Supplement for Chapter 9: Social and f Emotional Involvement
Insert for page 173: Negative Cohort Effect
Sometimes the cohort skews negative despite your best intentions, presenting a whole new set of challenges for the Experience Design Leader. This can be driven by personality conflicts, power and competition dynamics, worldview differences, or negative event outcomes during the experience. Most of these are outside of your control as an experience designer, but we can prepare some mitigation strategies to be ready for them when they do happen.
On my first trip to Africa, I did not design nor lead the expedition of 25 people, but I was directing a documentary film about their experiences. The leader — the experience designer — had neglected to attend much framing or priming, or to the social and emotional aspects of the group, or setting the group up for quality social learning, collaboration, and bonding or any kind of nested reflection strategy. It was the perfect recipe for a negative cohort effect, but little did I know at the time that it would all fall squarely in my lap.
Near the end of the experience, I was scheduling on-camera interviews with everyone, only to discover that nearly one-third of the group politely declined to participate, saying they thought it would distract from their safari time. I immediately noticed that it was the same group who piled into the same truck every morning for the day’s journey. So I decided to make it easier for them and conduct the interviews int the truck during the safari time so they could do both and not miss out. The next morning I brazenly decided to get in the truck with one of my camera guys before breakfast was over. This was a mistake.
When it was time to load up and the group saw us waiting for them in their truck, they let loose their anger in dramatic fashion — I only wish I had the cameras rolling at the time. The truth was, earlier in the trip I had requested the truck with the biggest roll-back roof to accommodate the four cameras we were shooting the film with. For the first few days, the film crew was to remain together in one truck before riding separately, embedded with other groups in the other trucks. But this was enough to garner the resentment of several people who thought we were claiming greater importance for our work making a documentary than their experiences. They self-selected into one truck and the filter bubble was born. For hours each day, the group would interpret and mutually reinforce every action of the rest of the group, including the film crew, as offensive to them. The schism seeped into every meal, activity and group meeting, as this group increasingly isolated themselves. The other two-thirds of the group noticed this as well, of course, and the divisions widened.
The leader of the journey decided to deal with this unfortunate situation, partially arisen by major flaws in the design, by declining to get involved at all. It is still unclear to me to this day whether that decision made things better or worse! The result was a classic example of a negative cohort effect, where the dynamics of the cohort, instead of enriching an experience, actually diminish it. In this case, the effect even extended post-trip, as the self-isolating group refused to participate in follow-up meetings, sharing of their journals or experiences in any way, or the screening of the documentary about their journey when it was finished.
So what did I learn? I learned mostly how NOT to build strong and resilient cohorts. Years later, when I was the designer and leader of similar journeys, I did things differently. For any type of group experience deign, I now make it a point to robustly design pre-experience phases for the explicit purpose of group identity narrative sharing, bonding, communication, and setting the stage for positive cohort effects. This often includes:
• Regular online meetings and postings among my groups as they prepare for an experience
• Designing a variety of rotating partner and group tasks and exercises where people get a chance to know one another through guided conversations, and
• Structuring forums (in-person or online) for groups to say and hear their mutual hopes and concerns for the challenges ahead.
During experiences, I make a point to continue in-person group meetings and reflections through an activity called “Hi-Lo,” (you may have heard of it). It is a simple exercise where people sit in a circle and each person takes a turn expressing their highs and lows of the experience so far or for any given day. This not only provides a forum for sharing perspectives, but also reinforces the value the group holds for that kind of sharing in a respectful and caring way. I ritually begin these Hi-Lo sessions by stating the aspirations that we will listen:
• With the intent of learning something new
• With the real possibility of changing our minds
• With the possibility of changing our experience designs to improve or enhance our time together
These simple steps have not eliminated negative cohort effects, but they have never yet failed to create a group dynamic in which when things go sour we have a mutually supportive forum for addressing it and recovering from it.
Insert for page 175: Team Culture
Adopting a research-based approach rooted in team cognition is critical. In my work, I base cohort-building in two robust frameworks
team identity that fit very nicely together: Community of Practice and Team Leadership Theory.
Communities of Practice
Communities of Practice are defined by the researchers who advanced it, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, as “groups of people who share a
involvement. common concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” A key component to making this work is the ongoing development of a shared language among team members as they articulate and customize the three basic components of the model:
• The Domain, or field the team occupies. For our purposes, cohorts may exist in a number contexts (corporate, education, parenting, coaching, training, arts & entertainment, etc.).
• The Practice, or what the cohort has gathered together to do and how they do it. This is the experience design they are collaboratively engaged in.
• The Community, or the sense of family and culture they forge as a result. Think “Kuleana.”
Community of Practice research also suggests that teams need to develop a common understanding and language in order to consciously construct their own cultures and promote positive cohort effects. Importantly, leaders of such communities of practice need to cultivate the identities and abilities of individual team members as active change agents who are able to contribute to, and alter the cultural norms and values of team. This kind of power-sharing is a hallmark of the second research framework: Team Leadership Theory.
Team Leadership Theory
Team Leadership Theory was advanced by researchers Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, who studied more than 6,000 teams in organizations worldwide. They looked specifically at powersharing strategies such as collaboration, delegation, distributed responsibility, various levels of autonomy for workflow, decisions, and schedules.
