy “financial instruments.” What they are buying is a home, a better future, an investment in their children, and security.  That’s why neuroeconomics was created: to study the way the brain actually makes decisions about money in order to design new financial products that people are predisposed to buy rather than trying to foist habits of saving and spending on unwilling customers. Likewise, designers can’t re-engineer the guest. You have to understand what and how people are motivated to act in a given set of circumstances.

The original Disney Imagineers were artists and filmmakers operating under Walt’s edict illuminated by brilliant intuition, not marketing.  Not everything worked as planned.  But the team was led by a guy whose main talent was not artistic but editorial.  Pitting his keen brain against the prolific output of his team, he made the many cuts that always need to be executed in-between what works for the artist and what works for the audience. What worked in Anaheim and Orlando has been copied worldwide—but without the underlying knowledge of how or why it does its job so well.  This is “the magic” that Disney marketing sells, but this magic is knowable and its essence can and does work to inform the future of public space.

With the brain revolution in science added to evolutionary psychology, it is now possible to know far more than Walt did about how to design the way guests think, act, see, and move – and the critical role of place in shaping behavior by using space creation to set the mental agenda of people in groups.  It is the role of cultural analysis as a partner in the design suite to identify the human factors that operate within any design concept. This map of the brain, behavior, and biology guides design ventures a long stretch beyond the upscale Tuscan mall at Disney Springs.

Visioneering v. mediocrity

How can such cultural intelligence enable us as design thinkers to recognize “Visioneering” when we see it?  What warnings and cautions should we observe in looking at the design outcomes visible around us all the time?   

Let’s begin with museum publication awards.  Some are inspired, but the AAM awards tend to go to the same cluster of studios--because these are the same names, year after year, that turn out design for leading museums across the country just by the force of reputation.  It’s a circular logic that takes hold as museums quite reasonably opt to hire the best.  But that loop doesn’t promote a search for new ideas or inspiration from the corners or margins – less fashionable quarters geographically or by museum type (science v. art centers, for example). 

Another museum example is the trophy-collection museum, like the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.  Showcasing and celebration go far to satisfy founders and boards.  But this impulse doesn’t fuel the spirit of inquiry that promotes creative ways of understanding or exploring things, people, and ideas.   Museums and historic homes and monuments are sacred spaces built to inspire reverence and awe. 

However, such an impulse doesn’t invite critical thinking or education—the stated goal of the AAM.

At the other extreme is Las Vegas, dedicated to pleasure, excess, and adrenalin.  Now its casino arcades and gaming floors are widely themed.  But notice the repeat floor plans, often with the same stores.  Whether cast in marble or neon, strolling from one spot on the strip to the next, the furnishings start to look alike.  Think back to the 1992 inspiration of Caesar’s Palace Forum mall that so effectively recreated imperial Hollywood Rome by sculpture, motifs, and classical fountains under cycled lighting--that sparked themeing on a scale outflanking the Stardust, Flamingo, Riviera, or the low-profile Dunes.  Heavy capital investment (and stupendous water bill) in a luxury experience has paid off by creating the highest-grossing mall in the country (including all of Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills).    

Elsewhere on the strip, creation of a Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1998 lasted just a decade because the electric bill to light the Enterprise (as it looked down at earth) was considered by Accounting an unacceptable luxury: even for a glimpse of a future way of life in space and the History of the Future Museum. Unlike the water bill at Caesar’s, this cost broke the budget barrier at the Hilton.  Subsequent licensing and funding problems have now blocked the ST Experience from feeding on the energy of the film franchise success. In New York, Julie Taymor’s spectacular innovations with The Lion King on Broadway weren’t sufficient to surmount the budgetary limits that got her fired as artistic director of Spider-Man in 2011.   

Cost / Benefit

Chris Barlow, Clinical Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of Experiential Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago commented on our pervious posts on mediocrity’s merits: 

In our Value Engineering work, I have been very conscious of our process being the unpacking of a bunch of previously made and tested decisions, having the expertise available to reanalyze those criteria and goals and the current situation (both problem side and potential solutions), exploring the alternatives this makes possible, and choosing one to re-collapse on.

Innovation and design is very expensive in time and resources and demands expertise which is also expensive (including paying you guys the big bucks). Innovation is a capital expense. As someone living near the original "Town Square" in Wheaton, IL, I see in your posting evidence that developers around the world saw no value in investing the capital to find new approaches.… The real question is what profits and advantage could the developers and investors have reaped from investing the required capital for better design?

For both building and performance, world expos are current ideal incubators for brilliant design ideas and solutions – when they aren’t vetoed by committees who can’t determine their value to international audiences.  Ultimately all creative breakthroughs must somehow grapple with and overcome the bean-counters’ blade. The simplest way might be to build the value proposition right into the Vision. 

Why not? It’s do-able, and desired. As one executive told us, “I’d love to have some other way of determining value besides just numbers on a page – some way of evaluating soft costs, for instance.”  Successful Visioneering relies on those “soft costs” – all the extra detail that drives the vision home. Without them everything is just the dread “Marriott-level finish.” 

Clearly, we need better ways to recognize the value in ideas in order to nourish them – in visionary design teams better equipped to generate, vet, and nurture ideas in their early stages.  This goes beyond artistic merit: how will these ideas operate on a grand scale for thousands or millions of people in groups? What, where, and how do you provide the experimental value that people will instantly recognize as worth more than the cost of admission?  And the clincher: How will you maintain that value over time in repeat visitation?

