It seems like everything we do aims at getting attention & airtime these days. The challenge is that attention spans have decreased dramatically since 2010 due to first the wealth of information provided for consumption and second the unchanged fact that the total time of perception and processing is limited. To influence decision-making (and thus buying behavior) the trade-off is to provide evidence & facts – which might take too long – and/or target the affective side of decision-making – which might be quicker but not always work for the message to be conveyed and/or result in undesired decisions.

This is no news for the advertising world and hits the point for many businesspeople who are trying to sell their products & services in an increasingly competitive global environment. What is new and a worrying post-pandemic development is that the “serious” art world and creative industries that used to serve as a corrective and thought-provoking engagement facilitator seem to embark on the surface-scratching entertainment path as well. I had the great pleasure to attend the opening of the Biennale in Venice last month which made me reflect on how we can reverse the general trend towards simple attention seeking entertainment back to profound engagement with clients and partners in everyday business life.

This year the Biennale Architettura was entitled “the laboratory of the future”, following the big question raised two years ago when the theme was “how will we live together?” At first sight this year’s topic implied to me an attempt to answer the previous question by diving deeply into the design of the “next world”, using a rigorous and evidence-based approach as you would expect it in a laboratory. Thus, it promised to be engaging, offering opportunities for concrete involvement and translational afterthought to take home and apply in our own context. The good news is I felt inspired by a few thought-provoking installations – to name the Danish and the Japanese Pavilions that remain a “Valeur Sure” for enlightenment. The bad news is, however, that we left the Biennale slightly disappointed – or rather concluding that the expectations raised by the “future lab” theme had not been met – because we felt that engagement had been sacrificed for surface-scratching entertainment.

How and why did we feel more entertained than engaged this time? My reflection led me to conclude the following:

  • When curating an exhibition or designing a project frequently “labels” outweigh facts. This is common. What is new is that facts are less connected to support the labeled claim these days. Siloed pieces of information stand next to each other but not “with each other”. Example: This Biennale claimed to acknowledge diversity and be the first that had more than 50% of artists represented from minority ethnic backgrounds. However, the diversity claim outweighed the depth and quality of the works and most importantly their relationship to one another. It came across as just paying lip service to an important topic of our time.
  • When we left the Biennale, we felt “videoed-out” at the end. If the medium is the message – as it is traditionally claimed – life seems to be “a film” and the laboratory of the future is the director. What worries me here is that videos are one-directional communication and less or not at-all interactive which not only reduces but sometimes prohibits engagement in a two-directional way. Two years ago, the Singapore Pavilion dealt with “the architecture of relationships” and the evolving dynamics between its people and context under the headline “TO GATHER” which underlined the necessity of a multidirectional communal approach to design the future.
  • Nevertheless, there was intelligent and profound reflection provided in the laboratory of the future, however, not transmitted well bearing in mind the consumer’s perspective and the ease of consumption: most verbal content that visitors are invited to read is displayed in small light grey letters on medium grey background with insufficient lighting. Obviously, nobody took due care that design has to be practical as well and that user-friendliness is key for engagement. Even with good eyes, glasses and good will readability impaired the willingness and ability to consume and reflect.

While the first two conclusions would have required a more fundamental shift in the strategic design of this year’s Biennale to foster engagement, the third could have been resolved with little means and by just putting yourself into the consumer’s shoes. A little pragmatic thinking would have been enough, an observation of how people consume and reflect in real life, and maybe asking for feedback and running a real-life test before completion.

This reminded me of what I experience every day in our work of people-based primary research and deep-dive investigation. Evidence shows that secondary data does not provide a sound basis for high-impact business decisions. Only if you get out on the shopfloor and talk to people, put gowns, goggles and protective equipment on, you find the real drivers, blockers, outliers, champions and “emotions“ of organizations that will decide about consumers’ engagement and consequently about your strategy’s success in practice. Every day we learn by exposing us to those who use our clients’ service or product or will be part of the solution themselves. Only then can we be sure that people will be engaged – as part of providing initial feedback and then later as the “consumer” or “partner” who adopts und uses what is offered. A bilateral dialogue from the beginning is key.

When we design healthcare systems and organizations, we do so by connecting markets with people, by creating understanding and engagement. We have learned that human beings can work around dysfunctional systems and cope with the “organizational failure” of support – to a certain degree – whereas the system cannot function without the buy-in of the people within. Ever more so it is surprising how often systems/markets and people co-exist without being truly engaged.

“Going digital” is the number one topic but if the needs of users are not acknowledged, pure entertainment outweighs engagement. The next app for managing chronic conditions has good intentions, the glass that rings when it is not filled regularly was a great idea to remind the elderly to drink enough water, but reality shows that one of the first technological challenges for the elderly these days is making sure that all the devices are charged – if not they become useless and of zero value with respect to engagement.

First, what is required to move from entertainment to engagement is intelligent design conceptualized while wearing the shoes of the user in the first place to ensure that people dedicate attention and airtime to experience a product or service. To accomplish this, you need to talk and listen to people and not rely on secondary data primarily. Ideally one collects feedback face-to-face and on the shopfloor.

Second, you need to get people out of their usual setting to experience what you designed. This is probably the hardest job: it means making people focus (attention & airtime) and avoiding their usual distractions of devices, ongoing email and message inflow etc. As an example: when the persistent push email system was first introduced the attention span of office workers was reduced to that of a drug junkie. Distractions have increased since then, but also their channeling and management in the business world. From my early career I still remember that I interviewed people who started our conversation with the words “you have my undivided attention” – which rarely happens these days but can be achieved in the dialogue if you do not only ask questions but also share and involve yourself personally. It is a give-and-take and personal involvement triggers engagement.

Third, intelligent entertainment leads to engagement. Again, I would like to refer to an experience of the arts world: a recent visit of Elliott Erwitt’s retrospective in Paris. His perspective resonated very much with how I perceive our work of investigation, observation, and design. EE stated that his intention was simply to “see what he saw” and to take pictures of it. He had no preconceived ideas. From my perspective this is essential to attain the natural predisposition in your work to willingly accept that you will be surprised. Surprise will engage you due to its emotional component which you exude and feed back to your counterpart. An engaging dialogue follows.

Also, photography is an art of observation – as is much of my work when I try to connect phenomena and leverage different pieces of information that we learn during our investigation. “Photography has little to do with the things we see and everything to do with the way we see them,” said EE which of course brings to mind Anais Nin’s saying that we do not see the world as it is but as we are.” EE was convinced that “A picture is good if it has those two qualities, composition and content, but then also magic.” As does the intelligent design of systems and organizations. I believe that intelligent design (both in art and business) emanates from observations of life and the capability to abstractify/translate them as an intellectual surprise carried by an emotion. Then engagement follows from enlightenment.

Take care, be safe, and enjoy what you can. Stay tuned for any updates @katharinajanus!


Prof. Dr. Katharina Janus
President & CEO, ENJOY STRATEGY, Paris
Founder, Center for Healthcare Management, Paris

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