A common question I seek to answer in much of my product strategy work is “How can we create a shared reality in this organization whereby most people understand 1) what we are trying to accomplish, 2) why priorities are set as they are, and 3) what their respective role is in effecting positive change?”

Gaining this alignment is challenging for a number of reasons — each of which deserves its own article — with an underappreciated one being the simple fact that most people have little empathy and/or understanding for what others in the organization actually do day to day.

This lack of awareness undermines the ability to create a shared organizational reality because individuals over-stress their own priorities, blame others when things don’t go their way, and miss out on collaborative approaches to problem-solving.

A simple approach I use to build this type of empathy within an organization is a cross-departmental exercise called “A Day in the Life”. It centers around what I’ve found to be the most effective “Icebreaker type” topic — music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Above all other topics I’ve tried in these settings, this one has proven the most effective in disarming the awkwardness of a group setting because it’s neither too personal nor too inane. And it seems to genuinely invite interest, empathy, and excitement from the group in a way that allows people to open up to more serious follow-up questions.

At its core, the exercise involves the members of a small, cross-departmental group taking turns answering the 4 following questions:

  1. If you were stuck on a desert island, what one album would you bring?
  2. What does a typical day in the life look like in your role?
  3. What is the most exciting part of your job?
  4. What is the most frustrating part of your job?

As with many of my favorite facilitation techniques, this one is simple and effective. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how often I’ve received feedback that someone sincerely enjoyed hearing what other folks in their company were up to. And if nothing else, it’s a great excuse to discover new music!

Woke up, fell out of bed; Dragged a comb across my head