The Human Library
The “human library” has its roots in the city library in Malmö, Sweden, which allows curious visitors to check out living people for a 45-minute conversation. Th e experience is designed to confront prejudices and promote understanding. Th e people available to be “checked out” at one point included a gypsy, a transvestite, a blind man, a journalist and an animal rights activist. The conversations are intended to allow people to learn about the life and beliefs of an individual who has been misunderstood, stereotyped and often avoided.
Our firm’s version of a human library is designed to provide inspiration to a marketing team that wants to develop a big innovation, improve an offering and its user experience, enhance a brand relationship, or improve a sales or marketing program. With context and objective in place, a widearray of human “books” are selected to purposefully create unlikely conversations that generate unexpected sources of insight.
They are selected to be relevant but tangential to the context and problem. For example, an apparel manufacturer found that its multi-product sales team was delivering an inconsistent and redundant customer interface because its ability to coordinate and cooperate was deficient. A human library experience helped them revise their culture and systems so that they would be more effective, particularly witha significant national retailer. For this project, the human library consisted of people or groups who could provide a perspective on different aspects of partnership or teams.
A jazz ensemble helped the firm explore the dynamics of communication and flexibility. How did the jazz musicians develop enough cohesiveness as a team that they could maintain a cohesive sound, even when they went “off script” in jam sessions? When improvising, how could each member of the musical ensemble know when to throw a solo from one player to another and how could others read cues to know when a solo might be thrown their way? Answers to these questions suggest how a team can have enough knowledge and intimacy so that it can be aligned and capable of adjusting, even in the face of a changing environment when it is necessary to go “off script.”
A ballet dance troupe helped the firm explore the relationship dynamics of partnerships and trust. During their conversation, one of the dancers said: “When I do a lift , my partner has to believe that if I were to drop her I would also do everything in my power to break her fall and protect her. I would let her fall on me before I would let her hit the ground.” This comment led to the question, “How do you build a level of trust so that you have full confidence that a colleague has your back and is protecting the mutual interests of the team?”
A marriage counselor helped the firm explore how relationships evolve over time and how you manage those changes constructively. The counselor pointed out that relationships change naturally, from the honeymoon phase to the familiar phase, and they need different behaviors at different times to maintain a high level of engagement and closeness. This insight led to a realization that even the best relationship dynamics change over time and to a discussion about how to stay adaptable as the relationship expectations change.
A chef and sous chef helped the firm explore the dynamics of delegation and efficiency. In their conversation, the team explored the question, “How does the chef set the strategy or ‘menu’ and delegate some aspects of that to the remainder of the team for execution?” The conversations were ultimately about how to foster trust among all members of the team, up and down the chain of command. What’s the right development plan for your team and how do you trust them to execute against your vision once you’ve set the strategy?
In another case, a human library was used to help a consumer products health brand explore and elaborate on the brand tenets at a nuanced level. The goal was to prioritize among them, and to create and clarify an effective positioning strategy. For the brand tenet of courage, a firefi ghter provided the firm with a perspective about how courage is personified, and helped the team explore the multiple dimensions of courage that the brand could adopt. For the brand tenet of comfort, a Red Cross volunteer helped provide a deep understanding of the several dimensions of comfort. For the brand tenet of nurture, an elementary school teacher spoke about the appropriate balance between fostering independence and co-dependence. How could the firm’s brand adopt more of a “develop me” vs. “do it for me” relationship with its customers around the notion of nurturing? For the brand tenet of service, a concierge helped the firm understand the service journey and ways that the brand could create exceptional service at multiple customer touch points.
The human library employs the classic creative-thinking approach of lateral thinking, looking at the problem with a fresh perspective that is removed from the context but at the same time highly relevant to the objective or problem.
It really works.
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