Fostering Learning Environments to Generate Sparkle

December 3, 2018

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.
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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.

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—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

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

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

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 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

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

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.


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


  • 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


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.


  • 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


  • 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

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.

A 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

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.

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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