How to improve your meetings by using the Learning Canvas

- Learning

by Alexandre Magno

The Learning Canvas was the first single released by Learning 3.0 and nowadays it’s a very popular tool, regularly applied in sessions at loads of international conferences, such as Agile Trends in Brazil, the Agile Conference in Washington DC, Spark the Change in Toronto, the Scrum Gathering in Shanghai, to name just a few. On top of that, there are canvases stuck to the walls in hallways and meeting rooms all over the world.

But if it’s just another canvas, why do we need another one? You’re right. There is a marketing overload of canvases and I’m the first to say when enough is enough. However, give me a chance to explain why the learning canvas is a highly effective tool to put an end to boring and seemingly endless meetings.

Let me start by answering an important question: why did I create another canvas?

The origins of the Canvas

One of the first experiments I carried out in the early days of Learning 3.0 was to try to get workers together who shared an interest in the same subject, but were from different backgrounds or from different organisations.

The very first subject I experimented with was on the subject of Customer Service and to be honest, the first meeting was not so good. I mainly put this down to the following reasons:

It was hard to instill discipline and control within the time-box. You know: everybody has tons of stories that they want to share…in minute detail.

Participants with better presentation skills, or those with more experience on the subject, subtly assumed control of the session, And the other, less bold participants fell pretty silent throughout the main discussions. Previous experiences were considered more important than non-tested ideas and stories from people with less experience were simply ignored.

Hence, the Learning Canvas was born out of emergent contributions and these derived from participants who were trying to fix real world problems while trying to learn in the group.

Don’t ignore ideas

People are used to paying more attention to previous experiences than to brand new ideas. This happens because people believe that since it worked (or didn’t work) the first time, if will of course work when applied again. It’s safe and predictable, right? And there’s our problem; because in a complex business world, there is no guarantee that an experience will repeat the result when applied in a new context of space and time.

Learning Canvas at Just Digital

Why should we pay attention to older ideas rather than to new ones?

I also found the solution to that conundrum in the first session. From there I used a whiteboard with two separate areas to manage the subsequent session:

  • Past (for stories)
  • Future (for ideas)

It served as the basis for our meeting. I then used the same timebox for discussions which fell into both areas.

With that constraint, I collected stories from the past and ideas for the future and then people started to give the same credence to both areas. This organisation was undoubtedly the first step in creating the learning canvas.

As I hope I’ve made clear, this simple drawing on the whiteboard was the starting point of the Learning Canvas.

Breaking knowledge hierarchy

Having well defined areas for stories and ideas helped me to put both on the same level. However, another problem still remained: experienced people (or self-proclaimed experts) were dominating those conversations, and with that, a hierarchy of knowledge took place.

As I wrote before, “hierarchy can be a great inhibitor of emergent learning”. This is in the core of Learning 3.0, so I needed to find a way of elevating all attendees to the same level. That was the case for creating defined roles for the canvas.

The ‘Asker‘ is the person who will share their problems on a specific subject. He or she is asking for help. The ‘Sharers‘ are the other participants, those who have related stories or ideas to share. All sharers are on the same level, regardless of the level of expertise they may bring to the group.

One of our Learning Canvas’ earliest-adopters was the CEO of a leading a digital business in Brazil. In one of our conversations he said to me, “Usually I face a lot of challenges that I’ve no idea how to deal with. I want to listen to my people, to all of them, but it’s so expensive, boring, and sometimes unfair, since only the people working in important roles are invited to contribute”.

We decided to run an experiment: a weekly learning canvas in the main room of the company where the CEO (identified as The Asker) placed his most recent problems and asked for stories and ideas for the canvas, and for every employee to share their advice. It was a huge success!

In one of the sessions, an idea from an office assistant was moved by an executive to the column “To try”, meaning that the executive was going to put that idea into practice.

Using the Learning Canvas in your next meeting

Why don’t you try it out in your next meeting or just cancel the original meeting and fix some learning canvases to the hallways and corridors of your organisation?

What’s the point? Why is the meeting taking place (or not)? Use the answer to define the theme of the canvas.

Who needs help? Use that person as the Asker.

Who can help? These will be your Sharers.

Define time-boxes and then let the ‘Asker’ present their problems and their vision of a desired future in the ‘Expected Results’ section.

Sharers tell stories (real experiences) and share ideas.

To finish: the asker collects stories or ideas that he or she thinks useful for his real world and moves them to the “To Try” section.

It’s done, simple as that!

The canvas is powerful because it puts all the people on the same level. Moreover, both ideas and experiences are regarded as equally important.

You can find out more about the Learning Canvas, including facilitation tips, in my brand new book: “How Creative Workers Learn”.  Here you’ll will discover the whole learning system behind the Learning 3.0 brand.

Read on to learn more about how to run better meetings within the dedicated Management 3.0 plus module.

And don’t forget: sharing is the new teaching… so please share your experiences with the learning canvas here.


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