Part One of a three-part series of articles on a collaborative experiment conducted in 2020
Every year in my strategic business plan, I include an item for two experiments. It’s one way to materialise the curiosity design sensibility that is part of Questo’s DNA.
I’ve always been open to doing experiments and in orientating to experiments. Experiments are activities in which there is no known goal as you start. The only outcome is to learn something and you don’t typically know what this will be. The experiment scope is an opportunity to diverge my thinking; take a path untrod; and to ‘see what I might see’. Sometimes there’s a strong question as a starting point – one without a straightforward answer. Sometimes it’s a weak question like: Will this be useful or valuable to anyone? Sometimes it has a research quality to it. The bottom line is that unlike normal business activities, there is no expectation of a return or investment or a need to measure, or need to justify the activity with a business case.
By putting two placeholders in my business plan, I give myself explicit permission to lookout for potential experiments. Because they take resources of time, attention and sometimes money, I also limit myself to two. This means I’m picky about what experiment might make the cut.
In 2020, one of the experiments I did was a collaborative activity led with a colleague-from-another-organisation: Co-create a ritual for loss and morning.
A collaborative experiment
My collaborator, Julian Leyre (from CoLab), and I have known each other for about eight years. We are both immigrants to Australia (Julian from France; me from New Zealand), and we met at one of Australia’s first coworking experiments, Hub Melbourne (which has evolved into a successful business). Hub Melbourne, in the early days, was a collective of many creative, curious souls looking to do business and work differently. One of my first experiences of crowdfunding (also in its early days) was to fund one of Julian’s projects.
Like stars moving in different planetary orbits, our paths cross every few years. In 2020, they crossed again when Julian mused out loud on LinkedIn. He mused about the possibility of exploring the loss and grieving through an intentional experience, as one way to tangle with the emotions arising from a year that wasn’t planned or anticipated. He made an open offer to anyone who cared to consider it. I decided to accept and took the exploratory step by responding to his post. We caught up to chat in person, mused together, and decided to take a leap into a multi-session activity that included people from each of our networks. This would be at no cost, as we didn’t know whether anything useful would come of it, and we didn’t want the pressure of ‘delivering a particular return’.
[Side note: It’s always an experiment for me when I collaborate with someone from another business, you never know whether there is good synergy or sufficient calibration to underpin the work and see it to a satisfactory conclusion. I’ve learned from past experiments and developed a conceptual litmus test to quickly determine whether determine who I’ll invest in experiment time. Maybe I’ll write about my litmus test(s) in a future post.]
It’s a big ask for people to commit to a series of sessions with strangers where there’s no known outcome, and no value proposition to entice. Those who we approached would need to be curious and playful enough to say “Yes” and to go with the flow. We each found four people from our own networks who eagerly said Yes, and make a start.
[Side note: It was an fascinating exercise to go through my Contact list and decide who had the right stuff. There weren’t as many with the mindset necessary as I would like to see in the world.]
We mapped out the what, why, how and when of three sessions to give ourselves some orientation – with an agreement to approach these adaptively with a light facilitation touch. We agreed that we’d aim to cocreate a ritual as an embodied experience, even though neither of us had done this before. We added an extra optional session for participants to shape up some content (form undecided) to share publicly after about what we did. The series would take place online (video conference) over four weeks with people in three different time zones, meeting on a Saturday evening or Sunday midday away from business hours.
We intentionally framed this activity an experiment because we didn’t know what would happen, and we were eager to be playful and open to what could happen and emerge.
Variables as the focus in an experiment
Thoughtful experiments contain consciously known variables that can be the source of insight or the catalyst for change. A key part of the experimentation method is to reflect on how it went, particularly in reference to the known variables involved.
Key variables in our experiment were:
- Collaborative co-facilitation with two lead people who have never collaborated nor co-facilitated before
- Co-creation with strangers who were not chosen because of any particular skill
- Inviting strangers based on perceived mindset to participate in an emergent uncertain space. (need to be self-starters; not looking to be directed; able to riff off others, even strangers; can start rapport on their own; step into a space without explicit invitation.)
- Involving diverse strangers with different cultural, linguistic, and professional backgrounds
- Working with volunteers outside any organisational context or constraints in different countries and time zones
- Making a couple of rituals without following a proven recipe or method, with a majority of people who’d never done this before
- No value proposition named as a reason for others involvement, just an invitation to join in
- Creating and deleting doing embodied experience online over telepresence
- Designing an experience with potential for high emotional quotient
Reflections on experimentation
So here’s what I can say in retrospect about these variables in the experiment.
The co-facilitation aspect was excellent. Julien and I synergised together like two jazz musicians, improvising what we’d say and how we did it. There was an emergent aspect to our facilitation, and each of us had each other’s back, so it would have appeared seamless to our collaborators. We both agreed we really enjoyed this part of the experience and would do it again.
It was fresh and invigorating to creatively work with a mix of people. Most of us were strangers to each other, and we were all doing this on a voluntary basis with no remuneration incentives – so we showed up with a genuine openness and motivation to co-create. Our ensemble was made up of two French people, one resident in Australia, the other in Japan. One German resident in Australia. One American, resident in Australia. One Kiwi and one Colombian both resident in Australia and one Vietnamese resident in the US. For an experiment about rituals and loss and grieving, we had a rich cultural mix to influence what we knew and what we put into the session. As a result I believe what we created was richer in substance and quality.
People have created rituals before – this is not new knowledge in the world. However, for us seven people, in 2020 (pandemic) context, creating a loss ritual was new. So our ensemble co-created conditions for personal and collective sensemaking; and for creating new knowledge for self and to share with others. This new knowledge was a story of possibility grounded in our personal experiences, and application of an approach to shape an embodied experience. We didn’t take another’s recipe for ritual creation, we formed an approach that made sense to those present and could be lightly facilitated. In doing so, I believed, we gave the best opportunity for shared ownership and emergent creativity. Everyone got something of value out of it – as defined by themselves, not something that was sold to them beforehand, as a reason to participate.
It felt a little odd to be working on an embodied experience through an online medium. But such is the reality of a gathering of people in different geographies, time zones and physical distancing from the pandemic context. Embodied experiences tend to have an emotional quotient, and I believe that people in 2020 have been developing greater emotional participation in telepresence contexts due to the high volume of online activity, and the greater needed for social connection. We were able to leverage and benefit from this. We purposefully set ‘Doing the ritual’ as a separate session on its own, with no explanation before or reflection immediately after each ritual. In doing the ritual, each person used the space and objects around them in their own physical presence. We gave time and opportunity for the experience to be felt rather than understood; and to linger in our memories and physical environment for a potentially profound impact. In a separate reflection session, participants shared that they experienced significant and positive mindset and emotional shifts.
Our experiment resulted in two original rituals that had meaning and impact for those who created and enacted them. If nothing else as gained from shared time and activity together – the positive shift resulting from a shared embodied experience was enough.
That’s my personal reflections.
Listen to some of the participants share their thoughts on the experimental process in this short audio podcast (18 min).
This article is the first in a series of three. The second article looks inside the experiment, at the approach we took to co-creating a ritual.
Helen Palmer is Founder/Director at Questo. Like Winnie the Pooh, she ‘sits and thinks’ … and imagines how people can make a better life for others and themselves. She likes to share those thoughts with the possibility that they inspire and initiate meaningful change.
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