Creating Environments That Encourage Behaviors That Make Meaningful Work

This need not be work that is saving-the-world meaningful, but simply work that is personally meaningful.

In this article, we’ll examine the environments in which we live and work, taking a moment to reflect on how they make us feel. We’ll also consider how to create explicit moments for practicing reflection and helping us make meaningful work. This need not be work that is saving-the-world meaningful, but simply work that is personally meaningful.

Consider meaningfulness in connection with this definition of behavior: “The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others.”

  • Who makes us feel the way we feel and why?
  • How does the environment play a role?
  • Do we have an explicit role to play in our environment?
  • How can we create an environment that thrives, and why is this important?

This article builds on the ideas in our earlier article “Fostering Learning Environments to Generate Sparkle.”

Doing Work That Makes You Feel Good

When there is a gap between how good people feel and how good they could feel—that is, when work is not as meaningful as it could be—that is when its quality suffers.

What does it mean to feel good? People want to feel good about

  • what they’re doing
  • why they’re doing it
  • how they’re doing it
  • who they’re doing it with
  • what they’re doing together
  • how they’re doing it together
  • the organization in which they’re working

When people don’t feel good about some or all of these thing, their work is not meaningful to them. Or not as meaningful as it could be. People may or may not consciously dwell upon these individual elements of work. Plus, the way they’re feeling frequently changes based on whatever is going on inside them—internal things—and whatever is going on outside of them—external things.

Whether we look at these things collectively or individually, when there is a gap between how good people feel and how good they could feel—that is, when work is not as meaningful as it could be—that is when its quality suffers. People think, I don’t want to be here or I don’t want to do this. Their work feels like a waste of time and energy. They’re on a frantic treadmill and have no real purpose. As a consequence, people

  • experience unnecessary stress
  • become demotivated, disengaged, numb, and are just biding their time—or worse
  • exist in an unhealthy environment

Examining Your Environment

We break the environment into two parts, as follows:

  1. External environment—This comprises people and other objects.
  2. Internal environments—These consist of our own and other people’s feelings.

The combination of both your external and internal environments determines your view of the world—and, in part, your energies and what you can contribute at any given time. When you consider both of these environments, you should also consider your intention and the role you want to play. Both your external and internal environments contribute to either helping or detracting from your ability to make meaningful work.

An Exercise for Influencers

Examining your environment helps you understand that you have a choice and may sometimes be able to influence others’ choices. So let’s try an exercise together. Follow these steps:

  1. Take a blank piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Draw a big circle.
  3. Then draw progressively smaller, concentric circles within the big circle, leaving some room between them. This should start to look like a dart board of sorts.
  4. Now, in the middle circle, draw yourself as one of the central characters in your life.
  5. Then, consider another person who is close to you and, more importantly, influences you in either your work or life.
  6. Ask: What is it about this person’s characteristics that enables him or her to influence me? Is this person’s influence positive, negative, or both—and why?
  7. Specifically, consider a person at work who has a positive influence on you and, at the same time, consider a person on whom you have a positive influence.

Creating Positive Influence

Consider specific practices that contribute to the environment and your role in it.

Considering the influencers exercise, reflect on your positive influence: What do you do to make other people feel positive? How does that help them? For example:

  • Is it your tone?
  • What you share with them?
  • How you help their work?
  • What you’re teaching them?

Do the same for negative influence: What do you do that makes other people feel negative? How does that hurt them?

In any given moment, you often have a choice, but you must also recognize that there are times when you might not have a choice. Consider specific practices that contribute to the environment and your role in it.

The Two Sides of Projects

Projects exist in an environment. You can intentionally play a role that has a positive or negative effect on that environment. When examining a project’s environment, there are two sides to consider. It is critical that both sides integrate with one another to create environments that allow meaningful work, as follows:

  1. Process side—This helps you to deliver and make a project successful and usually consists of such things as project plans, people, disciplines, process, methods, methodologies; and gaining a sense of direction through vision, mission, and values.
  2. Environment side—This involves having an intentional, explicit focus on the people and practices that help a project not only to perform and deliver but also to create a place where people actually thrive in making together.

These two sides must both be present and work in tandem. Consider the duality and multi-threaded practices that exist on both sides in a connected fashion.

One-sided Projects

Delivery can becomes a matter of delivering only your part of the project, without considering how it connects to the overall outcome, and failing to consider the role you play in the environment and what you’re delivering.

Everyone sometimes gets lost in the noise, speed, and deliverables of day-to-day work. We might even forget why we’re working on a project in the first place. This results in our feeling purposeless, stressed, unhealthy, and as though we’re existing in a state of sleepwalking.

