The learning journey: From empathy to co-creation

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the annual conference of the Association of Change Management Professionals Midwest Chapter.

I shared my thoughts on what is an on-going work-in-progress: The learning journey required to move beyond being empathetic and to actively practice co-creation when we design and implement organizational change.

This is a topic I’ve been exploring with a number of colleagues, students and organizational partners associated with a couple of courses I co-teach at the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University, as well as the work I do as part of that program’s leadership team. I am particularly indebted to my teaching colleague Teresa Torres for many of the ideas that are the foundation of this talk.

What follows are the highlights of my presentation and talking points.


This is me in one part of my normal work environment. In the classroom, working with experienced professionals to explore different types of complex organizational learning and change challenges.

What I share today comes from this work – teaching in the Masters Program in Learning and Organizational Change and the Executive Learning and Organizational Change program. It’s a great gig. I get to collaborate with colleagues who are experts in different organizational disciplines, and we’re all curious practitioners who want all of us to do better as change leaders.

Before I started doing this – about 12 years ago – I was a consultant working with organizations on changes involving large-scale learning technology implementations.

I distinctly remember one moment in my consulting career that inspired my interest in going deeper in change management. I was with an executive at one company I was consulting with. He was part of the leadership team leading the project for which I was called in as a specialist. It was a global learning management system implementation involving 100,000 people worldwide. A big change. Lots of competing interests. But some potential big payoffs in retiring a lot of different systems and consolidating them onto one platform.

We were in his office and I was sharing a bit about what I saw as some of the upcoming change management challenges. And then he said this.

Now, this executive was really a good leader. He was half joking when he said it.

But only half joking.

When I reflect back on what he said, I think it really gets at a fundamental mindset that is part of being an effective leader. We need to get things done. Making progress – being successful – means meeting milestones. We got things done.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve now joined Northwestern and of course have much more depth to the way I see change management.

Within the department a few years ago, we pulled together a new strategy and it clearly required some new ways of working. I’m in there leading a program designed to support that strategy. And I’m doing my checklist of good things to support implementing the change.

But when I reflect on this, I see a pattern.

It’s still…

More time passes. Enter human-centered design, and design thinking.

The more compelling aspects of design thinking are its focus on understanding the real lived experience of the people we design for; design thinking centers on empathy.

The ideate-prototype-test cycle also pushes us toward a more agile approach. We test, we tweak, we learn and we continually adjust.

But here’s what can often happen as organizations begin to adopt design methods.

We did research. We brainstormed. We did a fun prototype. We have a solution. Now what?

We’re back into the same pattern. We know. You change.

Why is it so difficult to change this story?

We want to make answers. And get stuff done. Because – that’s what we’re here for.

We hear some really useful insights from our stakeholders and the light bulbs go off and off we go, implementing a solution, an answer.

I’m not suggesting that we stop that entirely.

I’m suggesting that we try to get better at more than empathy. Because empathy is a pre-requisite for a more interesting outcome: co-creation.

Those moments where, together with our stakeholders, we arrive at an idea, an action, a practice which takes us where we want to go. And we do this, together, continuously.

That’s really, really hard. Let me share what I’ve learned about that journey.

Let’s start by looking at one of the tools from design process – journey maps.

Journey maps can take many forms but the basic idea is to take a user’s perspective and describe their experience of something – a service, a process, an interaction – as a story.

If we were to look at design thinking as a process, we would start to describe what someone who is engaged in that process is doing, thinking and feeling along the journey.

One of the techniques we’ve used in our work is to focus first on creating a hero’s journey as a kind of future state vision. What would someone be doing, thinking and feeling if all were going well across the main steps and methods of design thinking?

But hey. I’m a learning guy.

So the question we started asking ourselves was:

What is the thinking required for design thinking?

Can we move from focusing on the main steps and methods of design thinking, to something closer to the learning experience required to make these methods meaningful? What is really behind that “mindset” of someone who thinks about continuously exploring complex challenges, testing solutions, and doing it all over again? Continuously?

And to help answer those questions we start with John Dewey.

Dewey was a philosopher and educational reformer in the early 20th century who thought a lot about thinking – and especially the kind of thinking that is critical to civil and democratic societies. But Dewey’s work also influenced many ideas that we use today to understand organizational learning – communities of practice, for example, and being a reflective practitioner.

