Field Trip!

Detroit Local Case Study #3

A few months ago, I read this Harvard Business Review article by Civilla's Michael Brennan. I was haunted by this line:

I cannot recollect, in 30 years of work, a single PowerPoint presentation I saw or gave that altered the course of anything.


In consulting, the deliverable is the whole enchilada. It's the culmination of all our effort--sometimes years worth of blood, sweat, and tears. And, for those of us in insight or strategy consulting, it's the TANGIBLE when so much of what we provide is intangible--marketing expertise, industry experience, trend recognition, long-tail search capabilities. If you know me, you know that I have obsessed over deliverables for the last 20 years. I've experimented with everything from Prezi to Pecha Kucha. I curate real and virtual bulletin boards full of inspiring data visualizations. I collect and catalog free professional photography like a hoarder collects Precious Moments figurines.

In 20 years, I've developed an approach to PowerPoint that is vastly better than where I began, referencing Nancy Duarte's Slidedocs and resulting from close observation and binge watching TED Talks. I've got a pretty efficient system in place for video highlight reels. I just completed a Seth Godin Udemy session with immediate applications. But, still, PowerPoint feels like a compromise. Even after a particularly strong presentation, it feels like it could have been...more. Which is why I couldn't stop thinking about Michael Brennan's HBR article. Happily, Civilla is located in downtown Detroit, so I contacted them and set up a field trip to see what their approach is all about.

I was fascinated by the way in which they employ several of the same principals in their "exhibit" that I use. They rely on practices like storytelling, customer journey mapping, perception mapping, and referencing data tables. And, they do incorporate a handful of "slides," but absolutely every element of their deliverable is physical. Their techniques range from use of high-resolution photography to represent the stories of their respondents (applicants and caseworkers in the State's public benefits system)  to paper mache hearts suspended from the ceiling gradually reducing in size to represent the "anti-Grinch" emotional change that respondents (caseworkers) report experiencing over time. Other great news: their materials are highly effective and eminently affordable, many easily sourced at a local craft store.

Now, there are a couple of key differences between Civilla's type of work and mine. First, their current project is fairly long-term by comparison. They've put a year and a half in already, whereas a typical client engagement for me is several weeks. They are focused on one very red-tape-y arena, whereas I work with a variety of clients in a variety of industries on projects with a variety of research objectives--often simultaneously. Right now, they utilize a large warehouse-like space to house their deliverable--akin to an interactive art exhibit--and they bring the audience to see it. The practicalities of my client work rarely allows for in-person meetings and it would be logistically challenging for me to take an exhibit like that on the road.

However, Civilla's objective and mine are the same: to drive change; to persuade. While I might not be able to fully utilize the power of this approach on my own, my clients absolutely could.  In-house researchers and marketers could embrace this type of exhibit-based methodology to drive internal engagement and change within their organizations. I've seen companies like Hallmark, for example, who use their break rooms and company intranet sites to curate customer artifacts. I would love to see Civilla develop a training model--especially for business-to-business organizations--to help embody the voice of their customers and drive support internally. In the meantime, color me inspired.

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