Learning Journeys

Purpose: Learning Journeys are a great way to build empathy and nuanced understanding of the challenges that users within the challenge you are working on face. They should happen in the places of most potential. When you see people in their own context you learn a lot by simply observing what is going on. Take whatever you observe as a starting point to improvise questions that allow you to learn more about the real-life context of your interviewee. Observe, observe, observe: Suspend your voices of judgment and cynicism and connect with your sense of appreciation and wonder.

Materials: If the hosts agree, it is advised to take pictures and/or videos during the journey. These can be useful during reviews with the other teams and as a reminder for the participants. Other materials may be collected as well, after seeking permission from the hosts. A pen and journal are required for taking notes during and after the journey.

Time: The length of a Learning Journey depends on the size of the geographic area being covered. It is recommended to allocate at least half a day to sensing journeys in a workshop context and several days or weeks (sometimes spread over a period of months) in a larger project setting.

Step one (pre-workshop): Define places of high potential for the Learning Journeys in relation to the challenge a team is working on. Ideally, the team should do several Learning Journeys that can provide insights into:

  • The different perspectives of the system’s key stakeholders

  • The different aspects of that system

  • The ‘voiceless’: people in the system, those who usually are not heard or seen.

A good way to get a sense of the system is to take the perspective of its “extreme users”: these can be customers who use services or products more than others or in different ways, or on a societal level, those with special requirements, such as a person living in a remote area needing access to a health system.

Once Learning Journeys have been confirmed, prepare as a team by discussing:

  1. What is the context that we will experience?

  2. Who are the key players that we will talk to?

  3. What questions do we want to explore?

  4. What assumptions do I bring with me? What do I expect?

  5. Share your most eye-opening sensing experience to date

It can be helpful to develop a short questionnaire (7-10 questions) to guide your inquiry process. Keep updating your questionnaire as your inquiry process unfolds.

Prepare the host: You should also share the purpose and intent of the visit with the host organisation, if appropriate (i.e. if the Learning Journey will take place in a location not typically open to the public, such as an office or shelter). Communicate that it would be most helpful for the group to gain some insight into their ”normal” daily operations, rather than a staged presentation. Try to avoid “show and tell” situations.

Step two: One the day of the Learning Journey, teams travel to the host’s location. While at the site, instruct participants to trust their intuition and ask authentic questions inspired by the context or conversation. Asking simple and authentic questions is an important leverage point in shifting or refocusing the attention to some of the deeper systemic forces at play. If conducting an interview, have participants use deep listening as a tool to hold the space of conversation. When an interviewee has finished responding to a question, instruct them to not jump in automatically with the next question, but to attend to what is emerging from the now.

Example questions for learning journeys:

  1. What personal experience or journey brought you into your current role?

  2. What issues or challenges are you confronted with?

  3. Why do these challenges exist?

  4. What challenges exist in the larger system?

  5. What are the blockages?

  6. What are your most important sources of success and change?

  7. What would a better system look like for you?

  8. What initiative, if implemented, would have the greatest impact for you? For the system as a whole?

  9. If you could change just a few elements of the system, what would you change?

  10. Who else do we need to talk to?

Step three: Immediately after the visit, give participants time to reflect and debrief. To capture and leverage the findings of the inquiry process, conduct a disciplined debriefing process right after each visit. Don’t allow participants to switch on cell phones until the debriefing is complete. Below are a few sample questions for the debriefing:

  1. What was most surprising or unexpected?

  2. What touched me? What connected with me personally?

  3. If the social field (or the living system) of the visited organization or community were a living being, what would it look and feel like?

  4. If that being could talk: what would it say (to us)?

  5. If that being could develop—what would it want to morph into next?

  6. What is the generative source that allows this social field to develop and thrive?

  7. What limiting factors prevent this field/system from developing further?

  8. Moving in and out of this field, what did you notice about yourself?

  9. What ideas does this experience spark for possible prototyping initiatives that you may want to take on?

Step four: Debrief as a larger group. After a half-day learning journey, this debriefing would take place in the afternoon after coming back together with the whole group or the next workshop day. Step five: Close the feedback loop with Learning Journey hosts. Set a reminder for participants to send an email (or other follow-up note) expressing a key insight you took away from the meeting (one or two sentences), and your appreciation. Principles for Learning Journeys: A deep-dive sensing journey requires engaging in three types of listening:

  1. Listening to others: to what the people you meet are offering to you.

  2. Listening to yourself: to what you feel emerging from within.

  3. Listening to the emerging whole: to what emerges from the collective and community settings that you have connected with.

Adapted from the Presencing Institute, Sensing Journeys.