People use words such as culturevalues, or beliefs, which may have little meaning to the people working on projects and delivering on requirements. Delivery can becomes a matter of delivering only your part of the project, without considering how it connects to the overall outcome, and failing to consider the role you play in the environment and what you’re delivering.

Practices for Sports-Team Environments

Think about a sport you play or have played in the past. Consider a team sport such as soccer and how the people and other elements that make up a team’s or club’s culture help it not only to get onto the field every week to compete and win games but also to help the team sustain its success in the future. This requires attracting a paying audience—or potentially, a club membership—to support the club.

In professional sports, the success of a club usually involves more than the team that plays from week to week or the stars who get most of the attention. Well-aligned professional teams intentionally create a well-structured environment in which they can practice and discuss the way they play to improve their performance on a regular basis. They are looking for ways to thrive.

They have head and specialist coaches and advisors who observe the environment and look for opportunities to do practice spotting, thendocument practices that are either helping or hindering the environment for both individuals and teams. Sometimes they document these in playbooks. We create sparkle journals.

The head coaches and advisors also look for people who are practice specialists and can help other individuals on their team become better in their roles and at connecting to those in other roles so the team can improve over time.

The Difference Between Play and Practice

There may be practices that you use in your personal life that are also be useful in your work and vice versa. Knowing what practices to use is critical.

Great teams realize that they can learn in both play and practice modes. They constantly look for ways to improve. They don’t see feedback as negative, but as something that helps them achieve improved outcomes now and in a sustainable future.

At work and in personal life, there are various roles you need to play. Depending on your role and the environment, you need to know which practices are relevant and use them. There may be practices that you use in your personal life that are also be useful in your work and vice versa. Knowing what practices to use is critical.

Knowing how to do practice spotting is not tied specifically to any particular job title or function. In a mature environment, doing practice spotting well is something everyone can do. The practices everyone spots contribute to your practice card library, which has a sustained positive effect on the people in environments and on teams.

A Thriving Conference Environment

People create culture. For example, we have been running UX Hong Kong for nine years. Our primary intention has always been the formation of a conference culture and eliciting shared feelings among the people who attend.

“User Experience Hong Kong (UXHK) is a learning event dedicated to bringing all product and service design disciplines together, from research, marketing, design, technology, and the business to name a few, who are interested and passionate about designing great experiences for people and business for a better world for all.”

But what elements does it take to make an environment both conducive to learning and also a context where practice spotting can take place? This also takes intention. We examine the following in our planning and implementation:

  • choosing speakers and considering the characteristics they bring to the event
  • evaluating topics and how they speak to the themes
  • how well-traveled the speakers are and how this impacts their perspectives
  • current and longer-term intentions of the practice of User Experience
  • willingness to push the boundaries on practice maturity without everything always being about User Experience
  • other intersecting disciplines that are relevant in our conversations
  • key practices we want to cover

How do all of these things help us make meaningful work as we consider the intersections and connections between people, teams, and their goals?

Time for Reflection: A Critical Part of Problem Solving

Projects on which people’s skills and practice strengths are working well together encourage people to learn, improve, and thrive.

People want to spend more time on meaningful work and working with teams who are engaged in making that happen. Projects on which people’s skills and practice strengths are working well together encourage people to learn, improve, and thrive.

Reflection, as a practice, lets you assess not only the interactions that occur during your project work but also how well your environment is supporting you in your work and whether you have the practices you need to truly make meaningful work. Such reflection highlights the gaps and areas where you need to learn and consider who you can find to support you in remedying specific practice deficiencies.

Intentionally making moments for practice spotting makes a difference and can help you to determine the environments in which you prefer to live, work, and learn.  

At conferences, you can look beyond your day-to-day projects and stop the cycles of speed, politics, and delivery. You can stop long enough to speak to people working within and outside your domain and take the time to reflect on what has meaning for your past, current, and future work. You can also experience different forums and mediums for learning and practice spotting at conferences. There are presentations of various lengths, for which the format tends to be more about passive learning, so you listen to the presenters, and there’s little time for questions.

There are breaks between the sessions, giving you opportunities to mingle with and speak to other people who may be facing problems similar to yours in other environments. There are moments when you can make new friends or meet people who offer alternative perspectives. There are workshops in which you can dive deeper into problem sets and work on problems together.

As conference organizers and hosts, we carefully consider of all these things. Not only the physical environment itself but also how we can help people to connect with other people with whom they need to connect to make meaningful work together.

