Monday, June 8, 2009
One might reasonably be skeptical that executives from 30 of the world’s largest corporations, mostly strangers to one another, would be willing to suspend disbelief and assume the identity of a person living in the year 2050. First online, then in global teleconferences followed by a face-to-face work session.
I was, to be honest, a little skeptical myself.
But that is exactly what happened when we facilitated a recent experience for the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in order to understand the values and behaviors that will shape consumers of the future. To set the stage, we created an online world rich in detail (drawn from our own primary research and WBCSD’s extensive resources) about how people who care about sustainability will eat, play, learn, work, entertain themselves, communicate and get from place to place in the year 2050.
Because the project’s participants are part of a global consortium of companies who share a commitment to environmental sustainability, those members in our event were executives responsible either for marketing or for the sustainability agenda per se in their organizations. They were highly motivated to understand the lifestyles of the sustainable consumer 10, 20, 30 and 40 years in the future. To make this happen as viscerally as possible, we created an online platform that let them walk in the shoes of 60 fictional consumers, interacting with others along the way, before bringing the group together in a face-to-face collaboration in the UK.
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At another level, I’m not surprised at all that people jumped in so earnestly. Clients of all kinds have proven quite willing to engage in imaginative processes as long as they see a substantive link to their “real” strategic work. The precept that transformative experiences lead to transformative ideas is born out of a series of experiences over the last 15 years, beginning with the design of the Museum of Unintended Consequences for Global Business Network (GBN) in which we took 150 business leaders through an audio tour of ideas and products that have led to unanticipated outcomes, including plate glass, the birth control pill, and, finally, the telescope. In the last gallery each visitor found himself alone, enrobed by a twinkling night sky, listening to Galileo talk about what his contraption had taught him about the cosmos. The final act was for each person to answer (on a 3×5 card) this question: “how did you come to be sitting here today?”
I have kept those cards for over a decade because the responses we received were extraordinary. They wove together lives and careers, events planned and unplanned, epiphanies that could only have resulted from being asked this question at this moment after this particular experience. And they showed me that whatever professional personas we adopt, we are all looking for ways to make meaning out of the actions we take, the experiences we have, and the ways in which we wield our power in the world. As one CEO said in a different context: “what people don’t understand is that, if you want me to take risks that affect thousands of people, I have to be moved first. It’s not just an intellectual decision.”
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After a week of working online with the WBCSD participants, we met them all in Weybridge, Surrey, the UK, for a day and a half. In that setting we focused on exactly the kinds of things that CEO was talking about: the motivators, influencers and behaviors that will affect decisions in the future, moving people to make–we all hope–decisions that are both ethical and environmentally conscious. Our bet is that by sharing in this sort of experiential process, the companies involved will similarly be moved to risk building the products and services that will support the best intentions of consumers–now and several decades hence.