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The Practical Magic of 

Making Thinking Visible

Hey there! Look at these two people in a meeting. What do you think they are thinking about? We wish we knew, too. We can’t read other people’s thoughts - with current technology, anyway. Often that’s a thing to be thankful about, too. However, try solving a complicated problem, making sense of an abstract concept, or creating something completely new and innovative together with a group of people, and you might begin to wish your team members could read your mind - or you theirs.

Our ancestors brought us the miracle of language, and undeniably, it helps us connect, share ideas and plot great adventures like no duck, moose or even pig can. Speech is an incredible bridge into others’ hearts and minds but ever so often spoken language still falls short as a communication and thinking tool.

Like that one time when you could just see your team’s new direction in your mind’s eye, but nobody seemed to get it. Or when nobody in the room was actually speaking their native language and you couldn’t quite find the words.

If you’ve been in a work meeting, an activist gathering, a family dinner or a classroom, you’ve experienced dysfunctional communication. Somebody’s interpreted your words in a way they were never intended. Another person has struggled to explain themselves. People have talked past each other. The majority of people in the room have lost track of the conversation. Or you all forgot what was concluded just moments ago. It all made sense… we had something… and now, just fog.

Thankfully, our brains can process so much more than words. In addition to verbalizing our thoughts, we have the power of making our thinking visible using images or objects. We’ve all done this since we were kids. We’ve pointed at things, we’ve played, we’ve given new meanings to sticks, pinecones, socks, whatnot. As much as we can speak our mind in metaphors, we can show what’s on our mind using visual metaphors.

In situations of collective sensemaking, this skill is priceless. In case you’re currently thinking “I cannot draw to save my life, please don’t make me draw”, let me assure you: there are other ways. In its most conventional form you can make thinking visible by writing your thoughts down on post-its. This technique has its pitfalls, including Mary’s poor handwriting, Harri’s tendency to write a novel onto each post-it, and the fact that the only pens you have are ball-point, and no one can see the writing if they’re slightly further away. And yet, in comparison with the all-too-common speech-only approach, writing words on post-its has some huge advantages:

1) Giving everyone the chance to write down their ideas is a big step away towards enabling the whole team’s equal engagement - including the introverts, the interns and who ever happens to be on the lower rungs of the particular group’s invisible social hierarchy.

2) People can’t see inside your head, but they can see your post-it. Conversations become easier to follow, when everyone can look at the thoughts on the table. It’s also easier to keep the conversation focused and on topic when the discussion is in front of your eyes.

3) You can organize your thoughts in some really useful ways. Clustering, placing post-its in a quadrant, on a line, in stacks, removing some, adding others… you can see your ideas in new light when you take them out of your head and onto the table, wall or floor.

If you haven’t got post-its you can go 3D and use a whiteboard marker, coffee cup or whatever else is in the room to act as metaphors or representatives of different ideas. This is more powerful than you might think. Whenever you introduce a coffee cup or a stapler as a representative of something under discussion, you’ll notice that people can’t keep their eyes off of it. They might take it into their own hands to explore the ideas further. They might come up with new metaphors - if the cup is X, then the coffee should be Y. What’s the handle? What’s the relationship of the coffee cup and the stapler? Suddenly the conversation is no longer up in the air, abstract concepts flying in and out of the window. They’re here, they can be grasped and moved and reinvented and placed on top of each other. They make sense. They are easy to remember.

Once you’ve gone 3D, you’re on a pretty revolutionary road to more playful, creative and inclusive ways of working together. Bring in a bunch of Lego bricks, and you can build as good as anything that’s on your minds in intricate detail, building onto each others’ ideas, combining them, and revealing the differences of each team member’s point of view in a way that’s very hard to do with just words.

It’s one thing to agree that fostering relationships is the cornerstone of your company culture, but what does that mean to different people in the room? What would those relationships ideally look like? Who is fostering them and how? Don’t just assume. Show! Give everyone a chance to explore what fostering relationships looks like for themselves first and share your interpretations with each other afterwards - you’ll get a much more nuanced understanding of what’s valuable for everyone in the room and ideally find an answer you’ve defined together. (Or, if you go with the boss’ definition, at least it will have been made explicit.)

So have a go and see what wondrous new things you can express when you go beyond words! Personally, we’re so hooked that we’ve begun to carry around a pouch of small toys from meeting to meeting. And stones. And marbles. And buttons… All great tools for everything from sharing meeting expectations to prototyping an event setup to conversations about strategy and vision.

Too whimsical for your context? We’ve brought them along for meetings with ministry officials. So far we haven’t met anyone whose face didn’t light up when we took out our state-of-the-art productivity kit. And in the end, don’t we all just want meetings that are inclusive, productive, creative and fun?

Visual thinking to the people, we say!

Scroll down for real-life examples of visual thinking working its magic.

Identifying symptoms of a status quo we want to shift

Using drawings to collect symptoms of a status quo we want to shift

Prototyping the flow of a community experience using objects

Reflecting on a road traveled together and identifying moments of joy and learning

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