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InfoQ Homepage Presentations The Shape of Thoughts: How to Create Visual Templates to Bring Clarity, Context and Change to You and Your Teams!

The Shape of Thoughts: How to Create Visual Templates to Bring Clarity, Context and Change to You and Your Teams!



Gemma Honour discusses how simple shapes can shape thinking, and break down difficult problems into something that is manageable and approachable.


Gemma Honour is the Director of Coaching for Bryter Work, a people first change consultancy, where she infuses change and workshops using the power of visual facilitation. Gemma moved into the world of Agile following her work as a software systems tester, before moving into project management.

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Honour: Welcome to the shape of thinking. This is a talk about visual thinking and how by using simple visual thinking techniques, such as using visual templates or visual facilitation, you can build a better workplace culture that is more inclusive and better at problem-solving. Before we get into that question, I'm going to ask you a question of, what kind of thinker are you? The Relater's research suggests that as thinkers, we exist in a spectrum between verbal and visual thinkers. If you like, we can find out about your thinking style. Let's just start by asking some simple questions. First off, think back to your weekend, what did you do? Notice, as you pull back that memory, how does it come back to you? If you think back to the weekend, and you notice that the information comes back like a photograph, or perhaps it might come back like you're watching a film. You might find that actually, you remember the name of a place, or it might be linked to a particular activity that you did. Or you may find that actually, you maybe get a mixture of both types of information. If when you were recalling that memory, it mostly came back as words like place names, or activities, or you heard the answer to your question, it's likely that you fall towards the verbal end of the spectrum, so you'll be more of a verbal thinker. If your memories came back more in the form of pictures or film footage, it's more likely that you fall towards the visual end of the spectrum. If you found that you remembered using a combination of words and images, it's likely that you fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. For some visual thinkers, there will be no words associated. For some, there will be a film with maybe a bit of narration, and maybe a few key words thrown in. The chances are that most of you here will already have some kind of visual thinking ability. The stronger your visual thinking ability, the greater clarity you'll have in being able to create visuals in your mind.

Now we can do another test, especially for those who found that they record visuals in their mind's eye. Let's find out how well you can actually construct those visuals. If I ask you to look up and imagine a clock. I want you to use your finger to track the second hand going around in a clockwise direction. Now, keep tracking your finger around in that clockwise direction, and slowly move the clock down in front of your body until it's level with your chest, like so. Now, look at your finger. What direction is the clock hand now moving? Is it clockwise still? No? Is it anticlockwise? Yes. Did you change the direction that your finger was moving? No. How did I do that? Did I manage to simultaneously get everyone to change the direction of their finger movement? For one or two of you, the answer to this question might be obvious. For those of you who are the super strong visual thinkers who created a full 3D model of a clock, you'll now be looking at the battery pack at the back of the clock. You'll understand that the direction of travel of your finger didn't change at all. What changed is that you're now looking at the back of the clock, and from the back the direction looks as if it is anticlockwise. For the 2% of you who were not fooled by my magic trick, congratulations. You have a strong ability to visualize objects in 3D, and that gives you a unique ability.

As a visual thinker, you're likely to have problem-solving abilities that potentially you've only just discovered as you got older. You might be better at noticing patterns or visualizing risk, understanding how technology or systems work together. You might be better at solving complex puzzles. Of course, that real super ability, putting together IKEA furniture. The thing is that despite these super abilities, visual thinkers don't often get recognized for this different kind of intelligence when they're younger. For me, it's only now that I'm older that I discovered these abilities. Because mostly, if you lack the verbal thinking skills, you only see the downsides to your gifts, which may include things like being messy, or disorganized, or bad at spelling, or finding it hard to articulate yourself in words. This is because visual thinking and neurodiversity are commonly found together. When the neurodiverse are given the opportunity to thrive, we often find that their visual thinking superpowers offer exceptional greatness to the world. For example, Einstein, Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, and Richard Branson, all have dyslexia. Yet, when they harnessed and created the right conditions for their differently thinking brains, they were then able to tap into their genius.

