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Strategy, Facilitation and Visual Thinking

In this post, I’ll talk about some of the visual thinking techniques that can be drawn from design thinking, data analytics, system thinking, game storming, and lean start-up.

In my last post, I’ve argued for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the visual thinking techniques that can be drawn from design thinking, data analytics, system thinking, game storming, and lean start-up.

That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.

TL;DR

  • The more you know about how to design and run a good learning process, the more team members will feel empowered about their own ideas and participation.
  • An experienced facilitator creates meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives to the team.
  • Facilitators enable groups to succeed by asking questions. Crafting the right questions is central to gaining more in-depth insight, inspiring forward movement, and bringing focus and energy.
  • Designers are — usually — comfortable with transitioning from Optimistic (divergent) to critical (convergent) mindset. Not every team member thinks the same way and tend to jump directly to solutions. We need to facilitate the team stay in divergent thinking and then transition to convergent thinking.
  • Designers must communicate with those responsible for strategy by using their talent for visualisation and storytelling that can powerfully convey content in areas like the DNA of the consumer experience, innovation options, and approaches to decision making.
  • Designers can help the team synthesize and build a rich understanding of problem, product and customers by using variety of methods from their toolbox, including on storytelling, visualization, and facilitation.
  • Like live jazz, spoken words flow on. In meetings this often prompts repetition and hopes for real listening. Capturing words and ideas through visual thinking techniques (e.g.: large charts) acknowledges the listening. The need to repeat diminishes. And a group memory is created.
  • Visual Thinking tools like Alignment diagrams or models serve as a hinge upon we can pivot from the problem space to the solutions space.
  • Alignment diagrams or any other visual thinking tool are no panacea. They are just compelling visualizations that draw others into important conversations about creating value. Your ultimate goal is creating an inclusive dialog within the organization, not creating the diagram itself.

Mastering Facilitation

It’s the facilitator’s job to make preparations and the journey ahead easy for everyone involved (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016) by:

  • Becoming a facilitator. The more you know about how to design and run a good learning process, the more team members will feel empowered about their own ideas and participation.
  • It’s more than just a meeting. An experienced facilitator creates a meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives to the team. Teams that take the team to prepare often enjoy much better results and outcomes.
  • Wear the right hat at the right time. Designers are — usually — comfortable with transitioning from Optimistic (divergent) to critical (convergent) mindset. That said, not every team member is comfortable with this kind of transition and tend to jump directly to solutions. We need to help — or in this case, facilitate — the team do this transition.
  • Visual Facilitation. To really have an impact and sum discussion and decision points so that they’ll be remembered forever, capture what’s been said (at least some of it) visually. What is in memory only prompts participants to repeat their arguments over and over. I’ll talk about some visual thinking techniques later on this post.

Becoming a Facilitator

Facilitation is a neutral process — with respect to the content and participants — that focuses on (Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, 2012):

  • What needs to be accomplished
  • Who needs to be involved
  • Design, flow, and sequence of tasks
  • Communication patterns, effectiveness, and completeness
  • Appropriate levels of participation and use of resources
  • Group energy, momentum, and capability
  • The physical and psychological environment

It’s More than Just a Meeting

Facilitators are here to enable groups to succeed by (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019):

Asking questions. Crafting the right questions is central to gaining more in-depth insight, inspiring forward movement, and bringing focus and energy. You can develop your own questions based on your knowledge of the team dynamics, or you can experiment with methods like Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M., 2008), World Café (Brown, J., & Isaacs, D., 2005), or Open Space Technology (Owen, H., 2008).

If you want to know more about asking questions, check my next post on this series.

turned on pendant lamp
Learn more about asking question in Strategy, Facilitation and Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)
Designing a planning process that is unique to the team they are working with.

Most facilitation involves a few key core processes (Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, 2012), including:

  • Analyzing information about purposes, desired outcomes, work context, and participants to determine.
  • Designing meetings to enable the group to succeed at its purpose using appropriate structures, processes and sequences.
  • Creating and implementing structures and processes to accomplish tasks and meet objectives.
  • Coaching/Training group leaders and members in effective behaviors.
  • Navigating decision processes through methods choice and the established organizational hierarchy or decision structure.
  • Ensuring follow up action related to production and distribution of information, communication with stakeholders, and implementation of decisions.

