My previous article, The U Journey: Stepping into Design, introduced a key part of the Design phase—the Learning Journey. This includes developing and testing hypotheses, soliciting innovative ideas from wherever they might arise, exploring the psychological and cultural frontiers of your people and organisation, and trying on new ways of working.
The principle purpose of the learning journeys is to create conditions that reduce the anxiety associated with change so the people charged with bringing the new into the world can have a safe space in which to practice the mantra ‘fail often to succeed sooner’.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
The evolving trend toward design thinking demands that—whatever your imagined future reality—you pay particular attention to the people you’re hoping will use your product or service. They may be your own staff, your customers or any other stakeholder you need to influence favourably with regard to the change you are trying to bring into the world. Engaging them in its development—and inviting them to participate in its design and testing—will make all the difference to that change’s ultimate success. For it is never easy to bring about change. Most people prefer the certainty of current reality over the risk attached to stepping outside the walled garden and into the wild frontier—often with wilful disregard for how sterile or tyrannical the garden has become.
“If you’re not part of the problem,
you can’t be part of the solution.”
Furthermore, as individuals and collectively, there is often shame and pain associated with letting go of the past. Real change demands fronting up to culpability for the inevitable errors made. The road more frequently travelled has us sitting in judgement of others and failing to truthfully answer the question of how every one of us has some degree of responsibility for having got us to the place in which we find ourselves, and at least a degree of accountability for developing and executing a plan to get out. We must ask what kind of courageous leadership it will take to hold a mirror up to self, team and organisation and accept the systems thinking truism: ‘If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.’
A visit to another organisation as outlined in my last article is a powerful way of escaping the gravitational pull of your organisation’s existing worldview and opening up the possibility for something new to emerge.
Communicating the work
Once you have clarity on what you want to accomplish in your exchange, think how you’ll communicate this to your hosts in advance. This may be a written document or a slide deck. Even better, you could use more innovative means now that anyone with a computer, a camera and a microphone can produce a video. At a minimum, you should cover off the following topics:
Context: Let them know as much as you’re willing to share about your organisation, the history of the initiative you are working on, the change you wish to bring about, and how you believe an exchange between you and them will add value for both parties.
Purpose: Be specific on the ‘why’ of the exchange. What is most meaningful about what you are setting out to do with them? What is the potential of the exchange if fully realised, and how much poorer would you each be if it was not to occur at all?
Outcomes: What are the specific outcomes you are looking for, such as plant tours, meetings with people from the executive suite to the shop floor, insights into how technology is being used and so on? Also, what will be the outputs from the visit? Will you take pictures and videos, do interviews, write journals, do some detailed analytics, study process differences? The clearer your desired outcomes—the more specific the better—the more likely the exchange will be a success.
Resources: Careful consideration of the resources required for the exchange will significantly enhance the chances of success. Think of logistics such as flights, local transfers, accommodation and meals. What kind of venues will you need for your exchanges? Meeting rooms, conference rooms, digital projectors, whiteboards. Also, be specific about whom you want to meet, in what kind of forum, and for how long. When it comes time to reciprocate, be sure that you have all the questions answered for the return trip.
I strongly recommend you make a single person accountable for project managing the whole exchange. They should have a counterpart in the host organisation; between them, they assign to the other participants accountability for the different aspects of the work that go into making the exchange a success.
At the host’s location
Once on site, be sure to use deep listening as a tool to hold the space of the conversation. Begin by bringing their story and yours into the room. Not simply your work story, but something of who you are, where you come from, what you studied, what the big turning points have been in your life, and what inspires you. What is meaningful about what you are trying to achieve and how the world would be poorer if you didn’t do it to the best of your ability.
In addition to the questions mentioned on the previous article, here are some additional avenues to explore:
The Big Idea: What’s your goal? What big idea are you pursuing to help you achieve it?
Strategy: By what means do you go about addressing the key strategic questions: What to change? What to change to? And how to change?
Innovation: How do you apply your organisation’s knowledge to deliver additional value and wealth?
Technology: How has all the technology you use shaped the business you are in? How could you improve the value delivered by your existing suite of technologies? What technology trends do you see having a major impact in your business and industry going forward?
People: How do you inspire and empower your people to be the best they can be in service of the greater good? What emphasis do you place on autonomy, learning and transcendent purpose as levers of motivation?
Process: What efforts have been undertaken to engineer simple standard processes? What systematic means do you have in place to ensure continuous systemic improvement?
Culture: What active steps are taken to cultivate a winning culture? What has been done to understand, codify and develop the shared assumptions and behaviours of your team to work together energetically toward a common goal?
Language: What are the verbal, written, visual, aural and bodily ways by which meaning is made in your organisation—from performance dashboards to office layouts and from project reporting to health and safety routines?
Organisation: By what means do you match accountability with authority at all levels of work, so your people can feel ownership and take pride in all that they do?
Resources: How do you know that you have the right amount of human, material, financial and information resources required to turn your intention into reality?
Operations: What constraints prevent you achieving more from your resources in and across time and place? What theories, methods and tools do you use to know that you’re right? How do you go about the business of continuous improvement?
Reflections after the visit
To capture and leverage the findings of your inquiry, conduct a disciplined debriefing process immediately after each visit. Don’t get distracted by cell phones or anything else until the debriefing is complete.
Here are a few sample questions for the debriefing, taken from Otto Scharmer’s insights:
1. What struck me most? What stood out?
2. What was most surprising or unexpected?
3. What touched me? What connected with me personally?
4. If the living system of the visited organisation were a living being, what would it look and feel like?
5. If that being could talk: what would it say (to us)?
6. If that being could develop—what would it want to morph into next?
7. What is the generative source that allows this living system to develop and thrive?
8. What limiting factors prevent this living system from developing further?
9. Moving in and out of this system, what did you notice about yourself?
10. What ideas does this experience spark for possible prototyping initiatives that you may want to take on?
Closing the loop
Be sure to share your gratitude and relevant findings with your hosts. Give them the benefit of some key insights you took away from the visit. If you suggested a reciprocal visit, be sure to honour that commitment.
As the group who had the privilege of undertaking the learning journey, convene as soon as possible to determine how you will present your findings to the broader change initiative. Get everyone on the same page so they know where you went, whom you talked to, what you did and how it has changed or reinforced your thinking.
Open the conversation from your findings into one which generates new ideas for redefining what’s possible for your own bold initiative.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Jorik Kleen on Unsplash]
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