We also consider the importance of telling project stories to one another. These are not polished case studies that tend to speak of winning outcomes. Instead these stories communicate how we might be dealing with the messiness of a project from day to day, what it feels like to deliver successfully, or what it means to think about the interactions between people and roles and the opportunities to learn from these moments. This is where reflection becomes paramount, and it’s imperative to have these stories live somewhere in the form of practices or practice cards from which others can learn.

Building Your Own Practice Card Library

For people to improve, you really need deeper reflection and a more sustained environment for practice spotting, writing practice cards, creating a practice card library, and encouraging moments for practice.

We have noticed that, in the midst of project work, there is typically little time for people to practice. Plus, people from various backgrounds and functions sometimes lack the intent to work meaningfully together. Be intentional in creating environments and practice moments for meaningful work. These could be as informal as a conversation over lunch. However, for people to improve, you really need deeper reflection and a more sustained environment for practice spotting, writing practice cards, creating a practice card library, and encouraging moments for practice.

Conferences are one type of environment in which different disciplines can come together and discuss what helps or hinders them in delivering meaningful work. They can be safe environments in which people can practice.

Essential Practices for Encouraging Moments for Practice

To derive your practice card titles, do the following:

  1. Stop to reflect. Find an environment in which you can have some quiet time to listen to your own thoughts, take stock of how you’re feeling, and consider what this means going forward. Be present with yourself for a bit.
  2. Find a project story. This project story will be the focus of practice spotting and help you to identify a few practices you can work on. As you collect more examples of practices, you’ll begin to recognize patterns you should encourage and patterns you should avoid, considering the environment you want to create.
  3. Write a practice card title. Also, write down some keywords from your project stories and consider what they might mean for other projects you’ll work on.
  4. Sort your practice cards. As you collect more practice cards and share more project stories, you’ll begin to see key categories of practices to consider—in light of both what is important to you and what is important to others on the team.
  5. Begin your practice. Select a few practices and consider what it would mean to practice them. Who could you practice them with? Who would both support you in this practice and give you feedback to help you improve over time?

Moments for Practice

Now that you’ve created some practice cards, consider what environment would be conducive to these practices. In our earlier sports-team example, we discussed play and practice modes. To create moments for practice, do the following:

  1. Identify the problem a project would solve. Consider project scenarios that would help you walk through the interactions between people and solve the problems you face together. This is less about creating deliverables and more about working through the scenarios together and creating learning outcomes.
  2. Choose a practice or two. Apply practices from the practice cards that are relevant to solving the problem.
  3. Conduct practice exercises. Consider what exercises you might do that would be relevant to the project scenarios—as well as what exercises would have sustained relevance across various project scenarios. The primary driver should be the ability to repeat the exercise to gain depth of practice and, again, reflect on the learning outcomes.
  4. Find someone to practice with. Choose people who can help you do specific exercises, using specific practices together. Who you choose becomes important because it helps you understand who you like learning with and what specific practices different practice buddies can help you confront and address over time. This enables you to gain depth of practice and repeatedly reflect on your learning outcomes.
  5. Put the practice into practice. Practicing a practice can take as little as one or two minutes or much longer for a more structured process.
  6. Reflect on your learning outcomes. Then integrate your new learnings into your practice card library.

Your Practice Card Library and Behavioral Outcomes

Developing your library of practice cards will help you to identify your learning and behavioral outcomes.

Embody all your learning outcomes in a practice card library. Developing your library of practice cards will help you to identify your learning and behavioral outcomes. Consider what behaviors you want to encourage and what behaviors you want to reject.

Behaviors are key. The main point of practice spotting is to determine your intention, who you are, and who you want to work with to create environments that people fundamentally enjoy being in.

Creating Environments for Making Meaningful Work

Work cultures are hard to understand fully without

  • explicitly spotting work practices
  • creating a practice card library to facilitate those practices
  • employing those practice cards in creating moments for practice

Rather than leaving it up to others to create your work environment, proactively take responsibility for it. Encourage others with whom you work to create the environments in which they want to work and live. 

Announcing the Make Meaningful Work Conference—In 2020, we’ll be kicking off a new conference called Make Meaningful Work to help people move along the spectrum from sleepwalking to sparkle, create the environments in which they want to work and live, and make meaningful work.

Acknowledgments—Thanks to all the speakers and participants at UXHK 2019, especially to Neil and Hannah for writing up what UXHK 2019 meant to them and Derek Black and SCAD Hong Kong for hosting both the conference and a recent immersion with Susan Wolfe and Josephine Wong. Thanks to Davide ‘Folletto’ Casali for writing his series of articlesabout making meaningful work and to all our friends in various countries around the world who have been supporting Make Meaningful Work.

