Start with Who: the Golden Circle for Learning Design

Ger Driesen

by Ger Driesen
4 July 2018


or many years, professionals worldwide have been inspired by Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’. The concept of starting with the ‘Why’ before the ‘How’ and the ‘What’ is both simple and clarifying. Named ‘the Golden Circle,’ this model applies great storytelling to explain the central ideas, and success is guaranteed. It’s made a big impact and many companies have used it to start identifying their identity. Would ‘Start with Why’ also be useful for learning and development or do we need a different approach? As the title reveals, I suggest ‘transforming’ it into ‘Start with Who’. Let me take you through my reasoning.

Marketing, Leadership and Learning?

The elements that made ‘Start with Why’ popular also bring about some ‘risky business’. It is attractive to apply the approach in all kinds of situations and in all kinds of professions, including learning and development. Reviewing Sinek’s work shows that he talks about clarifying the ‘why’ of an organisation to reach out to customers or clients. The ‘why’ explains the problem the organisation wants to solve for its customers first, before explaining the product or service features that should do the actual job. This means starting with ‘why’ from a marketing perspective. You can also apply ‘Start with Why’ to clarify the purpose of the organisation in motivating and engaging co-workers and informing stakeholders. This is the leadership approach. Both these perspectives have their starting point at the organisational level and are really valuable at that level. But, how does that resonate with learning and development?

The elements that made ‘Start with Why’ popular also bring about some ‘risky business’.

If we approach learning and development from an organisational level, we mostly call it Organisational Development (OD). This would suggest that starting an OD initiative would be done by starting with asking and clarifying the ‘Why’: why organisational development is needed, before clarifying the how and what. That does make sense. But, what happens when we try to support professionals at an individual level when we design learning (interventions) for them?

Design thinking, empathy and start with ‘WHO’

Steve Jobs and Apple changed the world by focussing on design and building products that give users a great experience. It created a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people and high brand loyalty. To do something like this, you have to step away from the focus on technology and put people at the centre of attention when designing. This idea, which is now known as ‘design thinking’, places great emphasis on empathy: the mindset of really trying to understand the perspective of the end user and using that information as the most important input for your design. That’s why it’s also called human-centred design—it entails working close to and with end users. It’s also about testing early prototypes with end users to see how well the design does its job. In that sense, it is also an iterative process that can have multiple cycles. The design focuses on, and delivers to the user, a great experience, which is why it’s also called user experience design (UX). Applying the principles of design thinking and UX on learning design has become popular over the last years and is named learner experience design (LXD). LXD is about learning design putting the learner at the centre of attention and applying empathy. That is a different approach than the more traditional approach of putting content at the centre of attention or experts as the main focus of learning design. Putting the learner at the centre and trying to really understand how we can best support the learner in her/his context means that we have to start with ‘who’. So, for learning design, the ‘golden circle’ will also have to start with ‘who’.

Watch the video to learn more about Start with who’

Jobs to be done: connect ‘WHO’ with ‘WHAT’

Applying empathy to learning design means that we have to understand what is important to our learners. Does a nurse really want to know about ‘the history of measuring blood pressure’ or the ultimate definition of ‘blood pressure’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary? What is it she wants to achieve? What kind of result is she aiming for and in what kind of (work) context? Finding answers to these questions means that we have to connect the ‘who’ to the ‘what’. A very useful framework to do so is the concept of ‘jobs to be done’ based on the work of Clayton Christensen. Professionals have ‘jobs to be done’ and they experience ‘gains and pains’ related to their tasks. They want to reach their gains with as little pain as possible. So, how can a product or service (also learning) support easy gains and prevent experiencing the pains related to jobs to be done? To make it even more specific: how can the learning interventions that you design help a professional with her/his jobs to be done with maximal gain and minimal pain?

Does a nurse really want to know about ‘the history of measuring blood pressure’? What result is he/she aiming for?

The next helpful aspect of jobs to be done is the distinction between ‘functional jobs’, ‘social jobs’ and ‘personal/emotional jobs’. Let’s take the example of an app developer. Creating an app that works perfectly is the functional job to be done. Making an app that gets good reviews and supports the status and good reputation of the developer is an example of a ‘social job to be done’. Maybe the developer experiences the app as a product that ‘makes the world a better place’, which is a personal or emotional connection and, therefore, a ‘personal/emotional job to be done’. To empathise with learners is one thing; to understand learners’ perspectives related to the three categories of jobs to be done makes the empathy much more relevant. With this, we connect the ‘who’ with the ‘what’ as valuable inputs for learning design.

