A frog team spent a week in Cairo for client research, workshops and keynotes shortly after the revolution. Our team of six worked out of a downtown hotel, syncing with three local guides over breakfast, before hitting the streets. It's good to have time to calibrate to the city, especially one that has gone through so much disruptive change—there's freedom in the air, and most people that we've spoken to recognise that the hard work in building what-next is yet to come. Tahrir Square is alive with the sounds of debate, face painted kids, and the detritus of protest.
A critical aspect of any project is the ability to set and manage expectations, which is often framed in terms of clients wants and needs. The week in Cairo comes with another set of expectation setting—helping colleagues and family understand what the team is up to, and appreciate that the news headlines represents a tiny sliver of what is going on the ground. I'm not surprised at the number of emails expressing concern, and I know how easily events in a far away land can spiral into a cycle of rumours that elevate danger and risk.
A long time ago, I realized that you should never ask the question to someone in the organisation if you're not willing to listen to and act on the answer. The consequences of questions about security in any organisation is that someone's job is (ostensibly) on the line if things turn south—and organisations are inherently risk averse. This is a problem if the decision makers don't understand the risks on the ground—hence the need to be proactive about setting the tone of the conversation.
A nimble innovation consultancy like frog faces more nuanced issues than my previous employer, the 115,000 employee organisation Nokia—frog thrives on pushing the boundaries, and an understanding of opportunities and risk is inherent in our work and how we approach problems, and the advice we give clients.
So how did we handle this on a business trip/field study?
- Constant dialog within the team, providing the space to talk through any concerns—before arriving, on arrival, and through structured and more informal sessions
- Having a strong local team on staff, and leveraging their insights of where to go when. (We can also draw on the client's advice, but ultimately you need a local team who are responsible to you and the nuances of your needs).
- Common sense in reading the situation on the ground. This takes time to calibrate, and team members err on the side of caution on an individual level.
- Understanding that there's always a bigger picture that goes well beyond personal and group ability to read the the situation. E.g., just because you're with local doesn't mean they know what is going on. It's complicated. That's what makes it interesting.
- Appreciating the motivations of the media and security organisations in selling to their own agenda. I remember one instance in which a quote for a security detail—to take a team from Rio airport to our guesthouse—came to over 4,000 Euros with translator, armed guards, decoy vehicle, etc. An equivalent taxi costs 20 Euro. Elevating the perceived risk puts food on someone's table. How do we separate genuine advice from self-interested bullshit?
- Encouraging, appreciating and accommodating the need for family communication
- Proactively keeping the execs and other key stakeholders abreast of our plans, and shifting the conversation from risk management to the purpose of our visit and delivering exceptional value to our client. Set expectations for communication turnaround times in advance—the net can be kinda flaky here, whereas SMS responses times are good.
- Provide visibility across the team to the organisation—the team took turns to send a daily e-mail summary of what we've been up, signed by all of us.
Frankly, by far the biggest risk in a city like Cairo, Calcutta or Chongqing is getting in a traffic accident, and this is an omnipresent threat, from every time you travel to an interview to simply crossing the street. Cairo is still far safer for violent crime than Chicago, New York City or Los Angeles, and more so compared to many sleepy European cities.
About Jan Chipchase
Jan Chipchase, an executive creative director for global innovation firm frog, is an expert on applying human-centered insights to the design process. He is the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers, which will be released on April 16, 2013.
frog presents In The Hands of God: A Study of Risk and Savings in Afghanistan
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