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Why McKinsey built an ’emotional archive’

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In February, the design arm of McKinsey & Company, the global consultancy, caused a stir in the commercial design world by declaring, after a study of 1,700 major companies, that two-thirds of CEOs have no idea what designers do.

Now McKinsey has launched a project that may help resolve that mystery—or at least some of it.

In April and May, as the coronavirus spread from China to the rest of the world, a team of 15 McKinsey designers embarked on an ambitious effort to understand how the pandemic is reshaping the values of global consumers and workers. The team, spread across five time zones and working from home via video calls and digital whiteboards, tracked the lives of more than 100 people in eight different countries. Instead of poring over spreadsheets or crunching numbers, the McKinsey team employed ethnographic methods such as video diaries and one-one interviews to collect, categorize, and interpret data on a squishy and elusive phenomenon: human emotions.

The team’s findings are summarized in a series of essays online under the heading “The New Possible.” One explores the promise and peril of working from home. (Martin from Leicester enjoys managing tenants from his wife’s dressing table, while Sarah from Chicago laments having to stack up pillows to work from her bed because her partner took over the desk.) Another describes how the pandemic is forcing people from all cultures to become more introspective and think more purposefully about their values and what really matters in their lives. (Benjamin, an IT manager from Singapore, says he wants to live like a stray cat, who doesn’t need a big house but can “eat and sleep well at any place it likes.”) There is an essay on how people are coping with increased financial pressures amid the crisis and another on the connection between COVID-19 and mental health.

What’s remarkable about these essays is that they don’t sound very McKinsey-like. (Full disclosure: I used to work at McKinsey.) They’re focused on people, not companies; illustrated with photos and video, not bar charts or spiderweb graphs; and woven together with stories that are open-ended rather than pressed into a list of didactic “takeaways.”

“This is a new way for McKinsey to look at the world, through these human stories,” says McKinsey Design partner Jeff Salazar, a driving force behind the “New Possible” project. “For consumers and employees, the pandemic has stirred up a whole bunch of complicated new stuff…People are recommitting to values: health, family, purpose. They’re aligning those values to brands and employers that are truly delivering on purpose. It’s not just millennials, it’s everybody….But this is something you just can’t capture that with surveys. It requires a lot of interpretation.”

Salazar is a partner at Lunar, the San Francisco-based industrial design firm McKinsey acquired in 2015. He has won awards for work on personal computers, electric scooters, and toothbrushes, and is steeped in the methods of user-centric design. Where consultants with a traditional business background are trained and rewarded for finding the best answer to multiple-choice questions fast, designers like Salazer are apt to wonder why there aren’t more choices, question the question itself—then ask if they can just go hang out with customers.

That’s an approach that drives many CEOs nuts. But Salazar argues design can be an invaluable lens for re-examining business models in a time of maximum economic and social upheaval.

For now, the McKinsey Design team is resisting the temptation to use the New Possible study to make specific recommendations to clients. The idea, Salazar says, is to start a conversation, not to hand clients a set of predetermined solutions. If anything, he worries that the New Possible report may be “a little too polished.”

“I am a designer,” Salazar says. “My impulse is to be transparent, just put the raw data out there and let everyone figure out what it means.”

To that end, his team worked with data scientists to create an “Emotional Archive” by tagging 800 comments from people who participated in the study according to a framework of primary emotions developed by emotional design guru Robert Plutchik. The comments can be filtered to show how frequently people in different countries expressed different emotions.

I’ll admit: the idea of a giant firm like McKinsey creating something as touchy-feely as an “emotional archive” may be a little hard for many CEOs to get their head around. And yet, many professional services firms have followed McKinsey’s lead in bolstering their design capabilities to serve a broader range of clients. Innumerable books and essays on business leadership in our hyper-connected modern economy (some of them by McKinsey) stress the importance of listening, empathizing with employees and customers, and leading by inspiration. At the very least, the archive offers an innovative tool for empathy at a time when CEOs are more isolated than ever.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
-clay.chandler@fortune.com

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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