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Visual Meetings

Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity by David Sibbet

Here are a few of my notes…


It all hinged on a premise, that their perspective on life at work needed to shift from delivering well on orders and requests to getting out front and leading into the unknowns of a new market. We had to shift their internal mental models—their point of view.


On day two of the Apple Leadership Expedition we invited all the participants to take a different point of view on their own careers. We asked them to use a simple graphic format called a “peak and valley diagram” as each one mapped out his or her career. The exercise involved drawing a line across a piece of paper, and then intuitively making a horizon line that represented the ups and downs in his or her life, and labeling the peaks and valleys. (See the steps-at-a-glance practice on this page.)


Another colleague and I began a meeting with some generals in the U.S. Army by scattering a variety of interesting photographs around on the floor and asking everyone to pick one that appealed, for whatever reason.


When I first learned to record graphically for groups, I was interested that Interaction Associates called the flip chart displays “group memories.” They asserted, and I concur from experience, that when a group sees its work recorded, their trust in its validity increases, and groups will use those charts as their collective memory. Since remembering what we commit to do in meetings is so critical in implementation, I think any investment in improving retention is a direct link to greater productivity.


• John Ward led a workshop on kinesthetic modeling, using clay and model making to think through planning and other problems.


Great Beginning Journal Activities

Draw Seating Charts

· Practice Bullet Points

· Play with Lines and Borders

· Doodle Little People

· Play with Cartoon Bubbles

· Take Notes in Different Formats


Well, the simplest thing to do visually was to just rest the pen on paper and make a dot. The next most simple thing was to move the pen and make a line, then to change directions on the line and make a shape, like a triangle. Formalizing the shapes into neat squares and rectangles seemed the next hardest. I could then combine the square and triangle and make what I called a hollow arrow. With some practice I could make this arrow spiral, and finally get around to the circle. Now, the circle wasn’t the hardest to draw, but seemed the most comprehensive. These seven basic shapes became my building blocks for diagramming and illustrating. I could create any kind of picture out of these elements.


This was a directive from the top and they were in heavy resistance. I sensed this right away when I reviewed the stated outcomes and agenda for the meeting. So instead of going straight at the agenda, I stepped aside with a flip chart and drew a circle. I then drew some hollow arrows pointing at it. (They could be just line arrows.) Then I turned around and said, “Before we start let’s talk a bit about all the ways we can ensure that nothing productive happens in the meeting or this process.” I kept a straight face and waited. “We could avoid talking about it when we get back to work,” someone said. I immediately wrote it down. “What else could we do?” I didn’t give them time to think, and pretty soon we had 8 or 10 items and a lot of laughter. They realized I wasn’t naïve about the challenges and the meeting was quite successful.


The seed shapes reviewed in Chapter 2 are perfect for diagramming out a meeting design. Use circles to indicate the actual meetings and breakout groups. Use squares to indicate documents that need to be produced. Hollow arrows can indicate projects that need to be completed but aren’t meetings. Link them together as small and big circles with outputs across a time line, and record with bullet points the different things you need to do. This informal sketch really provides some traction for thinking.


I made six targets with each of the six value words in the center of each. The issue was having people know what these meant and how they would be translated into action. So the first ring of the target was for the definition and the second ring was for examples of what that value would look like in action in the various different parts of the business.


Tattoo this principle on your inner brain: “People are more engaged by things that are suggestive than by things that are crystal clear.”


According to their research the first question people have is “Why are we here?” This is all about imagining the purpose of the gathering. The second is “Who are you,” and an inner question of “what might you be asking of me in this meeting.” This is about trust. Then we ask the third question, “What are we doing?” Eventually we ask, “How are we going to do it.”


As the meeting begins ask people to introduce themselves, and go around the chart writing people’s names in the circles where they are sitting, and writing down their jobs and whatever else they share.


Have a Weather Report: A fun way to use sticky notes to start a meeting is to pass them out and ask everyone to write down what kind of weather represents how they feel right now. Are they “sunny and bright,” or “fogbound,” or “rainy,” or “blustery.”


Create a wall with little monitor-sized squares all over it. When people arrive ask people their name and print it out in the squares, along with their company and title. Then ask, “What is the hottest question you have regarding this topic?”


Meeting rooms and how they are arranged is itself a visual statement and part of what can be used to engage people in a meeting. A number of very active get-to-know-you exercises use rooms as spatial displays in 3-D. These work for any size group, but are especially good for larger meetings.


Ask people in your meeting to line up based on different kinds of things:


The Tibetans, for instance, have stories about a mythical race of fighters called the Shambala Warriors. They were renowned for their skills and ability to avoid conflict. A core principle was “looking for the rising sun in every opponent.” By this they meant looking for the inherent goodness that all people carry, even if 99% of what they were seeing was the darkness before the dawn.