Fostering Learning Environments to Generate Sparkle

Our environment refers to everything around us, including physical, chemical, and other natural forces. People constantly interact with their environment—including interactions between other people, animals, plants, soil, water, air, and other living and inanimate elements. They adapt themselves to the conditions of their environment. Their environment affects their growth and development as a person. What people do—or do not do—and the way we behave in our environment has huge impacts on others, affecting their behavior, body, mind, and heart.

Different fields of knowledge use the word environment differently:

  • psychology—Our psychological environment constitutes the impacts of other people, physical things, and places on our psyche.
  • electromagnetism—In our electromagnetic environment (EME), radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation and magnetic fields interact.
  • astronomy—The galactic environment of our solar system is the larger context in which we live among the stars.

In the early Shang Dynasty in China (circa 1600 BC–1046 B.C.), thought was considered to be cyclical—based on observations of the cycles of day and night, the seasons of the year, and the phases of the moon. This concept has remained relevant throughout the history of Chinese philosophy, immediately setting it apart from the more linear, Western approach.

What people do—or do not do—and the way we behave in our environment has huge impacts on others, affecting their behavior, body, mind, and heart.

Internal and External Environments

There are many macro and micro environments around us that interact with each other. We are part of this complex environment, so what we choose to do or don’t do impacts these macro and micro environments. Our own body is itself an environment that determines our physical and mental well-being. By treating your body well and providing the nutrients, the exercise, and the rest it needs, you increases the chances of a creating healthier environment for yourself—and making your life sparkle.

The constant interplay between our internal and external environments … impacts the energy levels of both individuals and teams.

The constant interplay between our internal and external environments—the exchange of energy and information—impacts the energy levels of both individuals and teams. The levels of positive and negative energy within you and your environment determine whether your energy level is increasing or being drained.

Making Implicit Practices Explicit

There are some practices that are constantly in play, but are hidden from view. We call these implicit practices. They are embedded in behaviors between people that we are not always aware of or do not always pay attention to. We are unintentionally influenced by implicit practices in our own environments—comprising our cultures, habits, personality, education, family, and more.  

By increasing people’s conscious exposure to practices and giving them tools they need to help them spot these practices in stories, as well as spaces within which to practice them, we hope people will become more aware of their own practices, make them more explicit, and encourage positive environments and behaviors within these practices. By generating and regenerating positive practices within our environment, we can reduce intangible sources of waste—such as stress that degrades people’s immune system and overall health, impacting the way they work and live.

Work Mode Versus Learning Mode

Unfortunately, there is typically little time for being in learning mode within work contexts, whether for individuals or teams.

In work environments, we function primarily in work mode, which include the conditions, transactions, and interactions that are necessary to produce the work itself—the outcomes of our projects.

Unfortunately, there is typically little time for being in learning mode within work contexts, whether for individuals or teams. Often, organizations fail to invest in the creation of learning environments, but somehow expect people to improve magically and gain deeper practices over time. The explicit creation of learning environments to sustainably make meaningful work is simply not present in most workplaces, resulting in the prevalence of what we call sleepwalking.

Thus, people spend considerable amounts of their time at work on projects that have little value. When people are in work mode, their projects are simply part of the larger system they call work. When people feel that their work is wasteful, unhealthy, purposeless, and stressful, sleepwalking is the overall result. What does sleepwalking feel like at work? People who are sleepwalking feel that they have limited choices, that they are busy and have no time to think, and that they have no energy and, at times, feel numb.

Generating Sparkle to Make Meaningful Work

Learning environments allow people the time they need to be able to see different perspectives and understand systemic complexity….

How can we create work environments that contribute to people’s wellness and ensure they are not always in work mode, but that also encourage their being in learning mode. Learning environments allow people the time they need to be able to see different perspectives and understand systemic complexity, to allocate the time necessary to reflect and identify core practices that are important to them, and to embody practices that strengthen trust within work environments.

We need to gain perspectives that let us see more widely and deeply by

  • listening to other people’s perspectives
  • probing to see what we may not immediately see
  • zooming out to gain greater perspective
  • zooming in on the details within the bigger picture

Then, we must share and clarify our perspectives by

  • confronting the issues to help solve problems
  • connecting the dots to gain focus

Finally, we need to define meaning—based on our perspectives—by

  • knowing what we need to work on and why
  • prioritizing what work to focus on now
  • focusing on that work and its meaning

Using these example practices, as well as the discovery tools that we’ll discuss next, we can determine how to make meaningful work.

