Sunday, February 12, 2006

Re-mixing the Magic

I’m listening to the Neptune’s re-mix of the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. For the fourth time in a row, my fingers sore with air-guitar blisters.

This is a re-mix with a light touch. It adds very few new riffs and it takes away some of what we’re accustomed to: trading acoustic for electric guitar in the “Just as every cop is a criminal…” phrase; the four-beat pause before “Pleased to meet you.”

We tend to use the same modules in event after event, re-ordering them perhaps, but rarely re-mixing them – we pimp the script without really making it new. But if we think back to those events when we really did create magic, we remember that we made it new. We re-mixed the modules we’ve used before (and since) and created something entirely new.

The newness doesn’t spring fully-formed from the modules themselves, it descends from the overall event design and theme. We don’t create great modules, we create great events and the modules hang off of them. We design the event around an idea, a metaphor, a theme that has meaning for us insofar as it reflects our understanding of the client’s challenge. The participants themselves don’t even have to understand the theme for it to work, and we can even get the theme wrong. What matters more is the coherence and single-mindedness with which we use the theme to shape the event – not just the graphics and the environment, but the writing of every single module, the individual transitions and how they flow through the arc of the event.

Several years ago, we held a large event to develop the three-year strategy of a major university. I frequently remember the enormity of our ambition and the coherence of our execution. It is one of the two or three events we are proudest of. Our theme happened to be The Ideal City and, though not perfect, we managed to weave together a design, environment, shaped experience (e.g., a visit to Augustine’s baptismal font), music, knowledge, and individual modules that collectively pulled them from their world and substituted it with a new one from which they could see their own more clearly. The way we-reworked familiar modules, and dreamed up a few new ones, was all conditioned by a cohesive vision of the entire event and how the participants would voyage through it.

This past week’s event week was different. We ran a good event. One of the factors that kept it from being a great event was Just-in-Time design and writing. We only designed and wrote each day at the very end of the previous day’s work. While the JIT approach helped us adapt to whatever new came up during the day, it deprived the individual modules of the coherence that building an event top-down provides. Each module should contain a germ of the entire event’s design and theme. But if the whole event only emerges one day at a time, the individual modules are sterile. You can pimp them up, but you can’t re-mix them with any coherence.

There are risks when pre-designing and pre-writing the events. First, you may become too attached to your creation and resist flexing, re-writing, or re-designing when the need arises. Second, you may exclude the rest of the facilitation team from the design and writing process. Both of these risks are serious. The first risk is easier to manage than the second: Simply promise yourself and your team that nothing is sacred and that at least one module will be trashed each day, no matter how perfect. The second is more serious and I have only come up with partial solutions. I will address these in another blog. Maybe.

The great events happen when we create the new and re-mix the old with a single vision – a vision that will show the participant’s their world in a new light and at the same time let the facilitation team learn new entirely new ways of using familiar tools.

The Neptunes Sympathy re-mix is great because the original is great. It is great because the additions and subtractions to it are perfectly executed and add a melancholy closing that changes its meaning. But most of all, it is great because it doesn’t let us take anything for granted. I’m listening to the original, un-mixed version now, still picking my air guitar. And the song is new again – nothing old, nothing expected. Magic!

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