That brings me to the next question. What are we doing in our workplaces to tap into the genius minds that may require more visual or creative ways of thinking? It's understood through studies that around 70% of people fall somewhere on the visual thinking part of the spectrum. That means 70% of people who could be using their minds to generate models, communicate, recall, and problem-solve, 70% of people who would definitely benefit from a more visual way of interacting with the world. However, most of our criteria for assessment, like interviews, job interviews, tests, school, work meetings, all fall into this verbal thinking area. Most of our education is set up to encourage the development of verbal thinking. Most of our work meetings also fall into this verbal thinking category.

Career Trajectory

I fall onto the visual end of that scale. I did ok in my education, but not spectacularly. How did being further up that visual thinking scale impact me and my career? Given my wide range of interests, and adaptive nature, my career has often gone in multiple different directions at the same time. If anybody's ever heard of the squiggly career, prepare to meet my career overview, which potentially looks more like a London Underground map. It started with me working at Virgin Megastores, which, for so many reasons, felt like my spiritual home. I then had to grow up a little bit and I got into some pretty intense call center work, all the while I was at the same time producing radio for local radio stations, and doing youth work. Of course, I also did this. I was working as a helpline counselor and teaching radio production and studio management to young people, which potentially explains a little bit about my love of coaching and how this developed. After time working in IT, in various different management roles, I landed a role as an IT project manager. While I was doing that, I was also on the management committee for a community center where I was facilitating meetings on how the center was run and how funding was allocated.

It was at this point that I noticed that something was going wrong. It was going wrong, because the way that all my meetings within the world of community centers and IT projects were geared towards the 30% of people who think verbally. It meant that the meetings that I held or were part of, were just dominated by those who were the most articulate, or the most powerful verbal communicators. Is not to say that those people were wrong, they were just good people who had also had great ideas. The issue was that the people who thought more in terms of pictures, or patterns, or 3D concepts were just not heard. As a result, the meetings were being held in ways that had low creativity, low innovation, not much inspiration, or really not much genuine teamwork. It was at this point that I nearly gave everything up to become an upholsterer. I wanted to create. I wanted to see stuff get done. I wanted to move away from the tricky sedentary meetings that were such a major part of my day. Luckily, it was at this point that I discovered Agile software development and Scrum. I discovered that there were new playful ways of getting everyone involved in solving problems in a way that involved a diverse range of voices, doodles, and opinions. Here I now am.


I am Gemma Honour. I'm the Director of Coaching and Co-founder of Bryter Work. Bryter Work is a coaching-based consultancy that puts people first. I use and teach techniques such as graphic recording, visual facilitation, sketchnoting every day to help people understand and solve problems. They also work with me to carry out creative goal setting and make decisions. I use the tools to help clients get the results they want, and build better places to work. I'm going to share with you how and why you might use visual thinking and some of the tools that you might use in your day-to-day to clear mental clutter, create culture, and improve your problem-solving.

Clear Mental Clutter

Let's start with clearing your mental clutter. What really simple visual thinking techniques can we use to make our meetings clearer? The way that I often imagine a meeting where we're just sharing lots of words is a little bit like this. Lots of words. Lots of disorganized opinions, facts that if you're lucky may result in some actions. In these discussions, verbal reasoners tend to dominate conversation, and visual thinking people have to really doodle to concentrate, and they often don't fully contribute. How can we start using some visual thinking techniques to help us navigate through this wall of verbosity. The first thing that we might start to do is create some categories in which we can divide the information out by. First of all, we'll add category one. Next up, add a second category. The categories could be something like risk versus reward, or progress versus obstacles. It really just depends on what your meeting is about and what the most important bits of information are that you need to gather. Just by visually identifying bits of information that belong to certain categories, it can help us identify the bits of information that we are looking for in the meeting. That's the first step, categorization. Some examples of how this might look in one of your meetings is taking the subject of the things that you need to discuss. Let's take something like risks. What we can do is set out some visual prompts of categories of risks. That might be financial, technical, reputational, and operational. Just by setting that out, that helps you to think within a number of different directions and it can also help you see if you've got any blind spots left. Equally, for something very open, like a team meeting or a regular sync, you can quickly gather up some categories of information that's important for the team to discuss. Then you can create really quick and easy Kanban boards, and use like a Lean Coffee template, so that the team can see and give equal time to discussing particular topics.