This idea from his work How We Think captures the essence of what we see as critical to applying design methods to organizational change: Maintaining a state of doubt. Systematic and protracted inquiry. Protracted meaning – longer than you would expect, or are comfortable with.

This gives us a sense that – we aren’t solving puzzles here, with a right answer. We’re engaged in continuous inquiry.

And in fact out of Dewey’s work emerged the concept of “practical inquiry.” Problem. Exploration, Integration. Resolution.

We sense a problem or run into some unexpected challenge. We engage in exploring that challenge, converging on potential actions to take, testing those ideas to see what happens. If we get the desired change, we move on.

Practical inquiry as a thinking and learning process maps quite neatly to the steps commonly used to describe design thinking.

Let me add one other learning giant to this background. Donald Schon – who contributed a great deal to organizational learning theory – very explicitly built off of Dewey’s concept of inquiry when Schon wrote The Reflective Practitioner, his work exploring how people in various professions learn and reflect about their work.

“…And yet to remain open to the situation’s back-talk” is a great metaphorical description of protracted inquiry.

So now we have a starting point to describe a hero’s journey through the kind of in-practice learning that Schon and Dewey describe, and which maps to the key elements of design thinking.

This image above is the hero’s journey map. What it might look like if a practitioner had taken to heart all the lessons of practical inquiry – maintaining a state of doubt, carrying on a systematic and protracted inquiry, seeing where framing and reframing leads them, yet remaining open to the situation’s back-talk.

The image above, however, is what we know about how people actually struggle with that vision.

  • We start seeing solutions the minute we hear the problem.
  • Exploration is messy. We get conflicting or confusing information. It’s frustrating. We just want to get to an answer.
  • Working with other people to go from messy exploration to solution idea is ugly. Some people want more information. Some people think there is too much. All the decisions are subjective.
  • And if we finally get to an idea – we’re so happy that we got this far that move from learning mode – what does our testing tell us? – to selling mode. You need to buy this solution.

So where do we go from here?

The learning journey is important to understand if we want to move to a place where we try to get better at more than empathy. Where empathy is a pre-requisite for that more interesting outcome: co-creation.

We’re not going to get there by just doing process steps or using design methods.

We really need to work hard on understanding how these methods contribute to changing how we see our attempts to create solutions. Solutions are not right answers. They are never-ending opportunities to co-create paths to achieve an outcome.

We’ve found three moments that prove helpful in making this shift. There are undoubtedly more. We’re all learning here. But let’s explore those three.

At this point in the talk, I asked the audience to answer this question by interviewing each other. One person would be the interviewee, and one or more the interviewers. The objective for the interviewers was to uncover effective meeting practices based on the actual work experiences of the people they are interviewing. I then asked what they discovered. We posted common ideas, including:

  • Have an agenda
  • Have shared ground rules
  • Use a “parking lot” (to capture issues and ideas)
  • Listen and allow others to speak

I checked in with the audience and asked if the list represented an accurate summary of what the experience of a good meeting might look like. Then I said, “Let’s change the question” and shared the following slide:

Several people in the room laughed. I asked if they would share why.

“The last meeting was nothing like what we just wrote out.”

The lesson here: We want to collect stories about what people actually do – in the context of some real experience – rather than ask questions which allow people to speculate on their behavior.

Let me share an example of how this works.

The drawing (above) is the sketch of a story told to me by one of our graduate students. We are interested in understanding the experience of students as they post their thinking about various class topics within an online community space we use for our courses.

This is important to us in trying to achieve an educational outcome: We want the social collaboration in our online community to have a high level of influence on student learning.

We can ask them several different questions that will elicit stories that provide insight into this desired outcome. Tell me about the last time you were deeply engaged with other students in a topic in the community. Tell me about a time you struggled with a concept.

The story in the drawing above is based on a more generic ask: Tell me about the last time you posted in the community. In this case, the student was experimenting with posting directly into the community space rather than writing out their thoughts first (the course deals with complex topics).

From the story, we gleaned several things.

“It’s hard to organize my thoughts.”

“I need to write to start thinking.

“I want to be brief.”

“I read other posts to help my thinking.”

“I am trying to challenge myself.”

These thoughts and feelings from the story are captured above, in orange. The yellow notes are from other stories we heard from other students.

In many of these cases, we go back to the students who we interviewed for the stories and double checked out work. Does the story capture what you told us? Did we capture all the key themes? Often we hear adjustments, or new themes that we missed or mis-understood.

