Here’s to the Perspective-Shifters by Rob Gallo

We’ve all had the transformative experience that reading a great book, listening to a powerful piece of music, or viewing a piece of moving artwork can deliver. Reading a novel by Franz Kafka or standing before a piece of art by Marcel Duchamp can change the way you see the world around you. This act of switching roles between the viewer and the performer has a powerful effect. When you step into the shoes of a great artist, you are left with a glimpse of how they saw the world—and how they changed it.

Music for me is the greatest source of inspiration. A powerful piece of music stirs up creativity, allowing you to think of new approaches to work. A pianist like Glenn Gould was a terrific innovator in his day. This young Canadian could take a classic piece of music like Bach’s Goldberg variations, and change the audience’s perception of something that had been familiar sounding for hundreds of years. Gould experimented with shifting the position of the microphone during recorded performances. In one piece of documentary footage, you can see him move the microphone to different positions, simulating a listener’s journey walking around and through the music. The once fixed position that separated listener and musician was suddenly disturbed. Gould’s innovative approach delighted some fans and probably infuriated a lot of classicists as well. But by taking a novel approach to an old genre, Gould reinvigorated familiar music and opened it up to a whole new audience.

Shifting Your Company Perspective

All companies want to move their customers in the same way that great artists move audiences. With social media shrinking the borders between brands and consumers, it’s more important than ever to seek out ways to become more customer-, or as my current industry seeks, patient-focused.

Many companies have played with the notion of “perspective shifting”. (Toyota even ran ad campaigns titled ‘_SHIFT’, underscoring the internal position they were taking.) By placing oneself in the shoes of a customer, you get to experience what it’s really like to trade places. This perspective shift also inspires you to create even better customer experiences because you’ll see firsthand what is working, and what needs improvement. What for our industry is sometimes referred to as ‘beyond medicines’.

Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

When a team member and I were asked to help colleagues understand what it means to live with a disease like IBD, the request was to write an article on the condition. This debilitating disease isn’t really something that can be conveyed in words—the burden of a disease like this is not easily conveyed in an intranet article. Inviting patients to talk to colleagues is something we have done before, and it certainly has high value. “Patient-experiences” are not easy to explain—especially when it involves that sort of physiological detail you wouldn’t share with even a friend or a colleague. My colleagueAudrey Liechti led our team in converting this request into a simulated patient experience. We did not want to gamify something as serious as IBD. More than just being respectful to persons who live with IBD, our task was to bridge the needs between patients, patient associations, pharmaceutical companies, and other industries who affect IBD sufferers on a regular basis.

As comms professionals, we are uniquely positioned to bring insights to the table, and build meaningful experiences. Done well, it can have a transformative effect. Participants can project their own beliefs within the exercise, as they role play physical/social/career scenarios, allowing them to be in the experience.

#InTheirShoes is an internal program that is rolling out in my company in Europe. The exercise takes between 20–50 colleagues at a time through a challenging two-day immersive simulation: living the life of an IBD patient for 2 days (with all the disruption and discomfort you’d expect from such a debilitating disease, but without inducing physical pain levels that patients experience.) The program was developed in conjunction with a local IBD patient advocacy group and with help from a colleague who also has lived with IBD. You can read one person’s experience with it here.

Read about it—or tell your own story

The goal is nothing less than to ‘transport’ a person, creating greater empathy and awareness of various health conditions. A universal piece of feedback we receive from participants is that the experience is so ‘intense’ that is leads you to wanting to know more about the disease.

The subject of my previous post, #FlywithIBD, which seeks to recommend changesacross the airline industry to ensure the health and comfort of IBD/IBS sufferers, request colleagues and others to question what it’s like to fly long haul while living with this disease is a form of perspective shifting. You can read more about that effort here. #FlyWithIBD was the result of colleagues taking part in an early #InTheirShoes exercise. You can talk about ‘beyond medicines’ or you can actually do something about it yourself.

Everyone’s developing an App nowadays…

Digital plays a role in helping to create these transformative experiences. It’s only one part. Everyone starts with the same symptoms, but based on how they manage their diet, their ‘simulated’ symptoms and daily situations that patients would be confronted with, as in all role-plays, they end up in very different places. By the end of day, after no tea/coffee/gluten-/lactose-based food, constant interruptions, people are physically tired. Some even report phantom pains. Others struggle having to explain to their young children or friends what is ‘happening to them’.

I look forward to seeing how wearables and VR can augment such a patient experience, making these exercises more powerful. But the real potent ingredient is not digital at all. The real stars are the participants. And an IBD patient and medical colleague invited to ‘ground’ participants in a 1 hour briefing session—preparing them for what-happens-next. And those next 40 hours are a roller-coaster.

We’ve now run this exercise for roughly 100 people, and growing. What’s astonishing is that very few participants leave the exercise—there’s nothing keeping them in after all. Faced with the option of trading places, with a person who experience discomfort and hardship daily, these committed people almost always ‘opt-in’. Maybe it is because a real person living through gastrointestinal disease can’t quit, or log-out.

Or perhaps, much like taking part in great performance where you are the lead, you do indeed see the world differently from a new perspective. And when it’s all over, as we call the group in for a de-briefing session, there is usually quite an atmosphere as we prepare about to hear how it went. The microphone from this point onwards drifts away from the Comms professional, away from the usual ‘spokesperson’s’ hands. Instead, these colleagues are tired but poised, some quite emotional, all of them itchingly ready to tell their own story.