I read about this story in The Shambala Warrior by Chogyam Trumpa Rinpoche and it touched me deeply at one point in my life. I began experimenting with visualizing the rising sun coming up in people’s chests as I talked with them. It began to transform my listening.


My task was to help them visualize their new vision with a large Storymap*, The Grove’s name for large information displays that let leaders tell compelling stories about organization visions and strategies. The way I involved everyone was quite simple. I asked them all to pair up and answer a simple question. “In the future, our stores are like _______.” I was asking them a very open question, to come up with a metaphor for what their stores would be like. We taped up flip chart paper and provided some watercolor markers. “Do a simple sketch and write out some of the characteristics,” I instructed. Thirty minutes later we had 6 or 7 sketches and a lot of conversation.


“Disneyland,” one chart was headed. “We are like a county fair,” wrote another team. “We are a farmers market,” said another. “We are the town square,” said another. “We are like a campus,” said another. When we shared the simple drawings I listed out the characteristics that each team said they were pointing at—“Experiential, lots of choices, things for the whole family to do, colorful, exciting.” We narrowed it down to two—Disneyland and Town Square, and began to work on a vision drawing that would integrate the two.


You can also ask everyone to begin moving and clustering the items as a large group, invoking a simple rule—anyone can move a sticky at any time. This results in little sticky note contests, where one will bounce around between clusters, but it always sorts out. Add a little more fun by suggesting that no one talk during this process. This gets everyone fully engaged in reading all the information, and avoids getting sidetracked with conversations that aren’t relevant.


I worked with an HR team that had about 10 goals for the year on sticky notes and really needed to prioritize and get them focused down to 3 or 4. A free-flowing argument didn’t seem like the right way to get agreement. The leader and I didn’t feel that voting was appropriate. She wanted the group to really wrestle with which ones would be the very best to take on in light of the company’s overall goal, which had been discussed at some length.


I suggested a simple “hi-lo” grid (shown here). The top represented things that would have a high payoff in relation to their company goals. The bottom was low payoff. Then the left side represented things that could be done somewhat easily and the right things that took a lot of effort. We talked a little about what easy and difficult meant, but not that long. The group was then asked to sort the stickies without talking, having the ability to move any sticky any time. In less than 20 minutes they had them sorted and it was graphically clear which 3 or 4 were the most promising goals to take on.


Process maps are all similar in that they have time on one axis and channels of activity on another. How many channels of activity determines how complicated the map is.


I wanted them to “own” the process and be involved and suggested to my British sponsor that we leave the third day open for their design. He would have none of it, fearing criticism for not being prepared. After much argument I finally proposed that we create little posters on half sheets of paper that illustrated each potential activity, and then involve the top managers in helping us pick the ones they wanted and organize them. This worked so well it is now a standard technique for doing group process design we call “Activity Block Agendas,” since it works with a large time block template.


Laurie then asked us to quickly write a statement that included completions of the following questions: I am the one who ___. My name is___. What I need from you is___. My gift to you is___. What I have to say to you is___. My shadow is___.


Collage imagery is very powerful to the people who select the image. This is because the image itself isn’t where the meaning lies, but in the connection between the image and what it evokes in the person who relates to it.


GO SLOW TO GO FAST I remember Michael Doyle teaching us facilitation, saying “go slow to go fast.” He believed you either took time engaging people up front and having everyone understand what changes or plans they were making, or you would have to spend the time later during implementation catching everyone up—a process that greatly slows down the process of getting results.


Christine Martell’s VisualsSpeak cards come in packs of different sized imagery to support all the kinds of dialogue you might want to support. Here are a few of the images, reproduced by permission. (See for more information.)


Buckminster Fuller, a renowned inventor (the geodesic dome) and optimist about human beings’ ability to solve problems through design, believed that the we could learn to change systems from the way rudders turn big ships.


Large ocean liners have rudders that are many meters tall. When the ocean liner is moving, many tons of water push on each side as it moves through the water. The question is, how does the crew actually move the rudder? I will pose this question to groups and people guess it’s connected with a very large steering rod, or they won’t know. The answer is actually quite simple. Out on the edge of the rudder is a much smaller little rudder. When this little rudder sticks out into the rushing water on one side or another, the power of the moving ocean pushes on this little “trim tab” and turns the bigger rudder. It does not take a great amount of energy to move the trim tab. This story is a story of leverage, and it encourages people to look for those actions they could


Large ocean liners have rudders that are many meters tall. When the ocean liner is moving, many tons of water push on each side as it moves through the water. The question is, how does the crew actually move the rudder? I will pose this question to groups and people guess it’s connected with a very large steering rod, or they won’t know. The answer is actually quite simple. Out on the edge of the rudder is a much smaller little rudder. When this little rudder sticks out into the rushing water on one side or another, the power of the moving ocean pushes on this little “trim tab” and turns the bigger rudder. It does not take a great amount of energy to move the trim tab. This story is a story of leverage, and it encourages people to look for those actions they could take that will move the larger system with its own force. It is a kind of engineering judo.