Tools That Generate Sparkle and Make Meaningful Work

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which is consistently set for each individual.”—Viktor E. Frankl

Encourage reflection at work so people can better understand themselves and those with whom they work.

Creating the foundation you need for a learning environment that generates sparkle and makes meaningful work requires five tools whose intent is to accomplish the following:

  • Encourage reflection at work so people can better understand themselves and those with whom they work.
  • Gain a better understanding of what work is meaningful to both individuals and teams.
  • Ensure that individuals and teams have a way of learning together through teach-and-learn moments.

Ultimately, as we clarify and refine meaning over time, we are also able to consider why we want to do certain work, how to reduce waste and better utilize our time, and how to measure our performance over time.

You need five key tools to start understanding and creating a learning environment, as follows:

  • Character Card—This tool helps you to understand yourself and the people you work with.
  • Practice Spotting—With this tool, you can identify practices from project stories.
  • Practice Card—Using this tool, you can define practices that matter over time.
  • Learning Portfolio—This tool helps you to understand teach-and-learn moments for both individuals and teams.
  • Meaning Canvas—Using this tool, you can define meaning for individuals and teams.

You can use any of these tools for both individuals and teams.

Note—You are welcome to contact us, and we’ll provide templates for examples of these five tools. We hope you’ll try using these tools to create a learning environment at your workplace and run regular Sparkle Jams to sustain learning over time.

1. Character Card

The intent of the Character Card is to help you clarify what is meaningful to you and why….

The primarily goal of creating a Character Card is to better understand yourself and the people with whom you work. Your Character Card complements your resume and any social-media profiles you might have created. You may want to consolidate these profiles by reflecting on who you are at work and in life. The intent of the Character Card is to help you clarify what is meaningful to you and why, as well as who is important to you and why. 

Consider the following elements as you start reflecting on your character, what you know, and what you want to learn going forward:

  • where you grew up
  • the key moments for you as you were growing up
  • how you think about your
    • work relationships
    • life relationships
    • influence people have on you and why
  • who provides stability to you
  • who holds you accountable for your actions
  • how your actions relate to your values, beliefs, and ethics
  • what impact you want to have through what you do

When creating your Character Card, you can also think about internal and external environments for individuals and teams, considering mind, heart, and body. When defining your internal environment, answer the following questions:

  • What moves you?
  • What are your different roles in your life?
  • What is meaningful to you?
  • What do you care about?
  • What worries do you have and why?

Then, score how you feel about the following factors of your life—rating them from 1, for sleepwalking, to 5, for sparkle:

  • health
  • safety
  • energy
  • sleep quality
  • joy
  • confidence
  • fear
  • anger
  • stress
  • sadness

You can assess these life factors for yourself and your team—for the past, present, and future. In this way, you can chart your learning progress. This assessment can also help you discover what moments are negatively or positively impacting you and your team over time.

2. Practice Spotting

Practice-spotting sessions can help you to discover the practices implicit in project stories, so you can make them explicit, and reveal behaviors that contribute to either sleepwalking or sparkle for individuals and teams.

Use Practice Spotting to look for, identify, and make sense of project stories. Practice-spotting sessions can help you to discover the practices implicit in project stories, so you can make them explicit, and reveal behaviors that contribute to either sleepwalking or sparkle for individuals and teams. Shall we try this? Let’s look at an example story:

During a job interview, George decided to suggest one condition before accepting the position: that he would prefer not to do any programming and just focus on management. He understood that the company was hiring people who both code and manage, but stated that, if they wanted him to join the company, he would prefer not to code. The company accepted George’s condition. George has now been with the company for several years.

As you listen to any story, you should be looking for keywords or statements that reflect a practice that is at play. You’ll usually find these keywords in actions, feelings, language, and conditions that are important to individuals and teams. These keywords provide clues as you draft a list of possible practices, convert stories into practice cards, add titles to your practice cards, and identify the opportunities these practices represent to individuals and teams.

During a practice-spotting session, there are some example elements you should look for in project stories, which will later help you to draft a Practice Card. These include the following:

  • storyteller’s behavior—which is important if the storyteller is a character in the story
  • characters in the story, including the storyteller if relevant
  • feelings and emotions at play
  • behaviors of people as they interact with each other during the story
  • how people in the story treat each other
  • where the story took place
  • environmental conditions in that place
  • influences on the people and emotions in the story
  • storyteller’s language and tone
  • outcomes of or actions in the story

In the example story, the keywords might lend themselves to creating Practice Cards for the following:

  • setting a condition or boundary
  • preferences in making choices

You might also infer some other possible Practice Cards, including the following:

  • preparing for a job interview
  • courage to communicate your needs
  • openness to suggestions

The behaviors present in the story are as follows:

  • From George’s perspective—He is setting a boundary for his work.
  • From the company’s perspective—They are open, adaptable, and flexible about bending their requirements to recruit the good team members they need.
  • Both parties are open to seeing things from each other’s perspective.
  • The company respects future employees.

