Designing Rituals: how might we encourage and develop empathy with our clients?

A creative agency recently asked me to share my experiences in creative leadership with their employees by hosting a workshop. Leading for creativity is a methodology and ideology developed by IDEO; I was thrilled to pass on my knowledge to a group of curious creatives who attended my workshop.

Beliefs & Behaviors by IDEO

We started with IDEO’s list of beliefs and behaviors that often accompany creative teams. IDEO’s years of experience in observing and working with creative teams and organizations has shaped the list. Based on their findings, there are certain beliefs that need to be in place to support creative work and build a strong creative culture.

Creative teams need to feel inspired, to feel that they are creating something meaningful. The team members need to have ownership and the feel that their contribution impacts the creative outcome. They need to feel that they are constantly growing their skills within the company. They need to feel trusted within the company and that they are supported by their team. They also need to feel safe to explore and have permission to fail along the way.

IDEO also lists necessary behaviors for creative work, such as collaboration, the ‘get things done’ attitude, learning from failure, curious exploration for continuous inspiration.

Resource: IDEO U / Leading for Creativity

Finding the gaps

After exploring the list of the necessary beliefs and behaviours, we started to reflect on them with the agency’s creative teams. We went through each belief and behaviour and had a discussion how everyone felt about them: whether they were existing, lacking, or challenging. IDEO calls them gaps and tensions that point out certain areas that need to be improved. After looking for and identifying these gaps and tensions, we discovered that the creative team had one main challenge that affected their beliefs and behaviors:

The team struggled in understanding its clients; creatives felt that they didn’t understand clients’ decisions over creative concepts or solutions. They felt that approval and rejection of their ideas was random and not based on reasoning. This made them feel insecure in their creative excellence, causing them to lose their passion for presenting work.

Flipping the gaps into a How Might We question

After realizing this gap, we followed IDEO’s method for designing a ritual by flipping the gap to a question. A typical HMW (How might we) question is used in the Design Thinking process. It is a question that creates a tangible statement of what needs to be done:

How might we design a ritual to encourage and develop empathy with our clients?

Ideation

Defining the question was followed by a brainstorming session; each team member came up with a vast variety of ideas. We approached the ideation phase with an open mind, we didn’t limit ourselves, and built upon each others’ ideas. There were no bad or good solutions, all kinds of ideas were welcomed. Some got ditched, some appraised, some tried.

Prototyping

We split into small teams and did a quick and dirty prototyping for some of the ideas we found viable. Some team members did sketches, some roleplayed, and some summarized the key findings. We avoided being over-explanatory and over-analytical, that helped us to stay focused and ditch the ideas what didn’t answer our initial question.

We did open a box called “Awesome Yet Ditched” where we placed the brilliant ideas killed by being not relevant to our problem, but were too great to be forgotten. However, we decided to ‘seal’ the box and not concentrate on the Awesome Yet Ditched ideas in this session.

We ended up creating a new ritual that we named “Client-Stealing” that made every participant so passionate that they wanted to use it immediately. But first we needed to take care of some practicalities: how will we make it happen, what will the structure be, and how will we make a continuous ritual instead of a one time practice.

The idea was simple, it’s practically a role play: each week one person from the team “steals the client’s mind” and plays the role of our internal client for a full day. The person holds off from their daily job of being a copywriter/designer/client service director/strategist/trainee/project manager/CEO/insight analyst/etc. and steps into the client’s shoes to look at the creative solutions through the client lenses. Our internal client observes the presentation, gives detailed feedback to them by challenging, asking, and learning why the concepts are the way they are. The role of the internal client rotates between the team members in each concept creation session. We arrived to the conclusion that with this ritual, each team member has the chance to understand the client’s motives and decisioning better.

Testing & Reflection

After designing and feeling extremely passionate about our new ritual, the real work was still ahead of us: we would have implement the ritual to the agency’s daily work and reflect on it. We’d have to observe the results to see if it brings the desired effect, as well as learn from the challenges and failures along the way. I asked the team members to take notes and discuss how the ritual is evolving and follow up with me after kicking off. I encouraged them to be critical and not to hesitate to make small adjustments on the ritual to shape it along the way, but I also advised them to be consistent in order to form a habit. We also agreed on a person who is responsible for the logistics, organising the resources, and gathering all the insights for the follow ups.

I find that the feedback I’ve gotten is very valuable and delighting:

“I have been waiting for my turn to be the client, so I can have a special treat and have a fun and relaxing day away from my daily routine. It has been fun indeed, but it’s hard work! The moment my other team members were presenting their ideas I felt a tremendous responsibility and wanted to make sure to help them by asking the right questions and giving valuable feedback, so my comments are improving the work rather destroying it. It was definitely not an easy task, and I wanted to give a reason for each of my decisions. At the end of the day I started to feel that the client’s work is not about randomly approving or declining ideas, but making big decisions, certain calls come with huge responsibilities.”
“(…) We shared our new ritual with one of our clients and when presenting the creative ideas, we also shared the comments and questions from our ‘internal client’. It was a very unusual presentation and our client loved that we deep-dived into the ideas and gave a well grounded reasoning. Some of the questions that were raised by our ‘internal client’ were absolutely spot on, and by having the answers ready we made the process smoother for everyone. Half a day later, we got the email that the concept was approved. I don’t expect every presentation to be like this, but this was definitely one everyone will remember. :)”
“I wasn’t sure about the success of our ritual from the perspective of our resources. I felt that we’d lose one team member for a full day, and we just could not afford that to happen. After following up on two “Client-Stealing” rituals, I realised that our concepts were created faster and the end results were more solid and better structured. The numbers were clearly on the ritual’s side.
“I was sure I had the best idea of my life, until my colleague who played the internal client asked me some straight-to-the-point questions that made me rethink my approach. I’m happy it happened beforehand and not in the real client-agency meeting.”

What We Learned

  • Rituals can help to support creative work and create effectiveness.
  • Designing rituals with the team strengthens internal culture and brings design thinking to spotlight even if it’s not part of the agency’s work process.
  • Rituals boost tribe behavior and organizational culture.
  • A good ritual is a mirror of an organization: it speaks with the same tone of voice and uses the same ingredients the company culture is built with.
  • A well designed ritual is fun, exciting, meaningful, and profitable.

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