Friday, July 9, 2010

Experience Versus Memory in Nonprofit Association Management

"The second trap is a confusion between experience and memory, basically it's between being happy "in" your life and being happy "about" your life. Those are two very different concepts and they are both lumped into the definition of happiness." - Daniel Kahneman, TEDTalk, Feb2010

The Short of It

So, are our members happy?
Did they really love that conference?
Are they satisfied with their membership?
Is our board happy with our staff?
Is our membership happy with our leadership...

Beware of cognitive traps around "happiness" and "satisfaction"......

The Long of It

Uh oh. Our data driven strategies are about to get a little wake up call.

Association personnel, myself included, have become obsessed in recent years with “measuring" results. Our strategic goals include all sorts of activities designed to produce "measurable" outcomes so we can "objectively" demonstrate our effectiveness.

We conduct surveys to measure how "happy" and "satisfied" our members are with our leadership, our programs and their member experience. We spend a lot of time and energy using various instruments and tools in our attempts to assess how members “feel” about our association and its activities. We pore over post-event survey results as a way to evaluate our events.

These measurements might be much less accurate than we thought.

This TEDTalk from Daniel Kahneman is illuminating. It is well worth the 20 minutes of time it will take to watch. In the video he relates the example of a man who listened to 20 minutes of a glorious symphony but experienced a screeching sound on the CD right at the end. For this man, the screeching sound at the end ruined the entire experience and he was quite gloomy about it. This is a matter of perception and not "objectively" true. The 19 minutes that preceded the unpleasant screech were actually quite enjoyable. What did happen went beyond the "experiencing self" to the "remembering self" which chose to focus on the one moment that caused the most visceral impact – the "screech" - and prioritize it as the most important moment in the entire 20 minutes.

Our "experiencing selves" move through each moment of the day and the sensory input is simply too overwhelming to completely catalog, analyze and commit to memory. For this recording to take place our brains attempt to sift through and prioritize the highlights, either positive or negative, that seem important enough to file away for future reference. Sometimes what the "remembering self" chooses to retain and how we interpret those impressions can differ from how we actually felt during the various moments we experienced.

Can the same thing happen with our members? If there is, indeed, an "experiencing self" and a "remembering self" how does that work in an association? What stories do our members have to tell about their experiences with us and are their recollections accurate? Can we assume an overall high or low rating on any one event represents how the member actually felt during the event, or is it how they feel about the event later? The difference between how a person experienced an event and how they remember experiencing it is vast and sometimes contradictory.

Let's think about two common member experience scenarios and test out the theory.

The Story of Membership. Consider the member who has a series of experiences in our association that are pleasant but not particularly memorable. There haven't been many opportunities for the "remembering" self to catalog any important events, either good or bad. Then that member has an unpleasant experience - perhaps a short tempered staff member or the cold shoulder from a clique of peers. The member may very well tune in on the negative high point and looking back over a series of "not particularly memorable" conclude the negative event should take priority and begin to cast their entire history with us in a more negative light. Now, consider a member who has lots of great experiences with us and then has one unpleasant one. Their story will be quite different. They will look back and remember a number of "high points" that will outweigh the one negative. What can we do to ensure our members have enough "high points" to actively catalog and develop a positive narrative around?

The Story of Attendance. Consider the attendee at a conference.  If your conference is going well and then they have a bad experience right at the end that last negative "high point" could cast the entire event in a negative light. If your conference is kind of mediocre but ends on a high note, the brain may catalog the high point and remember the rest of the event more favorably even if they really didn't enjoy it that much at the time. Which experiences do you need your members to "distill" as they move through your events and can you consciously create opportunities for their brains to catalog at least one "high point" memory per day?

So, what now? Of course, conducting surveys and gathering data is a valuable activity. I am a big believer in research as good data is very useful for planning purposes. However, we may need to develop ways to tap into these two different aspects of the member - how they feel during experiences and how they remember them. If we concentrate on finding ways to appeal and support the "experiencing self" with the "remembering self" I believe we will give ourselves opportunities to serve and support our members in entirely new, innovative and satisfying ways.

So, were you happy about this post? Are you sure? ;) (grin)


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.