Through the Looking Glasses

Author: Michelle Russell       

Gilmore LOOK Hi Res CoverHe’ll have you at the intro. James H. Gilmore credits a conference with inspiring him to create the framework for Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills in the very first line of his introduction to the book.

The idea for the six looking glasses — the observational tool he outlines in Look — came to him during a pre-conference workshop at CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Institute), the Creative Education Foundation’s annual conference. Co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP, business-school professor, and co-author of the influential business book The Experience Economy, Gilmore was CPSI’s keynote speaker. “The facilitators of the session … had participants seated in rounds,” Gilmore told Convene, “and asked us to go around and name all the lateral-thinking techniques of
[author and management consultant] Edward de Bono that we knew. Someone mentioned [de Bono’s concept of] Six Thinking Hats. I then mentioned [de Bono’s] Six Action Shoes, which immediately triggered the realization that just as there were simple metaphorical tools for thinking and taking action, a similar technique for looking would be useful.”

In Gilmore’s view, conferences create an ideal setting in which to see the world differently. “In the meetings business,” he said, “I think we sometimes lose sight of this basic reality: A conference is a time set apart to see things one does not encounter in one’s day-to-day work. Such events need to be escapes for participants to stop their normal routines and look at their businesses and themselves anew.”

In a recent interview with Convene, Gilmore shared how event organizers can use his framework to design better experiences  for participants. 

Jim Gilmore 087

James H. Gilmore

How might an event organizer use each looking function to better observe attendee behavior and improve the overall participant experience — from making improvements on the fly during the event to envisioning a better future conference?

The looking glasses can indeed be used both in the moment, to see operational elements to be attended to, as you put it, on the fly — as well as to gather insights for future experience design. In both cases, the first step is to be aware of the need to observe. What thinking should drive any improvement efforts — pre-existing ideas in one’s mind, or insights gained by looking at what is actually happening? Devote time for looking — to inform one’s thinking. Then with that time, use the six looking glasses. Choose a particular lens, and then use it to employ a particular way of looking.

In Look, I provide examples and exercises to practice each way of looking. And I also discuss how to use various looking routines — formal sequences of looking glasses — as well as how to conduct multi-stop looking excursions. Regardless of the method, the key is to recognize observation as a key task to perform, in and of itself.

Are participants who are engaged at a conference using a particular looking glass already, without realizing it? For example, might listening to speakers and having conversations with fellow attendees help to overcome personal bias?

Absolutely. As I said, we should be led at events to see our businesses and ourselves anew. And certainly, in any waking moment, we all use our eyes. But do we really see? The practical benefit of the Six Looking Glasses tool is to realize there is a world to see, and to deliberately, consciously, skillfully become more engaged in it. We might look this way or that way already, and we all do indeed have personal preferences with what and how we choose to look. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. Bifocal looking specifically addresses the problem, forcing one to look at any-thing in two opposite ways. And frankly, it may be the one looking skill most of us seldom practice.

Your book The Experience Economy is considered a business classic. How do you see observational skills as being related to that work?

Great question. For years, most efforts to better understand customer wants and needs were largely based on conversation, whether via interviews, focus groups, advisory boards, and the like. And surely market intelligence was and still is gleaned from these methods. But with experience design, a far better method is to watch actual behavior — versus talking about it. Of course, this may always have been the case, even for the design of goods and services. But when our book identified experiences as a distinct form of economic offering, and pointed out that the using of a good or service is an experience, well, that’s when observation and other long-stand-ing ethnographic and “design thinking” methods really gained greater interest, respect, and practice as business disciplines. The design community jumped on experiences, and the business community then jumped onto design!

The pursuit of innovation has to begin with observation. It’s axiomatic. My dear father once told me of his seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, who taught this simple process for understanding a written text: Observation. Interpretation. Application. Such also applies to any cultural “text” or marketplace “text.” What are changing cultural norms and consumer behaviors telling you? To ascertain that, you have to first look.

How do you see face-to-face events as a part of the experience economy?

I really wonder if “face-to-face” is the best way to think about our present and future times. Distinguishing between physical and digital experiences might be far more useful. After all, the use of Skype can provide a face-to-face event. 

Here is the important point to note: Time is the currency of experiences. Look at how people are spending their time. My business partner’s [Joseph Pine] book, called Infinite Possibility, addresses the interplay between the physical and the virtual, examining technologies like augmented reality, augmented virtuality, and six other time-space-matter platforms. I wrote the foreword to the book, and in it ask this: Is what you are doing as an organization causing people to spend more or less time with a screen? That’s the issue for me. And right now, I look around the world and see a sharp increase in screen time. Too much screen time. Multiple-screens-at-the-same-time screen time. Any event, in any mix of physical and digital elements, needs to be staged in such a way to restore our spending more time with each other, as human beings, and not spending time with fleeting, tweeting images of one another.


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