That's the first step of categorization, which then makes it easier for our next step. It's now easier for us to collate that information, the relevant information together, and then mentally discard the rest. The benefit of collation into these categories is that we can now better see when other people share similar or opposing views, as we bring the relevant information together as a team. That ability to collate means that we can see when ideas are really similar. When that happens, they can be grouped. This grouping, again, helps us to refine down the numbers of items that we need to consider by maybe deduplicating in some areas. That is the second step in that tidying process, collation. Collation, what that might look like in a meeting will be say, for example, just asking a group to move some Post-it togethers into relevant groups. It can also involve moving your Post-it notes into a more complex structure, such as a Venn diagram, or a bull's eye diagram to guide that collation process. For example, a Venn diagram to agree the responsibilities and shared responsibilities between the developer, tester, and business analyst can be a useful tool for collating those ideas into categories. Finally, that articulation means that we can then choose to prioritize certain items for discussion. Meaning that we get to the most important points first, rather than just the points of the person who is most adept at verbal reasoning.

Some quick ideas for prioritization. Everybody knows about dot voting. You can just use a pen or stickers, and you can ask people to vote on the items that they think are most important. There's also relative ordering based on the importance of the subject relative to other people. The most important things, you ask the group to prioritize, to go at the top, and then the least important things go at the bottom. A really fun way of doing this is to use index cards on a table. You can use like an Ouija board type technique, where the group silently slides the card around into the area where they believe the relative importance is. Then when the group seem to get stuck, or you notice like a little battle in terms of where the card is going, you ask the group to discuss and then you run the exercise again. That's quite a fun way of just bringing in some relative prioritization.

Those were steps to clear up mental clutter. That's three visual techniques, so categorization, collation, and prioritization. Categorization, create some topics, gather some themes. Collation means we bring some of the contents of those themes in a way that helps you deduplicate the things that you need to talk about. Prioritization gives us a visual indicator of the most important things, and the most important topics that the group need to cover. A simple way of setting this up for a meeting would be just to take your flip charts sheet and some Post-it notes, categorize the information into areas, or just use different color Post-it notes based on some set categories. Here, I've created a template that splits out four different categories: wins, appreciations, risks, and puzzles. You can choose your own based on what's most important for the team to discuss. You then give a little bit of time for the introverts and slow thinkers to generate their ideas onto the Post-it notes, and then you ask the group to collate them onto that sheet and group them. You can then see where the similarities are and remove any duplicates. If you still have too much to talk about, you can then simply ask the group to prioritize those. You can also run this on a Trello board or an online whiteboarding tool of your choice. Of course, the benefit of doing it on a flip chart, as well as being in-person, you can, as we did here, take your flip chart to the pub.

You may have already seen these types of visual thinking tools in a sprint or a project retrospective, but start to think about where else they could be useful. I know most people's days are filled with many different meetings. Think about, for example, your daily Scrum. When was the last time that you did more than just talk updates at each other? How can you use some of these techniques to actually organize yourself and listen to each other better, and be able to get to the crux of the information better? What about thinking about creating a space even, say, within a bigger meeting like a town hall for something like this. The great thing about using these types of formats is that they are so democratic. It is a natural enabler for empowering teams and giving everyone a voice.