Now we are starting to co-create. This is not my interpretation of the experience. It is ours.

We’ve collected a lot of stories. We are doing this continuously. It becomes a habit of working. Collect the story. Draw it. Note the themes. Check with the storyteller.

We’re collecting stories continuously. And co-creating the insights along the way. This is our empathy database.

The second moment we can leverage is when we face making decisions about potential solutions.

We need to learning how to consider multiple options. (H/T to Chip Heath and Dan Heath for their work on this topic in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work)

When we come up with one solution to test or prototype or even implement, we are creating a whether-or-not decision. Do you like this? Yes or no.

This practice assumes that – whatever method we used to decide on the solution to test – we got a right answer.

We need to consider more options. And let our users help us determine which is better, or how to combine ideas into something we didn’t anticipate.

Considering more options creates a compare-and-contrast decision – which yields much richer insight and the potential to co-create solutions or solution elements. Here is an example.

This is a slightly modified version (to obscure the identity of the organization involved) of an actual example from our course work.

The opportunity in this case was to address an issue with a museum’s front-line visitor staff – those people who work most directly with visitors at information booths and similar locations in the museum. The challenge was that these visitor staff members did not feel they were up-to-date on the work of the museum’s research staff. This is critical because the museum’s mission is focused on translating the work of its research staff for visitors, and to turn that knowledge into public advocacy and action.

A wide range of potential solutions ideas were considered and ultimately narrowed down to three: an improved researcher biography, a job-sharing experience, and a set of podcasts.

Each of these ideas were deemed equally viable, feasible and desirable. Each was prototyped with the organization. Doing so led to several outcomes.

It helped avoid the “whether or not” decision trap that is grounded in the assumption that one specific idea is “right.”

It led to much richer insights about the challenge. An unanticipated barrier emerged when researchers expressed discomfort with creating and publishing content (written and podcast) without a formal approval process. On the other hand, an unanticipated new, quick-win solution option emerged from the job-sharing prototype.

It directly involved the key stakeholders – visitor staff and researchers – in co-creating potential solution options through their feedback and engagement with a variety of ideas. This was not “how do you like my idea” but rather, “how do any of these options help us address the challenge?”

Each of these outcomes gives us a much better opportunity to nudge toward co-creation, and away from imposing our assumptions on our stakeholders.

The third leverage point is to make your thinking visible.

I have long been an advocate of working-out-loud and making even half-baked thinking visible. It is the foundation required for practical inquiry.

My teaching colleague Teresa Torres has taken this idea of externalizing your thinking to a whole new level when it comes to applying design methods to ill-structured problems. Teresa created what she refers to as the Opportunity Solution Tree – a structure to help make your thinking visible about a particular problem space you are exploring, the opportunities you see to address in it, the the solutions you are considering.

There are a lot of things about externalizing thinking in the Opportunity Solution Tree that make this approach productive.

But one of the biggest things is that it shifts the focus of discussion from solution comparing – which idea should we pursue? – to inviting all stakeholders into the the conversation about whether or not we have mapped out the problem space in a way that feels productive, by prioritizing opportunities to address. This is done by focusing on the opportunity structure.

Again – think about this as offering moments of co-creation. It’s not me, or you, it’s us.

We’re learning that all forms of making your thinking visible – from drawings and maps, to affinity groupings, and even to conversational spaces such as Slack – can each contribute to shifting the focus from advocating for a single best practice or solution to co-creating an understanding of the problem space and co-creating the solutions that help us make progress toward our future vision.

Empathy should lead to co-creation.

And of course it is hard.

But I think it all starts with a mindset that we are on a learning journey. A never-ending one.

We are not “one solution away from success.” We never will be.

To act on that idea we must embrace, and understand, the learning journey.

Understand where you and your teams are, on that journey.

Look for the leverage points to learn more about when and how co-creation can happen. Pay attention to those moments and learn from them.

And above all – shift the focus away from being right. Instead, be better.

3 thoughts on “The learning journey: From empathy to co-creation

    1. Thanks, Kathleen! Glad it struck a chord. It was really interesting, when I gave the talk, the positive reaction to “I don’t have an answer, but here is what we’re learning…” I am seeing that as a signal that some organizations really can admit that this is hard work, and they’re game for the journey.

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