Hence, an experienced facilitator creates meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives to the team. Teams that take the team to prepare often enjoy much better results and outcomes. The planning is a means to an end: it’s about maximising the chance of a positive outcome and empowering others for make real change (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016):

  • Learn to Manage the Energy. To maximise output, the team must feel energised. “Energy” in this case, describes how willing and able people are to contribute. “Good” energy helps the process. A discussion at the right time does just that. But hold a discussion at the wrong time, and exhaustion will quickly set in.
  • Frame discussions using a canvas. These visual thinking artifacts will help spark interesting conversations while framing the ensuing discussions.
  • Better meetings via screenplays. Screenplays help you to design a meeting or workshop and share this with the key stakeholders. Well designed screenplays enable you to gain clarity about what can be done during a workshop in order to make decision about time, activities and topics to be covered.
Example of a Canvas in Three Powerful Ways to User the Persona Canvas

Wear the right hat at the right time.

Process Awareness characterises a degree to which the participants are informed about the process procedures, rules, requirements, workflow and other details. The higher is process awareness, the more profoundly the participants are engaged into a process, and so the better results they deliver.

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplate and explore the problem space a little longer.

Consequently, I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise the awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

Bill Buxton famously described the characteristics of design superstars:

Great Designers have to have their feet in the mud, but their heads in the clouds

Buxton, B., On Being Human in a Digital World, Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008

Designers are — usually — comfortable in this abstraction transition. That said, not every team member is comfortable with this kind of transition. We need to help — or in this case, facilitate — the team do this transition.

For this reason, There are times to be utterly optimistic and there are times to be critical (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016). For instance, as ideation is about ideas creation and expiation 90% of the time and evaluation and selection 10% of the team, it’s vital that everyone on the team is wearing their optimistic hat at least 90% of the time, during idea creation.

In contrast, when it’s time for evaluation and selection, it’s okay for everyone to put on their critical hats. And in both cases, it’s the job of the facilitator to ensure that optimism and criticality are employed at the right place at the right time.

To the end that I find it incredibly important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinkingexplore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).

Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers (2010)

With this in mind, knowing when team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

If you’re interested in exploring creativity techniques like lateral thinking, please check out my lecture on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design.

Six Thinking Hats
“Six Thinking Hats Workshop” Lecture for Designing Interactions / Experiences module at the MA Integrated Design module at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences

Visual Thinking

Mark Dziersk is convinces that “design” and “strategy” traditionally reflect two very disparate realms within the world of business. He urges designers to communicate with those responsible for strategy by using their talent for visualisation and storytelling — “languages” that can powerfully convey content in such areas as the DNA of the consumer experience, innovation option, and approaches to decision making (Dziersk, M., “Visual Thinking: A leadership Strategy” in Building Design Strategy, Lockwood, T., & Walton, T., 2010).

Visualizing strategic design thinking is the key to effectively communicating.

Dziersk, M., “Visual Thinking: A leadership Strategy” in Building Design Strategy, Lockwood, T., & Walton, T. (2010)

The truth is that very few designers understand strategy, much less leverage in their work. But the design world is trying and is making inroads. Dealing with and converting ambiguity to clearly focused design strategy is key and gives design thinking the leverage for running come-give business in the post-dot.com, post “distribution dictate direction” business world we live in (Dziersk, M., “Visual Thinking: A leadership Strategy” in Building Design Strategy, Lockwood, T., & Walton, T., 2010).

“Visual Thinking and collaboration techniques can help you achieve goals better and faster by unlocking the whole brain function”

Brand, W., Visual thinking: Empowering people & organizations through visual collaboration, (2017)

Visualizing thought processes can help break down complex problems. It empowers teams and staff to build on one another’s ideas, fosters collaboration, jump-starts co-creation and boosts innovation.

Furthermore, to really have an impact and sum discussion and decision points so that they’ll be remembered forever, capture what’s been said (at least some of it) visually (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016). What is in memory only prompts participants to repeat their arguments over and over.

Facilitation is like Jazz

David Sibbet, “It’s like Jazz” in Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation (2016)

Like live jazz, spoken words flow on. In meetings this often prompts repetition and hopes for real listening. Sibbet finds that capturing these words on large charts acknowledges the listening. The need to repeat diminishes. And a group memory is created. This frees the discussion to move to new level.

Visual Thinking and Sketching

Visualization is a powerful tool for us to bring abstract information and interconnections as well as data, processes, and strategic into a graphic (i.e. visual) form. Visualizations help convey themes and problems comprehensively to our teams and users. We process visualised content faster, understand it better and remember it longer (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The Design Thinking Playbook. 2018).

With the help of quick sketches and visualizations, we ca pursue different goals:

  • Outline many ideas as part of a brainstorming session.
  • Develop a common understanding.
  • Make abstract things tangible.
  • Create a dialog by collaborative drawing.
  • Find surprising solutions with sketches.
  • Draw the function of a prototype.
  • Sketch a customer experience chain and bring it to life.
  • Lighten the mood and make contact more interesting.