Create Great Culture

Now that we've learned some techniques to clear up our mental clutter, next up, how can we create a feel of culture or cultural identity using visual thinking? What tools or techniques are available from the world of visual thinking that might help us to do that? Before we answer that question, we have another one to answer, which is, what is culture? One way to think about organizational culture is to think of it broken down into three different areas: stories, artifacts, and rituals. Stories are the ones that people tell about their team, or the organization that really reveal its values. For example, I heard Sandra, she got fired for looking the CEO in the eye. Rituals are the things that we do every day. These might be formal, like a town hall, or a Christmas party, or a company retreat. It could be things like the way that you as a team celebrate birthdays, or big life events. They can also be the informal things too, like the protocols that you have around tea rounds for your team members, or how your lunch invites are extended. Artifacts are the visible and tangible things that are around. It can be like really physical stuff like furniture layout in an office. It could be the art that you've got on the walls. It can be the products that you build. I once worked in an office, an agency where there was this whole wall mural of the face of Anna Lee Fisher, the first mother to go to space. That was a really powerful message to us all about the culture and values of the business. Most of these features evolve from the people that work within the organization, or have been modeled by the leaders within the organization. However, there are some visual thinking techniques that offer ways of building on these things, or building out these things. This is particularly useful for companies who have moved into a predominantly online way of working. If you're thinking you're mostly online, you don't have that office wall, and you don't have the office furniture layout that may show you the artifacts or inspire those rituals.

Even if we can't take over an office wall, it is possible to use an accessible and template-based approach to understand and seed team culture. I want to share an example of two different teams that I worked with using templates and visual thinking to create a lasting sense of team identity. I want to share with you this visual facilitation technique that I use for creating culture by helping people playfully get to know each other and bond. The first step in this process was to understand what the team members valued as whatever artifacts, stories, or rituals we were going to create out of this team. They needed to be built in a way that demonstrates the values that the team held. I started our team kickoff workshop with a question to help me understand what shared values they have as a team. With both teams, I asked them to write down the name of somebody, living or dead, that they admired, and what values those people had that made them admirable. Team 1 came up with names like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Christian Münzner. Christian Münzner is a death metal guitarist who plays incredibly technical guitar with an adjusted technique that only uses two fingers. It's because he developed a condition called focal dystonia, from practicing the guitar too much. The values and qualities that these people display are that they are high achievers, they are dedicated, but often it's at great cost. They're also innovators within that field. Group 2 came up with people like radio DJ, John Peel, and authors, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams. The values that the group felt that these people displayed were dry humor, humility, and wit. That they've got creativity in the bucketload and an ability to get their messages out to the masses in very human and very real ways.

The next question that I had the group answer was, what values are most important to this team? Out of the values that these people have and what the people that they admire have, which values feel core to the team? What do they want to be known for? Then I asked them to do a collation exercise to collate these values onto the board and deduplicate any answers. I also got them to prioritize the most important shared values into this bullseye. The most important shared values went into the center. Those that were less important for the team went towards the edge. This process was done through negotiation between the team members, so they could all see each other's inputs. They could all build on these, group them, and prioritize those together. Groups 1's values looked a little bit like this: dedicated, creative, innovative, and irreverent were all words that came up. Whereas group 2's looked a little bit more like this, so resourceful, authentic, scientific, influential, innovative. You can see there are similarities between both. You could see also that there are subtle ways that they prioritize their values differently.

Finally, we were then able to create the visual branding, which would become their team name. Then we would then go on to develop artifacts around that branding that they will be known for. To do this, I asked the group to pick a fictional or mythical character, or a team that embodied the values that were most central to them. Now for the reveal, team 1 called themselves Prometheus, after the Greek gods who defied the other gods to bring fire, technology, and civilization to humanity. Of course, the end of Prometheus, his story is not so great in that he was punished for his good deeds by Zeus, who ordered that he was bound to a rock and have his liver plucked out and eaten by an eagle every evening for the rest of eternity. Of course, being an immortal god, Prometheus's liver always grew back, so he had to suffer his punishment repeatedly and forever. Group 2 called themselves the Wombles, an emblem of their ability to be resourceful and work with very little in really creative ways, while also being kind and humble. You can probably already tell by the names which team I worried about the most. These team names created a shared narrative of the teams and a sense of identity that could be displayed as part of the artifacts around them. I was enabled to team retrospectives, team communications, sprint reviews, all with images from the stories surrounding their team names. We still to this day have WhatsApp groups with these team names associated with them. There we go, a simple example of how to create a great culture by using visual thinking to seed that culture and the technique that you can then use to shape a team identity, and create cultural artifacts that really resonate and feel meaningful.

Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

Now we've had that example of how we seed culture. Now let's finally look at how visual thinking could improve your problem-solving skills. To do this, we will explore the use of metaphors for problem-solving. Now we've understood a little bit about how important images are in terms of shaping our self-perception, so our perception of ourselves as a team, how do the images we select shape our thinking about problems? Let's imagine that we're thinking about a service desk experiencing issues. We might have queues building up. We might have stressed staff. We might have unhappy customers. What happens if we think about it in a couple of different ways? If we think about this problem as, for example, a conveyor belt, or we think about it as a machine. If we use this metaphor to frame the problem, we start to see this as a process issue. Looking at this as a process issue, we might be tempted to ask some questions about the process. It might prompt us to think about inputs. What is driving the unhappy customers to come to us? It might make us think about queue management and efficiency. What are the attributes of a call that make a customer happy? How many staff do we need? What quality of staff would we need to be able to process things at the correct speed and manage the queues to my outcome? It might also make it prompt us to think about the exit points. What are the success criteria? What is a happy customer? How do we measure that? These are all questions that we can add to this image as some categories, and then bring this as an image to a team of problem-solvers. We use the metaphor of the conveyor belt, and then it will frame the way that that group think about that problem. Also, as a result, shape the solutions that you can expect this group to go to.

Now let's revisit the same problem, but using a different metaphor. What happens now, if we think about the problem with a hero and a victim at the center? In this metaphor, common in storytelling, it might make us think more about the emotional experience and the power dynamics that exist within that situation. For example, we might be inspired to ask different questions to help us explore and solve the problem. For example, what does the victim character need as part of this rescue to feel safe? What superpowers do we want our hero to be equipped with? What can we do to help our victim feel more empowered in the future? Different templates for different thinking leads us to frame, define, and solve the problem in different ways. If metaphors have this power to help shape our thinking, and shape our ability to problem-solve, how do you choose your metaphor? The first thing that we want to think about is, what do I want to optimize for? Is it optimizing for empathy? Do I really need to feel the customer pain in my problem? Do I want to optimize for planning, being logical, and taking steps, and understanding the dependencies between things? Do I want to optimize for change, understanding how something might evolve or grow? Or do I want to optimize for exploring different perspectives? Different metaphors would work in each of these areas. For empathy, I might want to work out what somebody else might experience. What do they hear, see, do, or think? For planning, I might want to use the metaphor of a map, or stepping stones, or crossroads. For change, I might want to use plant life, organic life, butterflies, or maybe some gap analysis that maybe uses two points. For understanding about different perspectives, I might use something like de Bono's thinking hats to be able to explore those different perspectives, and create that into a template.


Now you've got some ideas on how your brain is geared to think, as well as some tips and tricks on how to use visual thinking to clear up your mental clutter, create a great culture, and improve your problem-solving. Now you know why and you have some tools to use, it's time to use visual thinking to help you to commit. On a Post-it note, or a scrap of paper, I want you to write yourself a message in a bottle from the future. We need to write something along the lines of this template, which is, "Hello, this is you from," pick a future date. Now that future date needs to be not too far in the future. Then, say, you used a visual technique that was discussed in this talk. Think about the audience that you used it with as well. Did you use it with a team? Did you use it with some friends? Did you use it with your family? Then think about the outcome that you really want to get to. Then be like, well done.

Now this final bit of visual thinking helps you to imagine yourself in the future and commit to doing something small and achievable, as well as getting you to really imagine getting the best possible results. By making this commitment today, not only will you try something that will help you and others to think better and have better discussions, but your efforts will start to create the visual artifacts in your workplace that will signal that this is a creative and inclusive and playful place to work. As you can imagine, this particular visual thinking technique is great for goal setting, because it sets you up with a sense of pride and achievement from having done it, which is even more motivation for actually doing it. Once you've written your note to yourself, you can give yourself a round of applause for making that wonderful commitment.

Now you've seen how visual thinking and tools can help people solve problems, facilitate meetings, and foster a fun and creative, inclusive culture. You have the power to make that happen, because the best thing about a pen is that it is in your hands. Anyone can use these techniques, and so few people do.


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Recorded at:

Dec 15, 2023