A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

I was reading Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray earlier this month and came across this drawing:

Drawing by Dave Gray showing the learning loop.
Drawing by Dave Gray showing the learning loop.

Gray describes the circle on the right as a person’s “learning loop”. A learning loop consists of four parts:

  1. Needs (“How do I feel?”)
  2. Beliefs (“What are my options?”)
  3. Actions (“What will I do?”)
  4. Results (“What happened and why?”)

This lit up the newsletter side of my brain, so I started marking up his drawing to see how it might mesh with the ideas I share with you all here:

Marked up drawing by Dave Gray
Marked up drawing by Dave Gray

But, first of all, what does this “learning loop” have to do with museums? Why might you be interested in it?

Well, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re interested in understanding audiences (or participants). You think about audience engagement and the impact your organization has (or does not have) on the people you support. You spend a lot of time thinking about the pink side of the learning loop above.

The value of the drawing for you, I hope, is that it provides a little bit more context. I think it’s easy for us to forget that focusing on “engagement” (sorry, Randi :-) and the results or impact of our work makes for an incomplete picture.

Let’s consider the two halves in more detail.

The Engagement / Impact Half (Pink)

Here, our person has made a decision to pursue a particular course of action. For a museum, the person that has come into view has decided to walk through the door (in normal times), or visit the website to become a member, or leave a comment on social media, etc.

We watch the person progress through their interaction in whatever ways we can — observation, satisfaction surveys, analytics, etc. — so that we can then measure the results or impact on the organization or the participant.

All this probably sounds familiar to you, so let’s look at the less-familiar side.

The Goals / Decision-Making Half (Blue)

Here we start with what Gray calls “needs”. I don’t love that word because in some contexts it can seem to imply that a person needs what an organization offers, which makes it easy to forget that they have lots of ways to fulfill their “needs”, and before you know it you’re getting high on your own supply. So, I usually prefer goal instead of “need”, but I also like Indi Young’s word — purpose.

So, on this side, the person starts with their purpose, objective, goal, or — in Jobs To Be Done parlance — the progress they’re hoping to make in their pursuit of a “better me.” There is a person and they have some feeling or desire that motivates them to act.

From there, the person weighs their options.

Gray includes “beliefs” alongside this step because his book is about how our thinking shapes our versions of reality, and limiting beliefs are a critical part of that. But this is also relevant to museums because if we don’t understand a person’s choice set — what they believe to be their options in achieving their goal — then how can we ever understand what obstacles we would need to overcome to get them to come join us on the pink side?

Does this feel backward now?

When we begin on the pink side of the loop — that is, when we’re focused entirely on inviting engagement and evaluating results — we’re starting at the point where a person has already made the decision to interact with our organization.

Here’s the pic again for reference:

In a sense, we’ve never even seen this person in terms of their goals, or their decision-making process, or what options are available to them in their effort to make progress toward their goal. We’ve never seen them as a person, in a way — they’re already and always have been a user (or visitor, or member, or donor) to us.

Now, back to that Valentine's Day card.

Do you see why it felt somehow backward for me to only evaluate my wife in terms of her interactions with me? When I was writing the Valentine's Day card, "backward" felt like the wrong word to use.

“I am backward without an understanding of your needs and choice set.”

Doesn't feel right, does it? "Backward" doesn't really capture the emotion adequately.

Incomplete is better, I thought.

“I am incomplete without an understanding of your needs and choice set.”

I chuckled as I slid the card into the envelope. "Good thing you used waterproof ink. We're gonna be wringing the tears out of this card…"*

What about you?

Does the question of audience "engagement" feel incomplete when you look at it through this lens?

How effective can we be if we don't take a balanced approach to this learning loop?

As always, reply to this email to let me know your thoughts or share feedback over here.


*The card received mixed reviews in the Bowen household. Nonetheless, I stand by my assertion that it's a statement you can use as you consider your museums' audiences.


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