 

Mediocrity is cheaper because it creates a “confidence comfort zone” based on guaranteed outcomes.  Deep knowledge of customer needs and wants can be built by digital communications, giving experience economy mainstays like cruise lines better confidence to invest in new ideas (as Joe Pine of Strategic Innovation notes in his January 2017 piece on mass customizing at Carnival Cruise Lines).  Novelty grabs attention in the business press. But the enduring value to audiences of any offering can be measured in advance against the human factors involved as they’ve operated for millennia.

 

 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mediocrity II: The Wonderful World of Agreeable Gray


Disney Springs' Town Center  Photo: Miami Herald
Mall design has been proceeding under the influence of the Disney parks since the 1960s.  Today this legacy has come full circle to the point that now the malls are leading Imagineering.  Industry gossip has it that achieving the look of Disney Springs’ new Town Center’s been-there-done-that result took working through at least five design outsourced firms that had, one would hope, less pedestrian ideas. 

Unlike the careful integration of El Paseo within Santa Barbara’s tradition of stucco and tile tied into the surrounding streetscape, the new Disney Springs Town Center shows little sign of understanding where it is or what it’s doing there.  By way of contrast, the Town Square opening onto Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is designed to welcome with icons held in common through collective memory—the park benches, plantings, firehouse, town hall, gas lamps, soda fountain, and the charm of historic storefronts featuring markers for park memories. 

For any industry evolution, the search for quality may ironically lead to settling for consensus, B-level midrange results.  This is the reason that no matter what the make, cars now look very much alike.  The middle-of-the-curve design point of mutual mediocrity signals the maturing of any artform.  In a way, this midpoint is a mark of quality because it signals an agreed-upon standard of design performance--one levelled down from excellence or inspiration.

The mediocre brand, once accepted, turns into the passing grade for all planning and execution moves, from cars to cookware, national elections to trade shows, classroom to casinos, clubs, convenience stores, and experience spaces of all kinds and purposes.

Experience designs that used to lead the pack by genius and innovative thinking become, after decades as models, just the standard of performance, or given a “Marriott-level finish,” a cringworthy term coined by former Disney chairman Michael Eisner. 

Over time, creative vision seems doomed by the theory of second best.

In economics, the theory of second best holds that systems work better when all elements are designed to operate at less than optimal level.  Integrated excellence costs more because all parts of the system can’t keep up with the top-performing aspects, and if and when these fail, the whole system goes down. Better to maintain everything at an average or second-rate mode.  This is why very ingenious home design, no matter how brilliant, doesn’t sell on the housing market.  Homeowners are just more comfortable with trusting the average—for themselves as well as for the future buyer of their home.

This is also why any responsible real estate agent will tell you to paint over your custom color palette with beige, eggshell, or the latest “agreeable gray” found in any new construction.  In order for buyers to imagine themselves in a new house, the atmosphere must be scrubbed of personality, including the genius type.  The neutral middling aesthetic is the basis of the home-staging ethic. And this gives instant insight into consensus taste in home surroundings.  Agreeable gray carries the day.

But brilliant public spaces are not comparative-market residences, nor is “second best” the quality that made Disney the gold standard for 3-D walkaround design.

When Disney’s first Imagineers invented the theme park in 1955, they had no model to follow except the world’s fairs (now expos), and certainly not the amusement park, which Walt was creating Disneyland to replace. 

The prognosis for amusement parks at that time was dim. Banks and commercial sponsors had a difficult time building a mental file folder for what Disney was pitching.  There wasn’t one handy.  So when we look now at the most popular artform of the last century - the one that initiated more 3-D design than any since - it’s difficult to recall that before 1955 no one knew what a theme park was. It was a journalist from The LA Times, not Disney, who coined the term “theme park” because there just was no existing term to adequately describe the world’s leading experience environment.  That in itself is amazing testimony about the state of the art.

Disneyland could only be defined by what it wasn’t, what people knew at the time—the thrill park.  Six Flags, Cedar Point, Magic Mountain, et al. are defined by physical thrill-seeking, not the narrative-image journeys that now define the theme park industry and increasingly are taking over thrill-seeking in the form of the action story.

Since then, an entire design industry has grown up and matured around the thematic template, which still holds its place as the gold standard.  To such an extent, ironically, that it has become difficult to color outside the lines of that mandate: world’s fairs, expos, malls, resorts, history parks, and museums (last to the theme park table)–all ideation is ruled by the silent standard of the mega-successful template: the giga-park prototype. 

This isn’t just a Disney problem, It’s a systemic problem.  As one of our colleagues at a design school put it, “It’s now designers only talking to designers,” without reference to any wider context.  Disney’s context was his young daughters and their weekly “daddy’s day” outings where Walt sat on a bench on the sidelines to watch his kids ride the carousel.

He decided that, in breaking up the American family, this back-seat routine wouldn’t do. As with his films, starting with animation, he wanted to create a place where generations could have fun together (now we call it inter-gen experience).  And he did just that. He created something rooted in familiarity, but presented in a way we had never seen – or even thought of -- before.

“Family” now can include five generations from great-grandparent on down.  To succeed, design needs to be intergenerational, and that means the whole age-development gamut.  Disney proved that the family audience could inspire ingenious solutions, far beyond a bland canvas compromise.

So…calling something a Town Center doesn’t make it one; people naturally gravitate to a town center. In Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis without a natural center, it was the legendary science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury who noted that Disneyland had become LA’s de facto city center – the one place where everyone meets.

Disney Springs Town Center is not a town center, and not just because the psychological center of gravity is closer to the Disney Store. Nor, unfortunately, is it a Disney Experience. Expensive, and yet nowhere near gold standard.