Adding ‘WHERE’

Another part of the empathy puzzle for learning design is knowing the context in which learners have to get their jobs done. The learning designers’ habitat is mostly a practical, well-equipped office environment (or do you mostly work in a comfortable coffee shop, sipping great lattes?). The users of your learning materials might be working in a hectic emergency room, at the railroads at night, in a noisy call centre, at a cold and damp construction site or in a moving truck. Empathy is also about knowing the context in which the professionals you design for have to get their jobs done. You have to understand the circumstances, the possibilities and the constraints of that specific context. The ‘where’ can be a very important design parameter that can have major influences on the design choices that you want to make. I recently came across some situations that surprised me. The first one involves healthcare workers who take care of elderly people who still live in their own homes and spend most of their working day in ‘low-tech’ situations—there is no computer or wifi available there. Another one is the example of a high-tech company that shut down YouTube and forbade employees from checking it on a private device. During one of my jobs, I worked at a photo film factory where many professionals did most of their work in the dark (sometimes with goggles on). At the same company, I learnt something very valuable that is called ‘Go to Gemba’. It’s the Japanese expression for ‘go to the place WHERE the work is done’. If there was any kind of issue that we had to work on as learning designers, the motto was always ‘go to Gemba’—do your analysis there, in the specific context, together with the people working there. It makes your analysis so much better and gives you valuable input for your learning design.

Putting it all together: HOW

At that same photo film factory, a senior manager often told me that ‘The cooking takes longer than the eating’. He wanted me to know that a good analysis and good preparation might take the majority of the time and, in many cases, take more time than actually creating the end product or solution. However, a good analysis pays itself back during design. With a good understanding of ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘where’, you most likely have found many clues to create the ultimate design for ‘how’ to support learners. The work ‘learners’ can be a pitfall here; it might assume that you only have to design learning interventions. Maybe ‘professionals’ is a better word: based on your thorough analysis, how can you best support the professionals in getting their jobs done? Training can be part of the solution but so might other ‘performance support’ items like checklists, flowcharts, wikis, apps, social learning, reflection, after-action reviews, access to experts or the establishment of ‘super users’ be (check out my other blog on ‘If training is the solution, what is the problem?). Let the insights gained from your analysis guide you to design and create the best mix of interventions and tools that help professionals get their jobs done. Empathy can best be applied in this step by making quick and cheap prototypes of your design solutions and testing them with the end users for who your design. Gather feedback on your prototypes before you create the ‘final’ design.

Golden Circle - Solid (No title)

Checklist (and summary)

  1. Start your learning design with ‘who’ to empathise with the end user so that you focus your design on a relevant and engaging learner experience.
  2. Make your learning design super-relevant based on your understanding of the ‘jobs to be done’ by the learner.
  3. Focus your design by understanding the ‘gains’ and ‘pains’ that the learner might experience related to the ‘jobs to be done’.
  4. Deepen your empathy and understanding by taking the functional jobs to be done, social jobs to be done and personal/emotional jobs to be done into account.
  5. Understand the context where the learner has to apply the learning. Go to ‘Gemba’: go to the place where the work has to be done by the learner and understand its characteristics. Use the insights to adjust your design to the ‘where’.
  6. With all the previous input, think of how to design for optimal support. Think of how your design can remove the pains and support the gains related to jobs to be done. Think of learning and performance support solutions. Design the optimal blend.
  7. Keep empathising: first create quick and cheap prototypes of solutions and let the end user test them. Gather feedback and use it for your ‘final’ design.

With the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, we have now completed our ‘Golden Circle for Learning Design’. I hope it will make you as successful and popular as Simon Sinek!

Any other questions?

Share them with us on Twitter: @aNewSpring, @GerDriesen


Ger Driesen

Ger Driesen, Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring

Think of connecting people, ideas and inspiration in the global L&D community and you’ve just created the perfect description of Ger Driesen. In his role as Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring he focuses on motivating and guiding professionals to build inspiring learning journeys. During his career he has had a variety of L&D roles, from consultant, trainer and facilitator, to L&D manager and entrepreneur. He’s also known as ‘the Dutch L&D trendcatcher’. Keep up with Ger on Twitter and LinkedIn.