These behaviors also imply themes that speak to team environments, in which trust, support, appreciation, care, purpose, and being vulnerable are welcome.

Note—We have completed only one practice-spotting session for just one example story. Imagine what you could discover by completing more practice-spotting sessions over time.

3. Practice Card

As you continue practice spotting, you can create your own library of practice cards and determine what cards are gaining in importance for you and your team over time.

Once you have shared a few project stories and drafted a list of possible practices, it is time to create a Practice Card for each of these practices. Practice Cards let you define each practice that matters over time. A Practice Card is like a recipe card that describes a practice, some relevant exercises for that practice, and the behavioral benefits that can result from adopting this practice individually or as a team.

As you continue practice spotting, you can create your own library of practice cards and determine what cards are gaining in importance for you and your team over time. You’ll define patterns that help you to discover the values and beliefs that you want to embody in the environment in which you work on projects.

A Practice Card includes the following information:

  • Title—The name of the practice
  • Description—What the practice is about
  • Benefits—How this practice can help you
  • Activities—A few example activities you can practice
  • Related Practices—Other practices that relate to this practice

Here are some example practice cards for George’s story.

Practice Card 1: Boundary Setting

Title—Boundary Setting

Description—Setting a boundary so people know what is and not is desirable. A few broad categories that can be helpful in setting a boundary include the following: verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, ethical, spiritual, and moral.

Benefits:

  • Understanding your own and other values
  • Knowing when to say no
  • Taking responsibility for the choices you make
  • Respecting yourself and others

Activities:

  • Understand what you do and do not agree on and why
  • Draw the boundaries around yourself and describe them
  • Detail what it would take to cross a boundary and why
  • Describe the environment for which you’ve defined your boundaries

Related Practices:

  • Trust and Safety

Practice Card 2: Respect

Title—Respect

Description—Feelings of deep admiration for someone or something that are elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements and are influenced by your beliefs or experiences.

Benefits:

  • Seeing others’ points of view
  • Expanding your own view of the world
  • Creating questions that enhance curiosity
  • Seeing things you may not have seen before

Activities:

  • Speak to someone from a group you know nothing about
  • Try a food you’ve never tried before
  • Watch a foreign film

Related Practices:

  • Boundary Setting

4. Learning Portfolio

Learning Portfolio is an artifact that you can create to help you understand teach-and-learn moments.

The name of this tool comprises two words that mean the following in this context:

  • Learning—Creating continuous momentum or movement for learning and promoting the idea that there is something to learn or iteratively refine every day.
  • Portfolio—A record of the knowledge you have gained by investing yourself in learning.

Learning Portfolio is an artifact that you can create to help you understand teach-and-learn moments. It might include items such as the following:

  • references or sources that interest you—that you want to read, follow, learn from, or subscribe to
  • themes and gaps you’ve identified over time that may be important to you
  • topics you may want to write articles about
  • practices you would like to adopt individually or with learning buddies

“If you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions.”—Chinese Proverb

As you consider creating a Learning Portfolio for yourself and others, answer the following questions:

  • What have we learned from our past interactions? (The answer is: what you believe you have learned.)
  • What opportunities lie ahead for future learnings? (The answer is: what you believe you don’t know.)
  • Considering gaps relating to people, times, and places, who could I learn from? (The answer should include: people within and outside your circle who can help you challenge your biases and assumptions and track continuous learning.)

A Learning Portfolio can help you track the knowledge you gain over time and see what projects you should spend your time on to continue learning. For some areas of learning, you’ll need to keep expanding your knowledge and connect it with other things you’re learning. A Learning Portfolio provides a constant prompt that guides continuous, life-long learning.

5. Meaning Canvas

What values represent the way you want to treat others and how you want others to treat you?

The Meaning Canvas is a way to aggregate and summarize what you have learned by using all five of these tools and refine the elements of what is meaningful to you and your team:

  • values—What values represent the way you want to treat others and how you want others to treat you? These values also demonstrate your intentions and what related practices embody them.
  • capability gaps—What capabilities may be deficient? What practices do you need to strengthen to help you do meaningful work?
  • behaviors—What positive behaviors do you want to see and what negative behaviors do you want to avoid in the way you treat each other?
  • meaning—Write a clear statement of what is meaningful to you and your team and find a way to visually represent this.

