By Brendan Brown, Senior Director, Strategy and Planning

Last year a street vendor in San Francisco told my wife and I that the difference between fine art and commercial art is that with fine art you see nothing up close and everything from far away. For commercial art the opposite is true. Chaos in that way is a bit like a Monet; it’s an entirely different experience when seen close-up than when taken in from afar.

When the raw data of daily life (from pings, zooms, and can’t-miss-webinars, to breaking news, daily briefings, and by-the-minute infection rates) gets overwhelming, taking a step back to see things from an outside perspective can help. From ‘out here’ the aperture of thinking can be opened and the bigger picture is a bit easier to see.

The past and the future are both good places and distances to start from. History is full of lessons we’ve learned – with the grace and good fortune of time between us – and ahead there’s room for vision and hope. Merging this binocular view into singular focus can bring clarity and calm to the present, and provide direction for whatever futures the future may bring.

A few lessons from the past

1. Crisis accelerates change: In the words of Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan“History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between.” Emergency fast-forwards historical processes. What would typically take decades to transform can transpire in days, or even overnight. (Just look outside if you live nearby and need reminding.)

2. Action is essential: Actions are most needed when outcomes are least certain. It’s one of many ways business mirrors biology. Whether it’s the 1918’s flu pandemic or the stock market crash of ‘08, those who were swift and decisive with action fared far better. It’s survival of the fittest.

Put another way, inaction isn’t an option, at least not if you’re an organism intent on survival. The problem is the uncertain distribution of both good and bad potentials is perilous and can be paralyzing. This isn’t Kansas anymore. We need a new map.

3. From far enough out a pattern emerges: Crisis unfolds as a social drama or as historian, Charles Rosenberg put it, “[they] start at a moment in time, proceed on a stage limited in space and duration, follow a plotline of increasing revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character, then drift toward closure.”

A checklist for moving into the future

Like a play, the archetypal structure of a crisis can be broken down into three acts. For communications and experience design purposes, these ‘acts’ can be used as guideposts for proper orientation and action. If you’re feeling eager, cultural, social, regulatory and economic cues could be used to provide a higher-resolution of context when needed and drive the plot forward.

1. Start with a rough approximation of where you and your audience are in the story

  1. Crisis | Denial | Disruption
  2. Recognition | Anxiety | Confrontation
  3. Adaptation | Adjustment | Resolution

2: Use this ‘position’ to consider more deeply the inner/outer worlds of your target audience. Empathy and understanding are what set the tone and key. 

  • Thoughtful, useful, timely. For brands and people alike, the impressions left now are deeper and more lasting than usual.
  • Get as specific as you can. For B2B experiences, regional differences and industry-specific shapes of recovery can offer additional insight into the inner states and implicit needs of an audience.
  • Consider the relationship between your audience and your brand. What role is your brand best positioned to play? What experiential realms are most aligned and authentic? Pine & Gilmore’s Four Realms of Experience is a good model if you’re looking for a place to start.

3: Synthesize the outside view with the inside situation. 

  • Take a fresh look at your current strategy. In this new light what changes in focus are needed?
  • Get back to basics. Set clear goals and strategies for this new context. Establish objectives and key results you can measure.
  • Plan forward. Take advantage of the data capture opportunities more readily available in a digital world

4. Keep Learning and Updating

Reentry into live events won’t go as planned. That’s okay. Just keep moving, learning, and adapting. Human needs, emotional states, and experiential roles will keep shifting and changing with time.

  • What changes could you make now to ensure a more resilient model in the future? Remember it’s a cyclical not linear path forward.
  • Look for open loops and close them. Build-in opportunities to measure effectiveness and understand what is and isn’t working.

So where in the story are we?

Right now, is a pretty wild time to be. It’s mid-May 2020, and the speed and severity of change has upended any semblance of normalcy. If pushed to answer, I’d say we’re somewhere near or approaching the second act. Unemployment rates and the Dow Jones were climbing together the other day. ESPN is airing videogames as if they were sports. A couple of weeks ago my two youngest kids went to their first concert on (or maybe it’s in?) Fortnite. Some days feel more surreal than others. Is it Monday or Thursday?

Right now’ also really depends on who and where you are. Existing trends, tensions, and differences are magnified in states of emergency. Jeff Bezos brought in roughly $2,498 per second, as mortgage forbearance requests in the US grew by 1,896% according to the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Theme parks in China are opening while Silicon Valley makes plans to work-from-home forever.

There’s an exchange in Ernest Hemingway’s book, The Sun Also Rises, in which one character asks the other how he went bankrupt. His response puts the feel of right now rather well, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”  Such shifts shake us deeply.

What’s now?

What’s unique about this crisis is what it’s done to our experience of experience – from space, time, technology, reality, ourselves, and each other, every relationship has changed. Together and apart, the world feels bigger and smaller. Time seems faster and slower. Inside is outside. Distance is a feeling.

To be together is human. Whether it’s a window in a web browser or a nursing home, any unnecessary space brings with it an emptiness that only that human something could fill. It gets harder to ignore the closer we get. The truth is there’s no substitute for real-world, person-to-person, physical togetherness. I miss it, like I miss you, deeply. When it gets to feel like a bit too much, I try and remember that life sometimes too is like fine art.

What’s next?

Enantiodromia was a term introduced in modern times by psychiatrist Carl Jung which he defined as “the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time.” He believed this principle was what governed all of the cycles of natural life, unifying biology, psychology, and culture. If the theory holds up, the isolation we feel now will bring us closer. The pain will result in joy. The tension will bring relief, and the human connections we restore will be even stronger and more meaningful than before. Everything eventually returns.

Trends emerge from a similar background – the juxtaposition of external change and human nature. The attunement of opposite tensions is what brings them to life. If there is such a thing as a silver lining to all of this it’s that the present is ripe with opportunities to resolve. Over the next few weeks or so I’ll be writing more on this topic and posting what strikes me.