When you were a child, what was your favorite game of pretend? Did you pretend you were a dinosaur? Or an astronaut? Or maybe an adventurer on a magical quest?
Whatever your favorite game of pretend was, you surely spent time immersing yourself in a world different from your own. All children do. We do it because play and pretend are one of the main ways that humans learn about themselves and each other. They are crucial tools for developing insight and empathy.
They are also tools that we need to bring back into our lives as adults and business professionals.
To find exciting new options for our organizations, we need to understand our customers and our marketplaces in a new way. And we need to get beyond the same-old analysis that leads to tiny variations on the same old “insights.”
We need to stop thinking about our customers and instead teach ourselves to think like our customers.
One fun and high-impact way to do that is to return to the world of pretend. Specifically, we can use the tools that actors use to portray a character on stage.
The discipline that trained actors use to create a character for the stage calls on both creativity and extreme focus. It is a remarkably useful process for deepening our understanding of our customer.
The process starts with seeking to embody and become someone new.
Theatre artists are trained to ask detailed questions about their characters and to answer those discovery questions in the first person. Instead of looking at a character in a play and asking what “they” are feeling or doing, theatre artists assume the character’s identity for a moment.
Actors seek to step inside the character’s body and see the world through their eyes. They explore the “world of the play.” Then, from the point of view of the character, they ask:
- If it were me in these circumstances, what might I be thinking and feeling and doing?
- What are the factors in my history, environment, and needs that drive my actions and outlook?
- What are the forces acting on me that are impacting my options and decisions?
As they do this, good theatre artists seek to continue to dig deeper. They do not accept the first and most obvious answer. They keep looking for more profound and more unexpected levels of discovery.
Actors use this mental exploration and a host of other physical and emotional techniques to achieve a state that theatre artists refer to as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”
The idea is highly relevant to business strategy. It is a focused process of ideation.
Great organizations combine research and data with insight and imagination until they can fully understand their customers’ circumstances. They may not know every customer by name, but they know the “character” of their customers so well that they come to know the “truth” of their customer’s experience.
The exciting news is that this is a process we can do consciously and “on-demand.” Fostering creative insights does not mean you need to sit around waiting for inspiration to hit you.
All arts disciplines have processes that their practitioners use to encourage insight and skill development. There is still hard work involved, and you will run into stuck spots, dead ends, and frustrations the way you do in any meaningful human endeavor. But, there is a process to follow.
And, if you stick with the process and allow yourself to take risks and fail along the way, you can often come out on the other end with exciting new insights and opportunities.
The first part of the process starts with awareness and openness.
Instead of beginning with a specific result in mind, simply explore. Allow yourself to start with mindful exploration.
Take a walk or grab your journal and begin by asking yourself how your customer sees themselves and experiences their world. Challenge yourself to avoid asking yourself about how your customer sees your product or service. Instead, explore in a more open-ended and holistic way. You may be surprised and delighted by what you discover.
Imagine that you are the Executive Director of a Writing Studio in a small city.
Suppose that in the past, you have identified your customers as middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment, and your competitors as other organizations in your city that offer writing instruction.
You may have even occasionally considered other creative and artistic classes as part of your competitor base and mused about how to attract more young people and more people from diverse populations to your studio.
But your thinking is still stuck in an old model of looking at your customer from the outside-in. This will make it perilously easy to keep thinking about what you have already done and making many small (and possibly contradictory) tweaks to your offerings.
It will be hard to generate the insights that lead to a genuinely fresh look at your obstacles and opportunities and develop a bold and compelling new strategy.
It will be hard to differentiate.
But you can open up new possibilities by taking a new approach.
- You began by creating a safe space to take risks and challenge your thinking to explore an imaginary future customer from the inside-out?
- You pretended that you were an actor getting ready to play the part of your prospective customer in a play and had to get to know them deeply and intimately?
- You had some handy questions to prompt you into thinking both deeply and differently?
Let’s try it out.
Instead of starting with the idea that our customers are “middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment,”- let’s try creating a character of our customer.
We are not trying to think about all our customers, or even most of our customers. We are taking a deep dive into one customer and paying with the idea of “becoming” that customer for a short while.
We will walk through some questions. And as we do so, we will work on trusting our imagination to explore these questions without worry about getting the “right” answer. Some of our responses may come from research, internal organizational data, or what we know about existing customers, and some of them may come from pure conjecture and fantasy.
That is OK. There are no correct answers, only ones that lead to exciting thoughts or opportunities.
The process starts with the question of identity. From the customer’s point of view and stated in the first person, we may choose to ask:
- What is my name?
- What are my pronouns?
- Who am I demographically? (age, gender, occupation, race, geography, etc.)
- What cultural norms or expectations do I want to accommodate?
- How do I want others to see me?
- How do I see myself?
- Is there a conflict in how I want others to see me and how I see myself? (For example, “I want others to see me as a polished, professional businesswoman, but I see myself as an underdog and harried mother of 3 who can barely keep it together.”)
But we don’t stop here. We keep going.
The next step is looking deeply into needs and obstacles. Remembering to answer questions in the first person from the customer’s perspective, we ask:
- What do I want in my life, long-term?
- When I wake up on the average Monday morning, what do I most want for that day?
- Why do I want the things I want?
- How must I get those things? (Does it need to look a certain way; do I need to get other things first etc.)
- What do I usually do to get what?
- What other things will I do to get what I want- how far will I go?
- What are the practical obstacles in my way?
- What are the internal obstacles in my way?
- What cultural norms or prejudices must I navigate to get what I want?
- How confident am I in my ability to get my wants and needs met?
Finally, we want to ask ourselves about circumstances and events. From your customer/character’s point of view, ask yourself:
- On a typical day, what am I doing?
- On a typical day, what else must I do?
- On a typical day, what outside forces are impacting me?
- What special events or circumstances are going on to make this day (the day they seek your product or service) different from all the days before?
While it takes some time, and you might not get great answers to every question or even understand how every question relates to your context and your customer, just walking through this process can open new ways of thinking.
You may discover, for example, an entire change of organizational identity.
Maybe you were a Writing Studio that serves middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment.
And perhaps you are becoming a Retreat Center for High Performing Executives who seek to recover from a mid-career crisis by developing their creative capacities and connecting with a community of visionary business leaders.
Anything is possible.