There is no more powerful way to prove that we know something well than to draw a simple picture of it. And there is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem

Roam, D., The back of the napkin: Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures (2013)

Good visualisations direct the eye to what is essential. The trick here is to live out what’s nonessential. This means no art in the sense of embellishment, decorating, or designing beautifully. Our goal must be to be as vivid, lifelike, and specific as possible.

Visual Thinking and Visualisations

Four properties are crucial in the creation of visualisations (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The design thinking playbook. 2018):

  • We focus on what’s important: leave all that’s unnecessary.
  • We are specific: we don’t create vague drawings.
  • We make our picture comprehensible: we are able to make linkages to the content.
  • We kindle interest: it is delightful to look at the pictures.

Visual Thinking and Clustering Analysis

As product leaders and design strategists conduct product discovery and user research related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data.

By itself, this data isn’t very useful. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The design thinking playbook. 2018).

Designers can help the team synthesize and build a rich understanding of problem, product and customers by using variety of methods from their toolbox, including on storytelling, visualization, and facilitation.

One of the first visual thinking techniques I learned to process large amounts of data — especially from User Research — was was Affinity Diagraming.

Affinity Diagraming (a kind of Clustering Analysis) organizes the individual interpretation session (or affinity) notes into a wall-sized, hierarchical diagram, grouping the data into key issues under labels that real the customer needs (Wendell, J., Holtzblatt, K., & Wood, S., Rapid contextual design. 2005.).

Visual Thinking and Affinity Diagraming
Visual Thinking and Affinity Diagraming in Ulaszek, J., Winters, B. (2013) ‘Setting Course – Design Research to Experience Roadmap.’ Presentation at IxDA’s Interaction’13 Conference, Toronto – Canada, 28 February 2013, captured 8 Mar 2021 from https://www.designative.info/2013/05/07/watch-jason-ulaszek-brian-winters-from-design-research-to-experience-roadmap-talk-at-interaction13-ixda-conference/

The affinity shows in one place the common issues, themes, and the scope of the customer problems and needs. The affinity acts as the voice of the customer and the issues it revels become the basis of user requirements.

Visual Thinking and Alignment Diagrams

Organizations are out of sync with the people they serve experience. Misalignment impacts the entire enterprise: teams lack a common purpose, solutions are built that are detached from reality, and strategy is short sighted (Kalbach, J., ”Visualizing Value: Aligning Outside-in” in Mapping Experiences, 2021).

“Value lies at the intersection of individuals and the offering of an organization” in Mapping Experiences, Kalbach, J., 2021

Alignment Diagrams coordinates insights from the outside world with the teams inside an organization who create products and services to meet market needs.

In other words, Alignment diagrams or models serve as a hinge upon we can pivot from the problem space to the solutions space.

Examples of Alignment Diagrams

Jim Kalbach uses the term alignment diagram to refer to any map, diagram, or visualization that reveals both sides of value creation in a single overview. They are a category of diagram that illustrates the interaction between people and organizations.

Such diagrams are not new and already used in practice. Thus his definition of alignment diagram is less of a proposition for a specific technique than a recognition of how existing approaches can be seen in a new, constructive way.

You may have already used them: service blueprints, customer journey maps, experience maps, and mental model diagrams are widespread examples.

Service Blueprints are visual thinking artifacts that help to capture the big picture and interconnections, and are a way to plan out projects and relate service design decisions back to the original research insights. The blueprint is different from the service ecology in that it includes specific detail about the elements, experiences, and delivery within the service itself (Polaine, A., Løvlie, L., & Reason, B., Service design: From insight to implementation, 2013).

“What?” Example by Andy Polaine et al. in  Service Blueprinting / Service Design Drinks Berlin

Customer Journey Maps are visual thinking artifacts that help you get insight into, track, and discuss how a customer experiences a problem you are trying to solve. How does this problem or opportunity show up in their lives? How do they experience it? How do they interact with you? (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The design thinking playbook. 2018)

Visual Thinking: Mental Models
Example of a Customer Journey Canvas in Take a Walk Through Your Company’s Customer Journey

Mental models are simply affinity diagrams of behaviors made from ethnographic data gathered from audience representatives. They give you a deep understanding of people’s motivations and thought-processes, along with the emotional and philosophical landscape in which they are operating (Young, I., Mental Models, 2008).

Visual Thinking: Mental Models
“Mental model of a typical morning for people who commute to work or school” Excerpt From: Indi Young’s Mental Models, 2008.

