Rough Terrains and Seeds of Growth: Three Years of Orchestrating Experiences

Ah, the golden month of May. Springtime in the Western hemisphere finally puts the winter months behind us, reinvigorating our impulses to create, to play, and to will into existence our better selves. This May—more than most—the hope many of us feel is met with sobering realities of the challenges we face. Whether they be personal, professional, or societal, we know the flip of the calendar page does not create change... people do. May, therefore, is a time to be festive but reflective, to be hopeful but determined, and to pause but not stop. 


May is particularly special to me as the book that I wrote with Chris Risdon, Orchestrating Experiences, was published three years ago this month. I’m very proud of the book and its reception. My favorite part is Marc Rettig's foreword in which he gently sets the reader’s expectations of putting our concepts into practice. The following passage is especially apropos to the book’s May release:

I imagine that you are buying [Orchestrating Experiences] because you’re excited by what it describes, and you aspire to implement these practices. But it will take time to see these ideas grow from the seeds in this book to exploratory sprouts and then to full flower in your organization. You’ll need practice and patience, and a habit of celebrating small steps. When persuasion does not work, you’ll need other tools: story, vision, and invitations to the sandbox. And at the risk of being cliché, you’ll need to find joy in the journey. This won’t be easy.

Marc Rettig,  from his foreword to Orchestrating Experiences

True. So, true.

Planting seeds in rough terrains

Over the last three years, I’ve met many wonderful people taking on this challenging but rewarding journey. Some are design leaders pushing their organizations to zoom out from product to service to system. Others are non-designers in marketing, operations, product, or technology reaching across functional boundaries to align on a common vision in which people’s experiences are material, not an afterthought. Most, however, are practitioners inching their teams forward to embrace complexity and take it on through greater collaboration and clearer intention.

These passionate orchestrators—including my fellow Harmonic designers—have shared with me the Sisyphean struggles that they must push through day after day to make change. They don’t mention lacking a good process, effective methods, or the right tools. What stands in the way of progress are deeper systemic challenges in organizations. These include:

  • Customer-centricity as a slogan: Dominant inside-out cultures struggling to walk the talk of customer orientation
  • Product orientation: Organizations optimized for producing nodes (discrete features and utility) rather than a service system (harmonized interactions and value co-creation)
  • Agile: Strategic work (design strategy, service design, enterprise architecture, etc) being forced into sprints, being misaligned with Agile rhythms, or not being done at all because “it slows things down” 
  • People and control: Political and power-structural barriers to creating alignment across functional areas for collective good
  • Lab Coat Research: Resistance to design research and involving “non-researchers” because it is “not scientific” or will be “disruptive to the customer relationship”
  • Outcomes and Incentives: Lack of maturity in measuring experience across touchpoints and channels and not connecting OKRs across teams (leading to experience fragmentation and competing tactics)
  • Collaboration as abnormal: Highly specialized and individualized work environments in which people are simply not good at collaboration, co-creation, and participatory approaches

From seeds to sprouts

These forces are not easy to contend with, especially as the pandemic has disrupted working environments and relationships. But progress can be made bird by bird. How? Building off of Marc Rettig’s foreword and my advice in the book’s final chapter, these six best practices may help you in your own journey:

Don’t wait for permission

Most orchestrators are not handed the baton. They find small opportunities to do what is expected and then put in the extra effort to try something new. Demonstrating a new method or tool—such as service origami—provides tangible evidence of the value orchestration approaches. 

Meet people where they are at

Each individual in your organization can play a role in better orchestrating experiences, but you begin their personal journey from where they are today. Spend time creating strategies for how to engage different stakeholders to help them take a step towards your collective future.

Get great at storytelling

Marc led with “story” as a key tool to applying the concepts from the book, and I wholeheartedly agree. Stories and storytelling are at the heart of driving meaningful change. To orchestrate experiences, you collect stories from the world around you to understand barriers to delivering value. You create new stories to conceptualize a future where people have better experiences. And, you use the power of storytelling to persuade and inspire others to make those experiences a reality. The better you are at the art of storytelling, the more effective you will be in orchestrating experiences. 

Orient around moments

If Orchestrating Experiences came out today, I likely would have pushed to call chapter for “Orienting Around Moments” rather than “Orienting Around Journeys.” A focus on end-to-end experiences is still essential but using moments as a human-centered key to strategize, conceptualize, connect, and measure in dynamic experiential systems is more powerful. A moment approach marries object-oriented thinking and “choose your own adventure” design techniques with service-dominant logic economic principles. This can mitigate journeys becoming new silos and helps to better connect the dots across front- and backstage, channels, and value propositions. Our Harmonic is exploring these concepts in what we call Experience Tapestry

Unite the architects

As organizations have focused on getting lean and agile, there is a common cast of characters who feel the pain of semi-autonomous teams moving quickly in parallel. Meet the architects—they live in technology, experience, process engineering, operations, and even finance. Architects move at a slower pace layer, looking for internal and external patterns to make things more intentional, consistent, and continuous. They get sick to their stomach when they see redundancies, friction, and gaps. Find these people in your organization. Share with them the concepts of orchestration. Invite them to create new ways of working with you. 

Start small (really!)

Orchestrating Experience’s final chapter has a section called “Start Small,” which shares some techniques for “changing small portions of the customer experience to be in alignment with your vision.” I would double-underline, bold, <blink> tag that section today. Orchestrating experiences is akin to urban planning—you have to zoom out and design systematically for dynamic environments but find opportunities for small interventions that can begin a movement towards large-scale change. Balance your efforts between taking small meaningful steps with helping others see the forest those saplings will help bring to fruition.

Celebrate your small steps

If you bought the book, I hope you found it useful and have made an impact in your organization as a result. And, I hope you have celebrated your own small steps as you have helped shift mindsets from the parts to the whole, from inside-out to outside-in, and from individual to the collective. I’m sure it has not been easy… but more than ever your organization needs you to sow these particular seeds of change.

Or, to mix metaphors: “Take up the baton. Play well with others. Make beautiful music together.”

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