I arrived a day early for three days of meetings in Providence, RI this week and found myself with a free afternoon. Rather than settling in to work as I usually do, I caught up with a colleague and we enjoyed an outing to the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The exhibits were an eclectic cacophony of styles, eras and artistic mediums that I found a bit dizzying at times. One moment I was looking at a Renaissance painting, then with a turn to the right, a Motherwell, a Rodin or an embroidered vest from Asia.
In the midst of this exciting treasure hunt we stumbled into the Pembleton House, where a docent named Timothy empathized with our overwhelmed faces, “Yes, we subscribe to the Alice in Wonderland school or architecture here,” he joked.
As we explored this more cohesive environment, Timothy shared details of the house and pointed out a beautiful landscape hung in a hallway. “It’s a bit low, in my opinion,” he said, explaining that school children on tours often reach out to touch the eye-level painting in close quarters, asking, “Is it real?”
We struck up a fascinating conversation about how children view art these days. Many, raised on tablets and smart phones, have never had a tactile experience with art. One child in particular was especially inquisitive about the painting “Where did it come from?” he inquired.
The question wasn’t about provenance, it was about origin. In a day and age where information appears in an instant with a Google search and you can 3D print whatever you dream up, this child had no concept that paintings are just that: painted. By hand. In a studio. By an artist.
The lines between reality, reproduction, artistry and creation were all blurred.
What is real?
Timothy’s story got me thinking about what this altered sense of reality means on a broader scale.
Children aren’t the only ones who expect to be able to change paintings with the swipe of a finger, assuming what they see on screen is the real thing. Business leaders are also prone to assume that what they see and hear, what they perceive as real, is.
Even when it’s not.
There an indescribable difference between how we perceive an experience where we hear about it after the fact and how others view the same experience as they live it. Like the difference between the artist painting in his studio and the museum-goer viewing the same painting a century later, the gulf between the real experience and the imagined one is huge.
The same can be said for what executives hear about customer perceptions versus the reality of being a customer. Business leaders imagine that they are delivering one thing, buyers experience another.
Survey, focus groups and other methods are an echo of the real experience. Aggregate the data from hundreds or thousands of customers and suddenly centuries divide you from the moment of truth.
How can you, as a leader, discover the truth that lies beneath?
Asking, “Is it real,” over and over like a child on a gallery tour can be quite helpful. Is the data on that report providing an accurate picture of your custom experience or a poor quality reproduction?
One way to know is to actually get out there and see for yourself. Talk with customers, be a customer, create your own experience and see how it stacks up.
Are your metrics a clear representation of reality like a detailed Flemish landscape, or more abstract and subject to interpretation? Spend some time evaluating how your data is collected and analyzed and be sure your assumptions are valid.
We live in a world full distorted reality. It’s hard to find the truth. When it comes to meeting customer needs and fulfilling your brand promise, success hinges on the ability to differentiate between authentic feedback and distorted perceptions.
Make sure what you rely on is the real thing.