Arenas, Blind Spots, Facades, and the Unknown
Creatively solving problems in the face of uncertainty
Agency work is therapeutic work.
It’s just not a settled issue who, exactly, is the patient.
Agencies think the brand is the patient. The brand has a problem. The brand doesn’t know what to think. The brand needs advice. The brand, the creatives think, is on the couch.
But of course, creatives need brands, too.
It’s the creatives who need the safe space of an engagement to express themselves.
It’s the creatives who need somebody else’s problem to solve.
It’s the creatives who sit down in the client’s office as if to say please sir, please madam: let me sublimate my repressed feelings through the medium of a humorous television spot.
Agencies and brands? Same same. We’re both on the couch.
Given these therapeutic leanings, I suppose it’s appropriate that this agency occasionally borrows a tool from psychology to understand our projects and our clients.
That tool is called the Johari Window.
The Johari Window
Devised in ’55 by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham — Johari is a portmanteau of their first names — the Johari Window is traditionally intended to help people understand their relationship to themselves and to others¹.
We use it help our teams understand their relationship to themselves and to their clients , which helps our teams understand their job to be done.
Our Johari Window looks like this:
Unlike a static classification system like The Rumsfeld Matrix², the Johari Window is designed to improve a group’s relationships with an other. The framework classifies knowledge into four areas:
- The Arena: What is known to the agency and to the client
Ideas and behavior that is known to both the agency and the client. You can freely communicate about these ideas and behaviors. This is the job you know you’re being hired to do, and the job the client knows you’re being hired to do. The agency wants to increase the area of The Arena to better define the project, and/or to secure more work.
- Blind: What’s known to the client but not known to the agency
Ideas and behaviors that only the client knows. You can’t communicate about these topics and behaviors, but they could affect the project. These are the contingencies like an obscured budget, or pressure on the timing of the project coming from an undisclosed source. Decreasing the blind spot helps the agency to make more appropriate creative decisions.
- Facade: What’s known to the agency but unknown to the client
What the client pretends to know, but doesn’t actually know. You can communicate about these topics, but carefully — nobody wants to be embarrassed. Done well, decreasing the client’s facade empowers the client to be a better partner.
- Hidden: What’s unknown to you both
Risks to the viability of the project. You discover these unknown unknowns (or “unk-unks”) during the course of research and collaboration.
These panes are not static! Each “pane” can be redrawn to reflect the proportions of each type of ‘knowledge’ in a given situation.
For example, on a typical project a team is likely to start out here:
The Arena is small, the blind spot and facade are large, and the unknowns are intimidating.
In other words, in the state above ☝️you’ve hired us. We think we know what we’re doing. You think you know what we’re doing. Everybody thinks they understand what they’re doing. But! In reality! There’s a schooner full of blind spots, you’re pretending to know more than you do, and some VP in Boise might sink the whole thing.
Luckily, through a process of discovery, we can reduce the area of each:
By asking the client about their business and challenges, we reduce our ignorance of the situation. By telling the client about our knowledge, we reduce their facade. And by sharing our research and insights with the client, we reduce the “unknown unknowns” or potential risks associated with the project.
Ideally, at the end of an insight and discovery process you have a Johari Window that looks something like this:
Un-ideally, the Johari Window becomes a see of red, a morass of quandaries, your brand-building project sadly beset by entirely predictable and avoidable risks.
Or in Rumsfeldian terms, the creative agency version of invading Iraq.
Don’t do that.
¹ The Johari Window is typically a “soft skills” tool. As a framework, it helps people understand self-awareness, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, team development, and inter-group relationships. In its original conception, The Johari Window was an exercise that asked subjects to pick a number of adjectives from a list, choosing only the ones that apply to themselves. The subject’s peers then get the same list, and each picks an equal number of adjectives that describe the other. These adjectives are then inserted into a two-by-two grid of four cells.
² At first blush, the Johari Window might seem similar to that classic of early aughts warmongering, The Rumsfeld Matrix. And they’re similar! The Rumsfeld Matrix is actually a sub-type of the Johari Window. But while The Rumsfeld Matrix is good for categorizing knowledge, it offers no direction in terms of how to increase or decrease any one “pane”. Donald Rumsfeld: good at classifying, bad at not invading countries for stupid reasons.
³ For a great explanation of how to resize the Johari Window “panes” in the context of inter-personal relationships, see the work of creative, musician, writer, hill-runner, tea-maker, mindfulness advocate, survivor, and positive disintegrationalist Alan Chapman.