Note—The clues that let you iteratively refine meaning for you and your team are present in the project stories and the practice-spotting sessions you conduct on a regular basis. They can help you to create the practices that matter to you and your team over time.

What Next?

  • Spend an hour each day examining the potential for a project’s significance through practice spotting?
  • Follow these essential practices:
    • Be caring, compassionate, and flexible and connect the dots.
    • Do not fall into the trap of thinking in absolutes.
    • Be a curious, generous, life-long learner.
    • Evolve your perspectives, locally and globally, to enhance diversity and think beyond the status quo.
  • Welcome all disciplines to create a broader community of aspiration. Sign an implicit contract with one another to make meaningful work on every project you work on together.
  • Attend UX Hong Kong 2019 so we can meet in person. 

Acknowledgments—Thank you to the following people we met on our recent travels in Italy, Sweden, and the UK for supporting and contributing to Start Sparkle to Make Meaningful Work—Susan Wolfe, Davide Casali, Nicolò Volpato, Matteo Balocco, Andrea Resmini and students at Jönköping University, Sarah Allen, Woodie, Lori, STBY, Perry, Di, Chris and Kate and all the participants in our workshops and Sparkle Jams in Bologna, Sweden, the UK, Melbourne, and Sydney.

Connecting the Dots to Create Magic at the Intersections

When I was a young boy growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s, I often looked up into the vastness of space and all the stars in the night sky. I reflected on our place in the universe and considered our connections to all the possible planets and life forms that were out there beyond our vision. Possibilities we could only wonder about, not fully understand.

It is important to develop the ability to see the connections and consider both the good and the challenging relationships between objects, people, and places….

As time has marched on, the practice of seeing connections between things has been a constant throughout my life and work. It is important to develop the ability to see the connections and consider both the good and the challenging relationships between objects, people, and places—as well as the interactions that happen at the intersections in between.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”—Stephen Hawking

Alternative Spaces for Learning, Teaching, Making, Practicing, Reflecting, and Taking Action

Secondary school introduced drama as a subject. This was the first time I was able to experience an alternative setting for learning—beyond the traditional classroom setup, in which there were rows of side-by-side wooden tables, with two students at each table.

Drama class was different. We met in an open space in a room that was not connected to the other classrooms, allowing us the freedom to move around, be vocal, and try things that the traditional classrooms did not permit.

Our drama teacher intentionally took us through different exercises that would help us practice vocalizing and movement and gave us specific pieces to rehearse for our yearly performances that students, teachers, and parents would attend.

Connecting the Dots

What really makes the world interesting is the interactions between objects, not the objects in and of themselves.

This was the first time I was able to see how people and objects could potentially connect and interact around a shared goal. As individuals, we could discover parts of ourselves that our other classes did not let us explore. We went beyond the books, blackboards, and traditional teaching formats in which a teacher stands at the font of the class and the students, for the most part, just listen and passively take in—or fail to engage with or remember—the content of the class. How much content the students actually absorbed depended very much on the skill of the teacher and whether a particular student was actually interested in the topic.

But what really makes the world interesting is the interactions between objects, not the objects in and of themselves. If learning environments consistently restrict such interactions by creating boundaries, they also reduce our comprehension.  If you want to be successful, you need to learn to think like Leonardo da Vinci.

My drama teacher suggested that I could learn more about drama by attending a school on Saturday mornings that would offer consistent rhythms and practices to sharpen the skills I needed to become a top performer. Two years of studying drama at school on a part time basis led to my attending drama school for four years, where received professional theater training.

Key Practice Foundations

After completing four years of professional theater training, I realized that I was now equipped with practices that would help me in many other aspects of my work and life—including  communication, confidence, presenting, selling, capturing an audience’s attention, and storytelling, to name a few.

My professional theater training also taught me the importance of working and socializing with others and what it meant to work together as a team to create a great performance or make meaningful work.

Gradually, I began to realize the importance of the kinds of spaces that are necessary to get people to interact with each other in positive ways—to slow down enough to listen intentionally, explore the learnings and outcomes from those moments, and seek improvement over time.

Not Present and Busy

All too often, people are not truly present. We see people on their phones, zoning out in meetings, and talking over others because they’re driven by their own individual needs, agendas, or biases.

Fast forward to 2018 and, all too often, people are not truly present. We see people on their phones, zoning out in meetings; talking over others because they’re driven by their own individual needs, agendas, or biases. Plus, people simply fail to allocate enough time to create the connections and intersections that foster reflective conversations and practices.