Can you make a town center that not only looks like one but motivates people to treat it as the town center? Of course, malls have been doing it for decades.  It was only a matter of time before a mall was restyled in the form of the Main Street malls displaced. In 2009 we walked the streets of Town Square. It’s an upscale, open-air shopping, dining, office, and entertainment development in Enterprise, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. It looks like a well-to-do town center with its mix of architectural styles, but there is no town there; it serves the surrounding sprawling housing developments.

Las Vegas' Town Square   Photo: J.G. O'Boyle
It was less than two years old when we first saw it, but Town Square had already become more than just a place to shop. Along with stores and restaurants, it has three parks that host seventy community events annually, from all major holidays to open-air movies.  And it’s not the only such development, which is why Disney’s Town Center, however pretty, looks like we’ve seen it all before, only better. Town Center should have been what we’ve come to expect from Disney: rooted in familiarity and yet seen through new eyes – inviting, even inspiring, transporting you to a new and intriguing place you want to explore. Walt Disney’s genius was building places that tapped into a deep sense of anemoia in his guests, which means a nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never actually known.
 
As for Disney Springs’ Town Center, we’ve seen it before, we’ve known it for years. It’s ordinary, uninspiring, intimidating, and surprisingly unwelcoming – and that does not bode well for the future of theme park design. Somehow design ideation needs to start pushing beyond what used to be “good enough.”

 

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Safe Design of Mediocrity



 
      “No great thing is created suddenly.”
                                      --Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

Anyone familiar with the theme park industry knows about Disney’s “Black Sunday” – the July 17, 1955 “International Press Preview” event, which most people remember as Disneyland’s opening day. That’s because it was nationally televised. Ninety million people tuned in – and much of the park wasn’t ready.

There were reports of workers still planting trees as the guests arrived. A gas leak in Fantasyland temporarily shut down two areas of the park.  To meet the deadline, the plumbers told Disney that he could have either water fountains or toilets--but not both. So the water fountains were dry and some people – in keeping with the American cultural distrust of big business - decided it was a deliberate act to increase drink sales for one of the park sponsors, Pepsi-Cola.

Twice the number of expected guests showed up due to counterfeit tickets--so many that restaurants ran out of food. And to top it off, July 17 was one of the hottest days on record; some papers reported temperatures as high as 101 degrees. Women’s heels sank right into the freshly poured asphalt.

The unveiling was far less than perfect, and the press was not kind, citing guest complaints amid the chaotic scramble to make things work. Among the many complaints: guests were shocked to see that Disney’s Main Street, USA was actually filled not with rides but stores.  Real storefronts, selling real merchandise, unlike the amusement park model of cheap memento trinkets.  Housewares, clothing, gifts, books, records, stationery, plus cigarettes and other tobacco products — along with the mementos.

Disney scrambled to fix the park’s many problems by Monday’s official public opening and, despite the bad press, people were already lined up at the gates before they opened.

The crowds came despite the news coverage because Disneyland was unlike anything people had ever seen before. It was virtual reality long before that term was invented. Guests could walk the streets of places they had seen only in the movies and cast themselves in the hero’s role.

And, yes, they could shop on Main Street, USA.  The shops were fully-themed to another era – the “Gay 90s” – a term we find amusing now.  But it simply meant the 1890s, a period Americans had come to think of nostalgically as a happy, more carefree time.

The architecture was the most optimistic style imaginable – American Victorian – a style that even in the 1950s people thought of as “old-timey.” Everything was more elaborate than it needed to be; windows were stained glass or inscribed with names of faux-businesses in elaborate gilt script – or had elements of both. Every interior surface was elaborately wallpapered or stenciled. Every outdoor surface was brightly-colored and heavily adorned with contrasting scrollwork.

It was the architecture of Walt Disney’s childhood; the same sort of architecture then being demolished as too unfashionable for the modern post-war world. Here guests were immersed in a new but somehow quite familiar experience, steeped in a collective memory fast disappearing from living experience.

It turned out to be inspirational as well. Main Street, U.S.A. is credited as the birthplace of the Main Street revival movement of 1980, the National Trust’s first property acquisition (1957), the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and eventually, the Trust’s National Treasures portfolio (2011). That’s quite a legacy.

Sixty years post-opening, what is now happening that’s new and forward-looking from Disney designers?

From current examples, it’s hard to tell – and nothing reminiscent of what made Disney the gold standard for the experience economy.

Last fall I toured the new Disney Springs in Orlando expecting a real enhancement of the former Downtown Disney that began as a low-rise suburban California-style mall in the early 80s and grew without much of a plan.  What I saw was startling – not in a good way.  The new entrance, in the area Disney unfortunately chose to name “Town Center,” is an outsized high-end mall. In Disney’s promotional material this “Center” is described as “Spanish architecture inspired by century-old towns in Florida….” In fact, it is indistinguishable from any other pretentious high-end shopping mall around the country.

Unlike Main Street, USA, the symbolic town center of all America at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, this one is overbearing, uninviting, and carries none of the welcoming or community-making attributes that such an important entry should show.  Did current Imagineering have no idea what a town center is? Because, despite the name, it is not centered in relation to the “town.” It’s centered on the parking lot.

Instead of a unique experience, we get the usual cast of mall characters: Johnston & Murphy, kate spade new york, Lucky Brand, Lacoste, MAC Cosmetics, L’Occitane en Provence, Pandora, Sephora, Sperry, Tommy Bahama, UGG, Under Armour, Uniqlo, Vera Bradley – in other words, the same brands you can find in every affluent mall, and on every shopping street in any major American city, as well as the twin Premium Outlets that anchor both ends of Orlando’s International Drive.