Experience Maps look at a broader context of human behavior. They reverse the relationship and show how the organization fits into a person’s life (Kalbach, J., ”Visualizing Value: Aligning Outside-in” in Mapping Experiences, 2021).

Alignment Diagram Principles

Jim Kalbach points us to some key principles of creating alignment diagrams:

  • Principles of Alignment. Understanding the common aspects of alignment diagrams opens up possibilities: you’re not limited to one approach over another. Below are principles of alignment
  • Principle of Holism. Alignment diagrams focus on human behavior as part of a larger ecosystem. They are not about product research (e.g., not about diagramming the workflow with a specific software program). As much as possible, look at what individuals do, think, and feel in a given context.
  • Principle of Multiplicity. Alignment diagrams illustrate multiple facets of information simultaneously. This is what the “alignment” part of the technique is really all about. Common aspects on the user side include actions, thoughts, feelings, state of mind, goals, and pain points. On the organization side, typical elements include processes, actions, objectives, and metrics, as well as actors or roles involved.
  • Principle of Interaction. Alignment diagrams expose touchpoints and the context of those touchpoints. The multiple layers of information come together to show an exchange of value. As a result, alignment diagrams prototype experiences. It’s easy to walk through the touchpoints in slow motion, analyzing the broader circumstances around each interaction.
  • Principle of Visualization. Alignment diagrams show a composite view of behavior and processes in a graphical overview. It’s the immediacy of an all-at-once visualization that makes them powerful. A 10-page report or bulleted slides with the same information won’t have the same impact. Visualizations give organizations a much-needed view into their interaction with their customers. They make otherwise abstract and invisible concepts like “user experience” tangible.
  • Principle of Self Evidence. Alignment diagrams are compelling. They typically need little or no explanation. People can walk up to one and orient themselves relatively quickly. Keep in mind that a visual format itself does not guarantee simplicity: you’ll still have to work hard to reduce information to just the most salient points and shape them into a cohesive story.
  • Principle of Relevance. Alignment diagrams seek to address real-world issues and therefore must be relevant to the organization. As a creator of an alignment diagram, this means you must investigate and understand the goals, challenges, and future plans of the organization. The resulting diagram should fit into their thinking.
  • Principle of Validity. Alignment diagrams are grounded in investigation, not made up in isolation. They require some contact with the people in the real world through research and observation.

Alignment diagrams are no panacea. They do not provide immediate answers outright. Instead, they are compelling visualizations that draw others into important conversations about creating value. Your ultimate goal is creating an inclusive dialog within the organization, not creating the diagram itself.

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned in first post if this series, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors to help designs pick up the skills to influence product strategy and decisions that help drive product vision forward.

Such program is practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

In the next post, I will talk about other Facilitation skills in particular Storytelling as a means to facilitate and generate design insights.

Recommended Reading

Brand, W. (2017). Visual thinking: Empowering people & organizations through visual collaboration. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS Publishers B.V.

Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The world cafe: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Buxton, B., (2008), On Being Human in a Digital World. Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2008). The appreciative inquiry handbook: For leaders of change. Berrett-Koehler.

Dziersk, M., (2010), “Visual Thinking: A leadership Strategy” in Building Design Strategy. Lockwood, T., & Walton, T., Allworth Press.

Justice, T., & Jamieson, D. (2012). The Facilitator’s Fieldbook (3rd ed.). Amacom.

Kalbach, J. (2021). ”Visualizing Value: Aligning Outside-in” in Mapping Experiences (2nd Edition). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L. (2018). The design thinking playbook: Mindful digital transformation of teams, products, services, businesses and ecosystems. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Owen, H. (2008). Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Polaine, A., Løvlie, L., & Reason, B. (2013). Service design: From insight to implementation. Rosenfeld Media.

Roam, D. (2013). The back of the napkin: Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. Portfolio.

Smutny, M. (2019). Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings. Bothell, WA: Civic Reinventions, Inc. (August 10, 2019).

Ulaszek, J., Winters, B. (2013) ‘Setting Course – Design Research to Experience Roadmap.’ Presentation at IxDA’s Interaction’13 Conference, Toronto – Canada, 28 February 2013, captured 8 Mar 2021 from https://www.designative.info/2013/05/07/watch-jason-ulaszek-brian-winters-from-design-research-to-experience-roadmap-talk-at-interaction13-ixda-conference/

Van Der Pijl, P., Lokitz, J., & Solomon, L. K. (2016). Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Wendell, J., Holtzblatt, K., & Wood, S. (2005). Rapid contextual design: A how-to guide to key techniques for user-centered design. The Morgan Kaufmann series in interactive technologies. Elsevier Science & Technology.

Young, I. (2008). Mental Models. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media.

By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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