Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Digital and the Power of Visual Thinking

Picture this: a bland meeting room on Level 8 of your building. Two hours blocked out of your calendar. It’s been called by some guy in Marketing, to get feedback on a new strategy. You arrive, chew on one of the stale biscuits provided by reception. A team from IT faff around getting Airplay connected to a laptop. The presentation begins – 48 Powerpoint slides and 134 bullet points. Every half dozen slides or so, you’re asked ‘what do you think?’. Responses are hard to come by. Finally, the meeting finishes, with little to show for it.

Or: the same meeting room, the same two hours, the same biscuits (sorry, some things never change). Spread across the meeting room table, an array of coloured Post-Its, markers and stickers. No Powerpoint, no laptop, no Airplay. A flipchart in the corner holds a simple 3-step flowchart, outlining the session.

There’s a brief introduction, where you’re encouraged to doodle while the meeting progresses. The new strategy is presented in a storyboard format. With each image, ideas are invited, written on Post-Its, stuck alongside. As the images progress, the collection grows. Ideas flow, conversations spark, debates are had. Towards the end, ideas are collected into groups on the board, links drawn between them, until a framework becomes obvious. Two hours fly by, the session finishes, a wealth of feedback clearly driving the strategy in a new direction.

What’s different?

The latter is an example of the power of visual thinking. It’s not a new concept, but another crossover from the design world making its mark in digital strategy practice.

We see evidence of its effect everywhere, in the prevalence of infographics, word clouds and visuals as popular digital content. But surprisingly, it’s not a regular occurrence in strategic work.

Element’s digital strategy projects nearly always begin with a collaborative, visual workshop, drawing on techniques from UX, graphic arts, data visualisation and elsewhere. The technique has an official name – reflection-and-response – but we simply call it ‘jamming’, or exploring new ideas until the good ones pop out.

There are numerous benefits: using a visual language engages the right side of the brain, enabling people to think more creatively and come up with better solutions. It’s easier to discuss something you see, versus something you hear. Physically manifesting a process creates ownership within the group, and it’s easier to jump between levels of complexity.

In our experience, it’s by far the most effective way to engage stakeholders, make a process clear or explore ideas and possibilities.

Here are five tips for implementing a visual thinking workshop for digital strategy:

  1. Be Prepared & Flexible
    You need stuff to be visual with – Post-Its, markers, flipcharts etc – and you never know which medium might lend itself best. I’ve had odd looks when clients arrive to an art class scattered over the table, but I’ve never had a client say they would have preferred another Powerpoint.
  2. It’s Not About You
    You’re the facilitator, not the headliner. At the beginning, you’ll need to get the room going, but after that, step back and make the conversation the hero. Guide, prompt, encourage and challenge as necessary, but don’t get in the way.
  3. Be Gentle…and Tough
    Not everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas with a group, especially if their boss is in the room. On the flipside, some people are too comfortable. A successful workshop relies on not allowing one voice to dominate, while gently coaxing the wallflowers onto the dancefloor.
  4. Have an Agenda
    Simple but effective. Write up on a whiteboard or flipchart what will be covered in the workshop. It sets expectations as people arrive and ensures the session has focus and flow.
  5. Photograph everything
    Don’t lose those precious ideas – at the end, photograph everything that’s been recorded, put it on a USB, lock that USB in a safe and bury the safe in Siberia. Or upload to Dropbox – just don’t lose them!

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