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My Uncanny Year: How We Can Enrich our Virtual Work Lives by Climbing Out of the Uncanny Valley

Hour after hour, I have been my own CNN 24-hour news cycle reporter.

That's what it feels like to sit for endless days in pandemic lockdown. On Zoom. Imperfectly interacting with people. Trying to get work done.

When this life began — what I now refer to as my "Uncanny Life" — I was proud that I had accommodated and adjusted to the Everything-from-Home parallel universe.

[For people unfamiliar with the term, "Uncanny Valley" refers to a creepy feeling you get when you're interacting with a great almost-human robot and suddenly realize you've been sharing your most intimate secrets with a machine.]

One day in mid-September, I admitted that my life had gone uncanny. It had the texture of stale Cheerios and the taste of an omelette that needed salt. All of the accommodations I’d made to recreate pre-pandemic life were missing a critical ingredient.

Essentially, I was living in The Truman Show, a simulation that felt almost real, but not quite.

I had pieced together an entire world that was almost living, but it was missing richness — unsatisfying and simply not enough.

Essentially, I had solved the wrong problems with imperfect solutions.

After six months of trying hard to replace visits with friends with Zoom, learning experiences with Udacity, conferences with software, foreign travel with ethnic carry-out, client collaboration sprints with Mural and Miro, community conversations with Slack, keynotes with recorded video, and strategy sessions with Virbela and Teams… I wanted out.

I was simulating the obvious aspects of what I had lazily decided were the jobs-to-be-done, but missing the richness of what was possible if I thought harder and more creatively about how to use technology.

In October, when I finally admitted that the Pandemic State was here to stay, I set out to climb out of the Uncanny Valley.

To Dig Out of the Uncanny Valley, I Started With New Questions.

In my day job, I focus on two major areas:

  1. Consulting. Helping corporate teams “futureproof” — integrate emerging trends into their growth priorities

  2. Training. Developing a virtual learning community of future-proofers — enable corporate leaders to move beyond innovation and accelerate digital transformation

Certainly, if I started with first principles, I could figure out how to optimize consulting and training by applying technology, human expression, principles of education, and community engagement in more innovative ways.

To escape the uncanny and get closer to the real, I asked myself new questions:

  1. Do video sessions have to feel like a bunch of CNN anchors sitting at news desks?

  2. How can we make online conferences more interactive and less like talking heads?

  3. How can we take asynchronous participation to the max?

  4. How can we tap into the global access to anyone, anytime to enrich corporate insights?

  5. Which technology elements can drive full engagement?

  6. How can we apply creativity, data insights, access to a global community of people and resources to consulting, sprints, and team immersions?

  7. How can new modes of interaction improve contribution, participation, creation, and diversity of thinking?

  8. How can we accelerate insights and facilitate innovation?

In short, how can virtual life stop feeling like an imperfect simulation of in-person, and instead be something much more satisfying?

“Virtuality” Frankenstein Brings Life Beyond the Uncanny

I found inspiration from lots of places to build a new model for virtual consulting and training.

  • Sensemaking. The Grey Swan Guild: a community that focuses on sensemaking and drives connections between individuals through immersive sessions, salons, co-creation, and publication

  • Community. House of Beautiful Business: magnificent rethinking of a conference. Featured a wide spectrum of virtual sessions encompassing corporate challenges, aesthetic expression, celebration, and interactive immersion with strategic issues

  • Virtual courses and learning communities: Seth Godin (The Marketing Seminar), David Nihill (Hacking Public Speaking), Khan Academy, Andrew Ng on Coursera

  • Conferences done right: Phocuswright To The Brink and Back (hands-on, facilitated think + do tank to redesign and futureproof the Travel industry), Copenhagen Fintech Week (great After Hours and let-your-hair-down discussion)

  • Virtual workshops done right: John Monks of Curve

  • Closer-to-real virtual environments: SoulMachines + Waltz Binaire + Fortnite + Virbela

  • Co-creation with Jorge Arango, Jonathan Hoffberg, Ryoma Ohashi (Ford, Open Innovation Gateway powered by FUJITSU)

  • Insights into neurodiversity and the digital world: Ultranauts, a company that has integrated individuals with a wide range of learning styles including individuals with autism into the workplace

  • Online creativity: Es Devlin (virtual installations), Lego Serious Play

I’m on a New Quest to Perfect the Experience for Consulting and Training, and Would Love To Hear What Others Have Discovered

Fresh questions set me on a new course for discovery. I’m in search of inspiration from others to forge a new model for what I call “perpetual refresh” — the ability to incorporate innovation into a corporate strategy on an ongoing basis and to train people to “futureproof”.

Which models and sources of inspiration have you discovered to take full advantage of the digital and personal era we’ve entered? Where should I look next?


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