This is very concerning, and I believe that it’s leading to a global form of short-term thinking that is already having disastrous effects. We’re not working on the problems we need to be working on to connect the individual to the community and consider what projects could have benefits for both the me and the we.

Train Journeys

I currently live in Hong Kong, which has a train system called the MTR that is really one of the best transport systems in the world. Trains rarely run late, and the network covers most of Hong Kong, including Hong Kong island and the New Territories. Over time, the system will continue to extend and connect to the train systems of mainland China, including a high-speed rail line connecting China to the rest of the world, making it an engineering marvel.

Some stations are intersections that allow people to take trains from one direction, transfer between lines seamlessly, then take trains going in different directions with limited fuss and without requiring too much cognitive load in determining where to go and what to do next.

The train stations offer additional benefits beyond moving people on trains. They also provide ways for people to meet up, eat, shop, and enjoy socializing within very comfortable environments, especially during Hong Kong’s hot season.

The train stations are hubs that connect other hubs, allowing people to move around and transact easily in a city of 7.3 million people.

Intersections

Consider the importance of creating spaces for people to interact in healthy ways and how we can better facilitate and achieve this goal.

Watching people in the MTR hubs has prompted me to consider the importance of creating spaces for people to interact in healthy ways and how we can better facilitate and achieve this goal.

How we currently do or do notachieve this in our workplaces could bear some thought. What could we be doing to foster better conversations and practices.

Let’s consider both the MTR station and the space my drama teacher created for us at school and how such spaces could help us make meaningful work.

Often, meeting rooms do not provide optimal settings for people to connect across disciplines or the kinds of spaces that would let us see what we need to see in reflecting on our work, looking beyond our own needs and seeing beyond the limitations of own spaces in our cubicles.

Also consider here the importance of bringing multiple disciplines and backgrounds together in a collaborative setting—just as in the theater—which is necessary to promote better conversations. Ask yourselves:

  • What challenges could we be solving together?
  • What supporting materials, tools, people, roles, and questions would need to ask to do that?
  • What specific spaces would be necessary to enable better, deeper, more reflective conversations and give us all a chance to make something great together that has some sustained value for people and the planet?
  • How can we foster deeper moments through reflective conversations and practices?

Fostering Deeper Moments

Consider having a meal with people, sharing a good book or a movie, or traveling—anything you can think of that would prompt valuable conversations that could lead to interesting outcomes or prompt additional questions that would promote learning.

What is usually consistent is the need to have another person present who can offer perspectives that you may not have considered. None of us possesses the ultimate, single truth about the world. We have only our own world experience, in reference to particular times, environments, and the other people we have met on our journey.

What if we were more intentional about creating the intersections that would enable deeper moments and used those moments to feed our curiosity to learn more?

Working together with the other students in my drama class, I observed quiet children, tough children, and children from all sorts of backgrounds—with varying attitudes and approaches—come together once or twice a week and create magic together. Seeing this happen at school and, later, in the more formal setting of theater school was a pleasure. But I’ve been disappointed in the lack of such practices in the workplace.

Intentional Practices Within the Intersections

What if we were more intentional about creating the intersections that would enable deeper moments and used those moments to feed our curiosity to learn more?

Perhaps we need to be more explicit and intentional about practices that would let us connect the dots and create magic within the intersections. What might be some examples of intentional practices that should occur inside the intersections?

Perhaps we could start with some sage, inspirational advice from the social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. In Art of Listening, he says:

  • “The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  • “Nothing of importance must be on his mind; he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  • “He must possess a freely working imagination, which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  • “He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  • “The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
  • “Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.”

Of course, this is simply one perspective. There are likely many more perspectives and much more to learn regarding the harvesting of practices that would enable all of us to be more conscious when we enter spaces for making meaningful work together:

Perhaps these practices are hidden from view in the project stories we tell each other every day, but they are right in front of us. Are we giving ourselves the necessary spaces and time to discover the most important practices?

Practice Cards

As we mature our vision of making meaningful work, my partner Josephine Wong and I have given ourselves the life-long goal of continually harvesting practices from project stories and sharing them as practice cards.

We need to take the time to listen to and study the stories that can help us to connect the dots across the practices coming from domains such as theater, music, cooking, sports, and engineering—all of which have something to teach us about the practices that occur inside the intersections.

These practices shed light and provide clarity that can help us to focus on real global problems that need our attention right now. We also hope they will show us how we can support diverse perspectives, move away from the selfish, and embrace the distributed experiences that would enable us to create a healthier world now and tomorrow. 

Thank you to Josephine Wong, Jen Fabrizi, and Aldo Fabrizi for being lovely sounding boards and helping answer the question of how we can make meaningful work.