My personal favorite is “Luxury of Time by Diamonds International,” where you can - again from the Disney Springs own website - “peruse coveted collections of designer watches and elegant fine jewelry at this upscale boutique.”

This brings a whole new level to the Disney family experience. The family can chow down on D-Luxe Burgers while dad slips off to Luxury of Time to drop upwards of thirty grand on the Hublot King Power Rose Gold Automatic 48mm Watch On a Rubber Strap that he saw on the store’s Disney Springs website.

The wealthy are just as welcome to spend their money at Disney Parks as anyone, but how many guest actually feel welcome to browse in that environment when one of the hallmarks of an upscale shopping experience is the implication of exclusion?  Disney’s new Town Center may be pretty, but not unique, not new, not welcoming, and the opposite of innovative – the safe design of mediocrity, pre-approved by popular demand in other places also inspired by Disney vision decades ago.

In other words, not Disney.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Looking, Better



Sherlock Holmes, already the best-known character in modern fiction, has enjoyed an even better run since the Arthur Conan Doyle copyright ran out.  Holmes and magnifying glass are the inseparable duo that seemingly forever mark the detecting profession and its mindful observation skills, combining imagination with knowledge and applying analytical tools to solve complex, wicked problems.  The Holmes legacy focuses on intelligently viewing the world, pattern recognition, and making sense of what’s out there – talents inherent in cultural analysis.
Maria Konnikova’s excellent treatment of this process, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), takes apart the three stages of detection—observation, imagination, and deduction—to show the brilliance of the Holmes method through leading cases in the canon.  Her casebook is a master class in learning about the processes implicit in thinking, decision-making, planning, and action-taking.  This is the difference between vision, the human talent for insight into the past, present, and future based on visual memory, and just registering what’s on view around us avoiding attentional blindness, and related practices basic to mental well-being of the “present mind.”   
Seventy percent of our sense receptors are around the eyes.  But vision as processed looking doesn’t happen in the eye only – it only occurs after processing by the brain.  Our limbic system is constantly building our emotional world as the structure that filters the input of the senses through experience and cultural values.  Our emotional sorting device, the limbic brain, is always leading our thinking and responding.  Everything in sight carries an emotional charge. Our entire emotional array—geared to social and emotional goals—is set up to see risk or reward, opportunity or danger, play, love, joy, fear, uncertainty, or doubt—depending on just how our brain codes whatever we see as positive, negative, neutral, or more rarely, to put on hold for future reference. 
Why do we see, but don’t observe, as Holmes is constantly reminding Watson?  It’s not that difficult:  because seeing is a physiological act of the senses, whereas perception is the brain-based outcome that follows the inner processing of light and image.   What we perceive doesn’t reflect what’s in front of us—nor what others perceive.  Looking and observing is a complex process that involves many factors:  what we expect to see, matching that with our entire seeing history, and the cultural (social) world in our heads—important in setting the ideals of what we prefer to see, what we most fear seeing, and what we think others are seeing.  All these trigger our immediate reactions.
Looking differs from mindful seeing, as Jim Gilmore shows recently in Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills (2016), his metacognitive treatment of the sight experience under various modes of aided perception.  In opposition to routine autopilot approaches to looking, Gilmore’s six-looking-glass toolbar is a tactical lever to extend this seeing, breaking out ways of observing and their concomitant benefits for raising awareness, macro to micro: from the broad-range binoculars (wide-shot) to magnifiers and microscopes that home in on details (close-up) that open up yet more landscapes to explore.  This is a working philosophy of observation to upgrade any effort, from pedestrian examination to innovative seeking, using these powers of discovery when ordinary seeing isn’t nearly keen or deep enough.  This guide to enhancing observation also grows a most valuable resource:  attention and focus, the wellspring of analytical ability. William James, father of psychology, called engaged attention the root of judgment, character, and will.  Seeing better has powerful outcomes: a means to think better, discover potentials, inquire deeper, and make better decisions.
Gilmore’s section on rose-colored-glasses looking is ingenious in its view of perceiving potential—what isn’t visible except as “gems and gaps,” the baseline of creative perceiving to envision what isn’t yet but could be.  That’s the imagination function prompted by “power vision.”  He cites the rare ability of top sports-talent scouts like Tony Lucadello for his legendary spotting of ball players before anyone else could—an exercise in observation with a positive bias. The evolution of tableware showcases the same ability to envision value beyond present limits—in developing the fork out of the hunter’s blade.  Reading between the lines of what is already evident, but far from perfect, to see innovation, combines observation with imagination—to create and discover entirely new stars and tools.
Back in Mastermind, Konnikova details the power outcomes from better seeing, showing ways we can learn to attune our efforts and attention to rediscover the world out there beyond habit, routine, and mindlessness—to take us from passive absorption to active awareness.  But that transition demands a more attentive, curious, and engaged mindset to make our subconscious processing far more conscious.   

