Managing a creative environment

Playstorming your customer experience

The best ideas to improve your customer experience are already floating around in your team's heads. To get them into to the real world with the minimum of digging, you need to foster a special kind of working environment.

In theater, we talk about the rehearsal room as a "safe space". It's a place where experiment and failure are explicitly allowed and welcomed. It is a place where distractions are held to a minimum, and where tools are kept simple to encourage flights of fantasy. And it's a place where the person in charge knows that their job is to help the cast do something that they (the director) cannot do.

It's a difficult task for many managers, because it feels like chaos and (oh horror!) play. Famously upside-down-guitarist Karl Wallinger describes a similar experience:

"(It's) simultaneously doing opposite things — you want to give the sessions control and direction while trying to do the opposite, to create an anarchic space where people can add their piece with as little affectation as possible. That's a fine line to tread, between too much authority and letting people go. It's like being a mini local government — making sure there's roads and bridges."

This kind of enabling, gentle, inspirational management is already important in fields that rely on fast, cheap, iterative innovation - like software development houses. And it is ideal for talking about your customer experience, playing around with it to generate valuable insights and truly fresh ideas.

You can build a safe space almost anywhere - just do all you can to prevent outside distractions, and make it clear to your people that they are safe, that mistakes made here remain here. Don't do this after a hard day's work - this is hard work in itself and should be rewarded as such. You can help release the creativity monkey by throwing in a big heap of toys. You might give them some items of clothing, coloured cloths, cardboard boxes, fat marker pens, and a bunch of crazy objects that have nothing to do with your work but which can represent a wide variety of real world items - or items that do not exist yet. Break the tension by getting them laughing - one good idea it to get them talking about their "worst ever..." experiences.

At some point in the early part of your session, you should expect some heavy venom. You have given your people freedom and - if they believe your offer - a lot of frustration will come out. (Often, this important catharis will eat up the first first half-day). Listen, welcome the honesty, and then offer the group the opportunity to work on solutions to their frustrations.

Now start working on your own customer experiences. But wait - it's effective to start outside your own company with best cases from elsewhere, then start applying those principles. Act out encounters. Switch roles. Try other ways to do the same thing. Try something crazy. Figure out what you are thinking at every step, and why you chose those words. Encourage your team to stay on their feet (even if you normally work sitting down) and always remember "don't tell me, show me". Interruptions are good, but sometimes you should specify a director to mould an interaction (as described here).

Your target is not to create a fixed script, but to generate as many ideas as possible, and perhaps narrow them down to a generous list of strategies and tips that every member of the team can draw on.

Here's the pitch - my team is incredibly good at this. So, if you need help, tips, or ideas, just call me. Talk is free. :)

Safe space pic by thornj at flickr.

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