Their research indicated that distributed or shared leadership (as opposed to top-down commandand-control leadership) across teams and individuals lends itself to greater productivity, more effective resource use, better decisions and problem solving, higher quality products and services, and increased innovation and creativity — all indicators of strong positive cohort effects. Their work also examined different forms of leadership that promote this kind of culture. The Designer Tips on page 174 include findings from this research.
Insert for Page 177: A Story go Going It Alone
In 2012, the film director James Cameron historic solo dive in 2012 to the deepest part of Earth’s ocean - -the Mariana Trench. In 2012 he wrote an article for National Geographic and did an interview with NPR about his experience. At nearly 36,000 feet down, this dive has only been accomplished one time before, in 1960.
"A couple of my batteries are dangerously low, my compass is glitching, and the sonar has died completely," he said, of reaching the very bottom. "Plus, I've lost two of the three starboard thrusters, so the sub is sluggish and hard to control."
Later, in order to return to the surface, he had to successfully cut his weights using a remote system that had been designed to function at intense pressure, but not used in this situation.
"There's always a little bit of a sigh of relief when it works the way it's supposed to work," he said. "We treated it like a space mission, and you have to go in with a lot of redundancy in the way you design it. So, I wasn't surprised when it worked. But you're always a little bit relieved, because the alternative is not pretty," he observed.
Upon ascending, he described, "I feel the sub buck and rock as it fires upward. I'm going over six knots, the fastest the sub has ever gone, and I'll be on the surface in less than an hour and a half. I imagine the pressure coming off the sub, like a great python that was unable to crush it, slowly giving up its grip. A feeling of relief washes over me as the numbers get progressively lower."
Insert for page 179: Emergence in Social and Emotional Involvement
When you successfully design for social and emotional involvement for your experiencers, with both cohort and solo effects, you open wide the possibilities for a number of emergent outcomes. These include group-based mutual joy and celebration in the wake of positive experiences, group-based encouragement and support in challenging moments of an experience or failure experiences, resilience in the face of hardship or tragedy, and even life-long friendships forming among the group. Solo experiences often surface long-buried anxieties or self-limiting narratives about what a person can do or even attempt to do — again agency effects.
But there is one emergent theme I’ve observed a number of times associated with the cohort effect. I eventually had to even give it a name: “Extended Cohorts.” This is the idea that we carry with us into an experience people who are part of our extended social group — but are not present in real-time. The powerful impact of people not present includes family, significant others and even people who have passed away. As we explored in Chapter 4, our identities are greatly influenced by the input of other close to us in our lives. We define and measure ourselves and our aspirations in terms of both what we want and think about ourselves, as well as what we perceive others to want for us and think of us — reflected-self-appraisals again.
Some of us are striving to live up to the expectations of our parents or our children. Some of us are trying hard to be the person our friends, spouse or significant others believe us to be.
Sometimes we have a powerful experience or even see a beautiful sunset and are overcome with a desire to share it with someone belonging to a cohort that is simply not there. We instead must resort to seeing the experience through their eyes as we imagine them to be.
Far from diminishing an experience, I have observed such extended cohort effects to actually enhance and amplify the importance of experiences. In some ways, it is the opposite of the solo effect, even though it often occurs for experiencers when they are alone. I’ve had people torn by being away from their children during an experience. I’ve had others grieving the recent loss of a loved one — only to bring those lost loved one with them in spirit for the experience at hand. I’ve had people obsessively share every element of an experience online with their distant social group (friends and family) through social media each evening after the day’s events were over.
Experience design leaders should realize that your team-members are often including the projected presence of important people as a pathway for greater socio-emotional involvement. Acknowledging, discussing, and honoring the value of extended cohorts as a way for experiencers to enhance their experiences can help increase their motivation and personal investment in what is going on. It is a powerful way to enhance experiences for your team in ways you could not possibly design for.
For example, consider a new hire on your team is a divorced single mother in her 40s who is returning to work after 20 years. Not only is she new and unknown, she is older than the other team-members. And she is nervous about activating a new identity by being there — a transformative experience by definition.
You’ve worked with her and others to plan her onboarding and integration into the team through the ELVIS lens — designing a positive experience that sets her and everyone up for success. She is trying so hard to meet expectations or at the very least to not make a mistake. You can see the stress building and actually inhibiting her performance, making mistakes more likely.
With extended cohorts in mind, you decide to check in with her. You ask her what her kids think of her returning to work — something they’ve never seen her do — and how she feels about their perspectives. She shares how vitally important their views of her are, particularly right now, and how she’s been texting them updates on her breaks. Remembering that honoring extended cohorts is a powerful motivator, you then get an idea, “Why don’t you bring your kids in so they can see where their mom works, meet the team, VIP treatment.” At this suggestion, she lights up. A few days later her two teens come to visit and your new hire is changed from a new person trying not to make mistakes into a team-member who is keenly motivated to excel.
To me, this emergent theme of extended cohorts also underscores the importance of our closest relationships, even when they are not physically present, for constructing and maintaining our self-perceptions and identities through reflected self-appraisals, or how we think others see us. The presence of an extended cohort through our imaginations is another immersive pathway that also overlaps with our social experience. It provides a larger context for the personal meaning people may construct from a given experience, and a powerful lens through which to construct the narrative they will eventually translate the experience into.