Friday, October 7, 2016

Nature: There’s a reason Disney World is called a “park”



Sherlock Holmes, already the best-known character in modern fiction, has enjoyed an even better run since the Arthur Conan Doyle copyright ran out.  Holmes and magnifying glass are the inseparable duo that seemingly forever mark the detecting profession and its mindful observation skills, combining imagination with knowledge and applying analytical tools to solve complex, wicked problems.  The Holmes legacy focuses on intelligently viewing the world, pattern recognition, and making sense of what’s out there – talents inherent in cultural analysis.
Maria Konnikova’s excellent treatment of this process, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), takes apart the three stages of detection—observation, imagination, and deduction—to show the brilliance of the Holmes method through leading cases in the canon.  Her casebook is a master class in learning about the processes implicit in thinking, decision-making, planning, and action-taking.  This is the difference between vision, the human talent for insight into the past, present, and future based on visual memory, and just registering what’s on view around us avoiding attentional blindness, and related practices basic to mental well-being of the “present mind.”   
Seventy percent of our sense receptors are around the eyes.  But vision as processed looking doesn’t happen in the eye only – it only occurs after processing by the brain.  Our limbic system is constantly building our emotional world as the structure that filters the input of the senses through experience and cultural values.  Our emotional sorting device, the limbic brain, is always leading our thinking and responding.  Everything in sight carries an emotional charge. Our entire emotional array—geared to social and emotional goals—is set up to see risk or reward, opportunity or danger, play, love, joy, fear, uncertainty, or doubt—depending on just how our brain codes whatever we see as positive, negative, neutral, or more rarely, to put on hold for future reference. 
Why do we see, but don’t observe, as Holmes is constantly reminding Watson?  It’s not that difficult:  because seeing is a physiological act of the senses, whereas perception is the brain-based outcome that follows the inner processing of light and image.   What we perceive doesn’t reflect what’s in front of us—nor what others perceive.  Looking and observing is a complex process that involves many factors:  what we expect to see, matching that with our entire seeing history, and the cultural (social) world in our heads—important in setting the ideals of what we prefer to see, what we most fear seeing, and what we think others are seeing.  All these trigger our immediate reactions.
Looking differs from mindful seeing, as Jim Gilmore shows recently in Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills (2016), his metacognitive treatment of the sight experience under various modes of aided perception.  In opposition to routine autopilot approaches to looking, Gilmore’s six-looking-glass toolbar is a tactical lever to extend this seeing, breaking out ways of observing and their concomitant benefits for raising awareness, macro to micro: from the broad-range binoculars (wide-shot) to magnifiers and microscopes that home in on details (close-up) that open up yet more landscapes to explore.  This is a working philosophy of observation to upgrade any effort, from pedestrian examination to innovative seeking, using these powers of discovery when ordinary seeing isn’t nearly keen or deep enough.  This guide to enhancing observation also grows a most valuable resource:  attention and focus, the wellspring of analytical ability. William James, father of psychology, called engaged attention the root of judgment, character, and will.  Seeing better has powerful outcomes: a means to think better, discover potentials, inquire deeper, and make better decisions.
Gilmore’s section on rose-colored-glasses looking is ingenious in its view of perceiving potential—what isn’t visible except as “gems and gaps,” the baseline of creative perceiving to envision what isn’t yet but could be.  That’s the imagination function prompted by “power vision.”  He cites the rare ability of top sports-talent scouts like Tony Lucadello for his legendary spotting of ball players before anyone else could—an exercise in observation with a positive bias. The evolution of tableware showcases the same ability to envision value beyond present limits—in developing the fork out of the hunter’s blade.  Reading between the lines of what is already evident, but far from perfect, to see innovation, combines observation with imagination—to create and discover entirely new stars and tools.
Back in Mastermind, Konnikova details the power outcomes from better seeing, showing ways we can learn to attune our efforts and attention to rediscover the world out there beyond habit, routine, and mindlessness—to take us from passive absorption to active awareness.  But that transition demands a more attentive, curious, and engaged mindset to make our subconscious processing far more conscious.   

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ecolalia: Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others


 



                   If we mimic someone else, they will feel closer and more similar to us; we can fake the
                 natural liking process quite well .... all a good con artist needs.

                                                                                          --Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game:
                                                                                             Why We Fall for It, Every Time (2016), p. 64
 I.
Those of us who provide business intelligence services get paid significant money to produce two key outcomes:   The first is to understand the core nature of the client’s business in order to frame their problems in useful and actionable ways.  The second is to bring new intelligence and solutions to resolve and turn those problems around, leading to profits and growth.

But over the past few years we’ve seen a disturbing trend in market research, particularly in Branding.

I call it Echolalia.

In medicine, Echolalia is a mental disorder; it compels the patient to repeat the last words other people speak.  The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Echo, the nymph who was condemned by Hera to do just that for frolicking with her husband, the great god Zeus.

In market “research” (or pseudo-research), Echolalia is the practice of asking the client what they think their brand is, then handing in a report echoing what they told you.  As research goes, this isn’t. 

This practice appears to have begun with the financial crash of 2008, and the malaise of uncertainty in the ensuing recession.  Human beings normally don’t have a problem taking calculated risks, but that changes when high levels of uncertainty are involved. Our brain is hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. The science on this is clear. We would rather do nothing than to make a decision in shaky or murky circumstances.

We saw this with our own clients. Critical decisions were suddenly delayed for months, in some instances years. Projects were abandoned. Negotiations dried up. Venture capital stopped flowing.  We started hearing the phrase; “We’re not ready to make a decision on that at this time.” We heard that a lot.

And these were not small, struggling businesses. These were Fortune 500 companies. They retrenched, maintained, but were reluctant to move forward. My in-box started filling up with résumés from colleagues whose bigger, cooler, consulting firms had cut them loose – or closed their doors entirely.

My theory is that the business environment was so gloomy, and the future so shuttered, that everyone began to second-guess their ideas and decisions. They started to rely more and more on consensus and groupthink to validate their decisions, to feel safer about anything they were doing or might do. 

