Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Learning journeys and Future

Learning journeys are customized field trips. They give an adaptive edge. But they tend to be much more than that. The highest impact learning journeys are designed to surface, test, and shift key assumptions about the future of the business.

Learning journeys educate, inspire, catalyze, and transform individuals and teams. They can illuminate new strategic directions, jumpstart innovation processes, contextualize risk, test brand positioning, gain better alignment within a team or connect different parts of the business, or open the minds of top talent.

No learning journey is identical because the best ones are customized to the organizational context. And while many companies have field trips and other fact-finding missions, few apply the kind of process design that ensures the maximum return on learning, not to mention the return on investment it takes to pull top managers out of their daily routines.

The tricks and techniques for successful learning journeys are many. In terms of the basics, a learning journey requires a good facilitator and a support team of one or more people. Learning journeys include a dynamic mixture of carefully chosen field trips to people, places, prototypes, entrepreneurs, events, experiences, and so on. These visits are usually structured around key themes and hypotheses about the future business. They are sometimes complemented with virtual tours and other kinds of simulations and experiences. Some of the cites are specifically selected to challenge people’s mental models, particularly key assumptions that may be shifting or in decline.

Learning journeys almost always generate tangible products and deliverables. Not to be overlooked, however, are the many intangible benefits they generate—while hard to measure, equally as important.

The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. Learning journeys, then, aspire to find those laboratories of the future, those dense nodes of activity and experimentation where the future is peaking through into the present. While the future is hard to predict, not yet codified in books or visible in current events, it is concentrated in people and places. Indeed, these expeditions are designed to seek out and learn from the future-makers (the pioneers and innovators) and future-seers (thinkers, artists, elders, and heretics)— those rare individuals who can look further ahead than the rest of us, or enable us to think differently. These thinkers and doers are frequently not the usual suspects because when it comes to future-oriented problems traditional experts are often more hindrance than help.

Learning journeys can unpack an uncertainty or reframe the rules of the game before the competition does. Onassis, the late shipping tycoon, had it right when he said, “the secret of business is to know something that nobody else knows.”

By contrast, most strategies are formed by gathering best practices, industry analyses, market research, and general intelligence. Since much of this is public knowledge, and since experts and insiders tend to herd around the conventional wisdom—especially during times of uncertainty—it’s not surprisingly that we see a great deal of strategy convergence and homogeneity in most industries, rather than divergence. As is often said to executives: if you read it in The Economist, it’s too late!

Unilever recently used a bold and broad-based learning journey process to revitalize its overall strategic positioning. The company did this by asking its top 200 emerging young leaders to scour the world for leading-edge insights about how the world was changing, and what customers would want, need, and desire in the future. Each group was given a discretionary budget with some general guidelines and support. After 18 months, the insights from all the groups were pooled, distilled and analyzed, the synthesis of which became the foundation for Unilever’s new strategic direction.

Learning journeys also help overcome the innovator’s dilemma. Many great companies fail to anticipate and respond to disruptive innovations. Key processes and metrics within companies are to blame. For instance, traditional market research tools, while useful for mainstream customers, give misleading information about the potential of future markets.

Time and time again, we discover that the signals were there all along—we just didn't recognize them until it was too late. Current risk assessment tools, like our market research methods, are being eclipsed by how the world is changing. Managers need to be prepared for a range of risks that were unthinkable not long ago. The existing tools for risk management are flawed—that perhaps the biggest problem of all is the illusion of certainty that
Value at Risk creates. A better way to manage uncertainty is through some of the techniques we have already mentioned, scenario thinking and assumption-based planning.

High performers are not necessarily the smartest, but rather, they succeed because of their emotional intelligence. Moreover, we now know that intuition, creativity and innovative thinking spring from the “non-rational” parts of our brain, thus challenging the primacy placed on just analytical reasoning. Because they are so experiential, learning journeys engage and amplify all of these intelligences, and thus help participants tap more readily into their creative resource—resources which are often underdeveloped in most corporate settings.

Adaptive problem solving, and overcoming the innovator’s dilemma requires a different set of skills and capabilities. Learning journeys are an excellent vehicle for teaching these skills because the process models what adaptive leaders must do when uncertain problems confront them.

Learning journeys are clearly neither a panacea nor a quick fix to many of the pressing problems facing companies today. They are an investment in time and money that many business executives have trouble justifying.

The learning journey methodology is still young. While organizations have had a community of practice focused on these techniques for a number of years, mainstream organizations are just now starting to experiment with these pedagogical tools. The enduring benefit of learning journeys is the adaptive advantage they instill in the processes and people of an organization.