Our first exercise followed an initial tour of the actual CAS museum. We asked all the designers to interview some children at random that they encountered out on the floor, then come back and brainstorm some exhibit ideas, working in groups that mixed up the four firms. Right away everyone was thrown off his or her normal patterns. Not only are children guaranteed to have surprises, the cross communication between the firms was stimulating.


We then went to Half Moon Bay, and following a naturalist-led field trip through a coastal redwoods ecosystem, teams again had a chance to brainstorm potential exhibits. This time they were encouraged to model them out using cardboard, straws, tape, and other media.


Pixar is one of the most successful movie producers in the world, with hit after hit following its first all digital animated film Toy Story. The extras included on their DVDs explain their process, which relies heavily on storyboarding. I worked on a symposium with the head of their internal Pixar University and he said that they work with the story for as long as it takes to arrive at a narrative they truly believe in. Only then do they go to digital renditions and production. It may take as long as a couple years in the storyboard phase.


I chose to lead the group in some idea mapping about the nature of their work in the informal spaces. The process was quite simple. I began by asking everyone in the meeting to identify the most formative teaming experience in his or her life. They were things like being in band, the military, large families, food services, laboratories, and a group of ranchers. We created table groups of the clusters and asked each to create some flip charts answering the question “Sematech is like a ____.” I asked them to draw a picture and label the parts. Twenty minutes later we had several dozen charts around the wall. Amid a great deal of laughter and good communication, we went around and people explained why they picked this or that metaphor.


I then asked if there was one they would like to explore in depth. They picked a “ranch” as their topic. I drew a big square frame on the wall and a horizontal horizon line. “ What kind of soil does the ranch have?” I asked. “Chelate,” someone said, and everyone laughed. Chelate is very hard clay, I happened to know. “ What does the ranch raise?” I asked next. “Range animals,” someone said.


After many years of asking small groups to work on different kinds of assignments, I’m always amazed at how they are able to finish their work and produce a chart presentation even though I’ve given very little instruction on how to facilitate the groups. I’ve come to think of this as “output oriented group process.” By defining the deliverable clearly, such as “bring this template back with your best ideas,” I provide a clear goal. The groups deal with it.


• Coaching Feedback: Have small groups record “What Worked?” and “I Wish” feedback on flip charts or cards following their assignments. If trainers provide written feedback to individuals they observe this is also very helpful.


We put up this chart during a brown bag lunch and asked people to pick what they wanted to hear about. The session took off like a rocket and was a lot of fun. This format invites people to explore the whole range of ideas, puzzling about them and then jumping in. It simulates how we informally explore any new topic, and is new and different.



• Imagine succeeding

• Record your dreams

• Meditate

• Imagine pictures in clouds and scribbles

• Listen for imagery in people’s speech

• Practice active imagination about personal plans

• Free associate


• Keep meeting notes in a blank sketch book

• Keep a personal visual journal

• Doodle

• Diagram your own ideas in branching idea maps

• Create quick sketches and gesture drawings

• Use colored pencils and creative media

• Play around with really big drawings

• Play Pictionary

• Work on large display paper


• Prechart agendas, welcome signs, theme posters, check-lists, and models

• Practice block lettering and titling

• Learn a dozen or so simple seed shapes/icons

• Use color chalk pastels

• Trace cartoons and sketches to develop spacing and design

• Study the Group Graphics® Keyboard to learn display formats


• Interview one other person and record it visually

• Record presentations from television, videos, or talk radio

• Practice being conscious about using different display formats

• Record a staff meeting

• Work with a facilitator to record a whole-day meeting

• Learn to check with people for accuracy and ask for feedback


• Practice introducing activities as a facilitator and shifting to recording as the group gets going

• Both lead a group and visually record as you go

• Facilitate a team startup process or a planning meeting by yourself

• Use graphic templates for small group work

• Follow through with reproduction of displays and reports


• Lead an agenda-design meeting and make suggestions about graphic processes

• Use large process maps and Storymaps® for change efforts

• Help groups explore visual metaphors and the deep structures of thinking

• Become aware of the role of archetypes and culturally embedded imagery


• Lead cocreative drawing sessions with colleagues

• Lead teams of facilitators and recorders in support of large meetings

• Teach learners to channel group energy intuitively

• Lead workshops on visual meetings and graphic facilitation


I’ve seen this happen again and again, where the breakdowns and times when the agenda skids out of control become times of true engagement and progress. Getting it “right” with a group is actually overrated as a strategy if your aim is empowerment and facilitating the emergence of leadership. Try things, do different things, do unusual things, and learn from whatever you did about what works and what you can do differently next time.


I think most groups have many more resources than are generally recognized, and these can be accessed to help you improve what you are doing if you provide groups the tools and your confidence.

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