And that’s when we began to see a new sort of consultancy emerge. They called themselves Branding Agencies but what many of them delivered was carbon-copy “Echolalia.”

There has always been a certain amount of pandering to the client in the market research that we are asked to review, but this went beyond keeping the client in a good mood. I saw this for the first time in an exercise – a mock branding competition during which one of the teams simply copied, word for word, what the client said he wanted and pasted it up into a PowerPoint presentation, preceded by the words “We Will Provide….” 

Our teams were working in an auditorium with maybe 200 seasoned marketing professionals. Our first thought was “They’ll never fall for that.”  We were so wrong.  

This was amusing at first – it surely had to be a parody – a one-off. However, after encountering it again and again across industries, it had become a new blunt instrument in the consultant’s toolbox.

Boards of Directors tend to be conformist groups.  Creative problem-solving researchers and consultants should not be.

This “re-verb” trend is built around posing the input from clients as processed findings or insight. Delivering ideas that simply confirm your client’s opinions of--or hopes for--their brand’s position and equity now manages to pass for research, apparently.  This means it’s now on the client to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, which they are not.

There is no analysis, no insight, no building on ideas, or folding in real knowledge toward a goal. Repeating the client’s words does not equal research, and certainly can’t be considered analysis.

For over two decades I’ve reviewed plenty of poor consumer research at our client’s request. I’ve seen the obvious touted as deep insight. I’ve seen research laced with superlatives in an attempt to cover up nothing of value to report. I’ve seen the wrong methodologies applied to the wrong problems, senseless questions in surveys and focus groups for null-value results. I’ve seen the right questions asked but to the wrong subjects. I’ve even seen reports that make it obvious the highly-paid consultant had no real idea of whet his client actually does.

That’s nothing new. We have all seen poorly executed research. But this is something added--an outright con.

It’s literally based on an old con-man tactic: the simplest way to convince someone that you are smart is to tell them something they already believe.  Even better if it’s flattering.

And this is downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of your doctor asking if you have cancer. When you reply in the negative his diagnosis is, “Well, the good news is, you don’t have cancer!” Which, while unprofessional, seems harmless enough – unless you have cancer.

Reconfigured but not transformed. This is a form of idea flattery that consultants know very well how to execute; they’ve been doing it forever under the cover of “research.” But I have started to advise my clients, who regularly ask us about the value of their consultant reports, to be very careful and circumspect about this particular form of flattery. It’s an expensive luxury that won’t help solve your problems, move you forward, or otherwise improve your bottom line.  At best, It validates that you have a problem you recognize, as defined (correctly or not) by you.

Here’s a simple test for the client.  Looking at the report, how much of this information is actually news to you? How much challenges your beliefs and opinions? And how much is just your own ideas cut and pasted, without an ounce of value added? Do some simple math.

The consultant’s art needs to do much more:  analyze that “felt need,” the client problem statement, to see if that is really the core problem.  In our experience, it seldom is, rather, it’s a symptom (in sales, money, reputation, branding outcomes) of a much deeper underlying misdirection in purpose and resources.   Unless companies understand the deeper cultural value of what they do, they will never know how to plan, communicate, or allocate their money and time.

II.
How does Echolalia operate on the ground?  Here are a few examples. 

If you tell your rehab architect that your kitchen is too dark, he needs to do more than tell you “Your kitchen is too dark, isn’t it?” You might hear Rogerian psychotherapy in this response.  He actually needs to do some work on your statement, for example, apply creative intelligence, a status study, strategy, and tactics to the problem.

This involves at least framing the problem as presented into a solvable proposition. This involves asking the question “OK, WHY is your kitchen too dark? What does “too dark” mean to you? And what can be done about it, from various thought bases?” 

Perhaps the solution is opening up the walls or even the ceiling to the sun. Artificial lighting is an answer, but what kinds are feasible, available, and affordable? Perhaps the entire room can be broken out and extended by new building or adapting adjacent spaces.  Maybe you need a fresh concept of what a kitchen is—this can include dining, conference, living room, and den spaces What is the desired overall effect in terms of design, use, and aesthetics? A whole range of questions can be provoked by the concept of “too dark” or solving for more light. And creative design firms know that their client’s version of the problem rarely points directly to one obvious solution, otherwise clients would readily solve the problem themselves at Home Depot.

III.

Alan Turing developed an artificial intelligence technique to make a computer almost human by programming the computer response to human dictation.  In his 1951 paper “The Imitation Game,” he devised tests to make computers indistinguishable from human subjects as a test of intelligence.  You may remember the Turing Test from the days of early personal computers. There were programs that would initiate a conversation. The program would ask “How do you feel?”  You would respond “I feel fine.” Or “I feel sad.” And the program would respond “I’m happy to hear that.” Or “I’m sorry to hear that,” whichever was more appropriate. When in doubt, the computer would fall back on generalities; “Why do you say that?” Or “I sometimes feel that way, too.” The whole point of the Turing Test was to see how far the user could go into the program before realizing they were talking to a machine.

I’d extend Turing’s concept to propose the Echo Test. 

The test works like this:  Are you getting your money’s worth by picking professional brains? How much of this do I agree with wholeheartedly? Are you sure? How do you know it’s valid, other than the feedback sounds just as bright as you are (and remember, you are the one who can’t solve the problem)? 

When my company went looking for a public relations firm, we interviewed several national outfits. They were great listeners, enthusiastic and attentive (and nice dressers), and seemed to have what it took to talk about us to the press. However, we soon discovered their secret weapon; they were skilled at feedback but not at moving ideas around or handling new concepts to produce new knowledge. We read their proposals with some amusement as we realized everything we had talked about with them was indeed in evidence--just not in any digested form.

There was nothing there we hadn’t told them; nothing new; no actual work had been done on our ideas to carry them forward--no assimilation or transformation of information (i.e., learning).  Just a clever reposting job posing as news.

In the past year we’ve been called in to rescue two clients who thought they had commissioned a branding study and ended up with very expensive case of Echolalia.

One was a university. The branding company interviewed the faculty and administrators and gave them a “Creative Brief and Research Summary” defining their brand, which would have been great, if their brand was Harvard instead of a fourth-tier liberal arts college. It was unadulterated magical thinking. What it did was describe the school the faculty wanted to teach at in their dreams, replete with buzzwords like “rigor” and “excellence.”

We addressed that little problem by parking ourselves in the school cafeteria with a couple of the more engaged faculty members to whom we gave one simple instruction: “Snag us your best students – the ones who are thriving here.”

From these students we put together a new brand profile or value proposition: a student-centered environment, freedom to explore, easy access to faculty, caring faculty, helpful staff, etc. These were not just the best students, they were precisely the type they wanted and needed more of. It was that brand profile – how the students – the school’s “customers”-- recognized value -- that was then used to recruit the largest freshman class in the school’s history.

And, even better: the school didn’t have to change much – they were already delivering that value – they just weren’t marketing it correctly.  Because they didn’t know what it was. You can’t solve a problem at the level at which it was created. That’s why companies have hierarchies – problems you can’t solve get passed up to people who can. But fundamental cultural issues – such as what your brand means to the customer - can’t be handled from the inside. Your own corporate culture and assumptions get in the way of your analysis. This is when you go to the outside - that’s the core value of consultancy.

Your brand is who your customers think you are, not who you think you are.

Our other major involvement with Echolalia was an established company in an evolving competitive market. The “Brand Statement” came back reading like their brochure. Again, it was the inside view of who they were and what they stood for.  No one interviewed their customers. No one interviewed their competitor’s customers. Many in the company are happy with that because the report validates what they already believe. Of course it does – the report is simply feeding back what the consultant heard and read.

In the meantime, the marketplace is evolving rapidly. New players and products are being introduced on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time until one of them comes up with The Big Idea. That’s how the marketplace works.   

Fortunately, not all the executives drank the Kool-Aid, so there we were, searching out their value – their Brand - where it actually lives: in the minds of their customers. We were not just looking for what they asked for, we were searching out what they needed to know in order to position themselves effectively.

Enormous sums are expended on echoing client ideas back. This brings nothing to the table. In fact it sets everyone back and makes us all cynical. The advice to “Keep doing what you’re doing, only better/faster/more” is the same as saying keep doing what you’re doing and hope for different results.

We all know how well that works; it’s one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

Next time you commission work or just a blue-sky session for a wickedly persistent problem, ask yourself this question:  what’s new here that I didn’t already know or say to the brain I’m paying to pick? If the answer is very little, then you are either dealing with an amateur or a favorite consultant you didn’t choose and whose work you can’t use. You have our sympathies. I never wanted to be a firefighter, but when the phone rings, it’s often because someone’s carefully crafted marketing plan just went up in flames - because it was built on echoes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Problem Solving in Space: Labyrinth as Journey






The classic maze is an intricate puzzle of twisted corridors, chambers, or passageways.  It is an ingenious wandering way filled with devious detours and byways, constructed to perplex and confuse. The labyrinth is a special type of maze.  And now for some ancient history.



In Egypt, Amenemhet III of the XII Dynasty built himself a funeral temple in the form of a great labyrinth. In Europe’s first civilization, crowned with the 1,500-room palace at Knossos, a more famous example in Crete was built by Daedelus for King Minos to house the Minotaur and trap his sacrificial captives.  Theseus, son of the Athenean King, was able to solve the riddle of the maze using a ball of string, killing the Minataur to end the cycle of blood sacrifice that started with Minos and his defiance of the gods.  This labyrinth is also associated with Rhea, mother of Zeus, goddess of caves whose symbol was the double axe, “labrys,” from which the term comes.



The labyrinth is one of the earliest man-made environments, an artwork of stone or hedges (the maze) designed not to shelter people or store goods but to confound the mind and spirit.  It was the first puzzle in three dimensions to be solved in real time. Its windings have been the nexus of fascination in myth and legend—starting with the trials of the gods, moving on to the devout pilgrim’s journey and taking the contemporary form of the maze-making of experimental psychology. An experiment at the University of Rochester in a basement maze was used to demonstrate the difference between male and female toolbars in direction-seeking.  It is a metaphor of frustration and anxiety, of tangled politics, of inconsistent systems and clues, as well as the spiritual quest for meaning.  There is a critical distinction between the maze and the labyrinth here:  The maze is designed mainly to confuse; the labyrinth, a more specialized format, to resolve the maze confusion by both leading to a central core and then back out again for the resolution of a complete journey.



Its serpentine shape bespeaks intrigues, captives, teases, and outrages.  Used as a substitute or symbolic journey for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it is a capsule version of the Christian progress through tests of faith as the center and return that can be won through faith and patience. The mazes at Hampton Court Palace in Greater London, at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, at the Emperor’s Summer Palace in China, and in the film “The Shining” and “Sleuth”-- all play their parts in constructing the meaning of this special journey in its time.  The maze at Versailles (now defunct) contained at its 39 intersections fountains in the shapes of animals from Aesop’s Fables.  The maze concept was incorporated into the formal garden as topiary and ornamental plantings forming circuitous routes called alleys.     



In this way the labyrinth is a living illustration of the merging of symbol with nature, in which the map is itself the puzzle to be divined.  Since ancient times, it has been far more than a shape in which to move around and find one’s way (and oneself); it has been the archetype for a wicked sort of complexity.  The word itself is the index for intricacy, intrigue, and ingenuity in both the problem-poser and the solution-finder.  The labyrinth constructs a special kind of journey, not only, as the “Twilight Zone” TV series put it, of sight and sound, but of mind.  The web of sinuous windings is the problem itself.  Its heavy symbolism is an invitation to more abstraction, for example, in the puzzle-map model as viewed from above.  In the glass case model in the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining,” a close-up inspection shows little live figures tracking its pathways. We can’t be sure whether they live in Jack Torrance’s tortured imagination or in director Stanley Kubrick’s --or in ours.



The labyrinth is also the ultimate experiential puzzle.  Its baffling corridors remind us of the fuzzy logic problem to which the answer is never straightforward.  In fact, following the maze in search of the elusive exit more nearly resembles the search for the problem itself.  Once defined and tracked down by switchback routing, the question, once properly posed, answers itself. The parallels to spiritual journey and problem solving, along with the medieval metaphor of the difficulty of attaining heaven, are rich.  This richness invites exploration in the mind and heart in tandem with the journey on foot in physical space.  Maze is equally the word for testing skill in problem solving, linking mental dexterity to the “amazement” of spiritual inquiry.



To be in the hedge-and-alley maze at Hampton Court Palace (built in 1690, it is the oldest surviving maze in England), or following the labyrinth carved into stone in the entryway at Chartres Cathedral in France, is a living exercise in mind-reading: trying to follow the mind-map of the designer.  Did he make all right turns in his mind?  On the other hand, how did the labyrinth-maker predict the wayfinding of the puzzle-walkers who would take up the challenge of his creation?  It is a mind journey of discovery, frustration, and existential search.  Along the way are the key experiences (or mindshifts, as they are called at the School for Innovators) that can be charted on an expedition: thinking differently to get different results that get you to the top of the peak—and back down. Being lost in a space designed as a brain and body teaser forces discovery of the box as the key to finding the way out of the box.  It inspired the breakout of the Minotaur’s prison in Crete, because the mind contained by the walls knew that “the air and sky are free.”



Played out in space, the convolutions of the labyrinth resemble the folds and furrows of the brain, with its billion connections. These folds, turned in on each other to pack maximum torque into the smallest space, thrive on play and intrigue, leading us to invent these circuitous puzzles as we solve them.   



The convoluted trails, with their false leads and dead ends, quickly prove that there is no straightforward route to the goal.  Stress and discouragement soon follow this proof. Uncertainty, fear, and doubt soon prevail.  Even in the safest of mazes, the commercial theme-park type, there is always the lookout for a reassuring sign, any indication that there is an end in sight or around the corner.  Where are when the end is to be found is never clear because this is no distance race: this is distance coiled up in a cluster of detours and dead ends.  There is no reassurance, no benchmark to signal that success is at hand.  Very quickly after entering the maze, faith is involved: in staying the course, trusting that it leads somewhere and somehow, to serve one’s purpose.  Much like life.



As the journey progresses, one has the sensation of moving backwards through the landscape as old landmarks and vistas loom ahead in an apparent regression through the pattern.  Dismay sets in as the journey, proceeding to a point as yet unknown, seems to propel the maze-walker back in space and time, the working definition of “lost.” Accordingly, there comes the persistent temptation to retrace steps in a regressive re-run to escape to the beginning before bewilderment sets in.  Lost in Injun Joe’s cave, Tom Sawyer, with a ball of twine and a depleted candle, finally collided with the outside world only because he connected to an opening from which he could see the “free air” as a blue clue of daylight.  Had the sky color been the dark of night, the caves would have kept him prisoner.  



Anything circuitous and peripatetic appears to lead nowhere but back into the morass of misleading indirection.  But, with perseverance and faith, the path rewards by at last guiding the seeker to the goal. This is the magic and mystique of the labyrinth, and the reason that century after century we are drawn to its wicked lair design.  To find by looking, to discover by following, in real space and time, a systematic train of thought that carries the traveler through chaos to create a unique pattern of order: that is the labyrinth’s promise and purpose.



We move, not always forward, but sideways and backward.  Our goal is seldom in sight but must be held as a precious property in the mind, an abstraction that draws our steps forward.  Once inside this devious perplex, where there is no escape but to solve for the exit or center; in circle mazes, the center is only the midpoint of the journey; the next challenge is to find the way back out again to the startpoint.  Creativity, hope, and persistence are the required equipment.  Forced into conscious awareness is a whole cycle of thought; risk, ambition, reticence, and uncertainty about how and when the problem will finally be solved.  Resistance against entering the unfamiliar arena of complexity takes hold and exerts pressure.  Tortuous meandering locks into place and can’t be broken.



Originally a defense device to baffle the enemy, the labyrinth is a problem created to be solved, and to put the solver to a kind of whole-body test.  Humans are problem solvers.  To add to our myriad real-life fuzzy-mess problems, we invent them as an artform.  Here play as learning and problem solving is put through its paces in time and space. Getting through the maze of life is survival, but it is also, as an extension of the collective brain, the ultimate in gamesmanship—whether at the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg, at Hampton Court, or at Versailles.