Unlocking Creativity and Achieving Transparency
You may know that Scrum is based on empirical process control theory. Empiricism states that knowledge is gained from experience and that the best decisions are made based on what is actually known – no need for the crystal ball. Scrum is supported by the three pillars of empiricism – transparency, inspection, and adaption.
Most teams I work with seem to accept that inspecting plans, outputs, interactions, and ways of working frequently and then making positive changes to further enhance these things is a sensible thing to do. But, when it comes to the third pillar ‘transparency’ I’m often met with a barrage of strange looks, not to mention resistance. And here’s why.
In this post, I’ll outline why transparency is vital when dealing with complexity and why visualisation techniques are extremely powerful and simply the most effective way of communicating information, generating and sharing quality ideas, solving problems, and unlocking creativity.
The Curse of The Very Important Document
I’ll start by exploring a scenario that commonly plays out across companies around the world. It would be remiss of me, given the nature of this blog, to not start with a visualisation… so here goes…
This cartoon illustrates the behaviour we might see, day in and day out, in our offices and businesses; how ideas are generated, information is shared, and teams work together to achieve their outcomes. A corporate status quo if you will.
Now, let me add some colour to the grayscale narrative with a short story.
A group of Senior Executives meet, far from the office, at a 4-star conference centre to bask in semi-luxurious surroundings and to define their product strategy. They are going to take the market. Change the world even. At the end of the day, they are laser-focused and aligned on where they are going as an organisation and what they need to do to get there. The team return to the office feeling confident, that if well executed, the product strategy they worked hard to put together will ensure that the business reaches its aims. All this is diligently recorded in a very important document.
Satisfied with her work, the Executive sends an email requesting the middle manager works with his team to execute the product strategy – the very important document is attached.
The middle manager calls a meeting. He gathers a select group of people (probably ‘seniors’ representing each function) in a meeting room to review the very important document. They spend some time trying to figure out how they’re going to accomplish the objectives set out by the Executive Team. The meeting ends, and although the group feels like there are questions left unanswered, they are reassured when reminded that they have access to the very important document; ‘there is a link!’ the middle managers confidently replies.
The seniors go back to their teams – revealing the very important document to the people that will do the work. They explain, in the best way they can, what needs to be done. This is all extremely important. There is lots of pressure. There is a hard deadline to meet! ‘Why?’ someone asks. And ‘what if?’. ‘Well…er.’.
Before you move on, take a few moments to note down/sketch what you thought, felt, saw, and heard as you explored this scenario. What will be the likely outcome for this team of people – so preoccupied with their documents? What colour is this team?
There Is A Better Way
Now, here’s the same story played out in a different way. I believe, in a better way.
The Senior Executives meet in the office to talk product strategy. They spend just enough time working together to define a set of broad goals – concise, easy to recall, and inspiring.
The Execs then gather their entire team in a relaxed environment to discuss their product strategy, vision, and a broad set of objectives the team are inspired to work towards. Regardless of position, and without a hint of hierarchy, everyone is encouraged to participate fully in active discussion and healthy debate as they inspect the work together. There is a sense of openness which means that no view is left off the table. The team explore the strategy and work on their plans using a mixture of words, metaphors, and powerful visuals. At one stage, an early paper prototype of a conceptual product is passed around and closely inspected by the team. A recent grad, new to the organisation, makes a tweak to the prototype on the fly – everyone agrees that this simple improvement that takes the product to the next level – who would have thought?
During the meeting moments of conflict and brilliant harmonious collaboration are in equal measure. Thoughts and ideas diverge and converge and the work is elevated to something truly great. At the end of the meeting their product strategy seems to have taken on a new narrative – one that is shared, understood, and owned by everyone on the team. Everyone returns back to work with a feeling of excitement and purpose.
Again, take a few moments to note down/sketch what you thought, felt, saw, and heard as you explored this scenario. What will be the likely outcome for this team? What colour is this team?
Why Visualisations are Effective and Transparency Matters
There are many behaviours playing out in the first scenario that I would consider as being sub-optimal, inefficient, and simply not in line with what are widely considered as being healthy modern working practices; a command and control approach, groups working in functional silos, over-reliance on boring documents as a means of sharing information, lots of waste and inefficiency. Each of these things warrant being explored individually, but in this post, we’re looking at the virtues of using visualisation method as a means of communicating and sharing information and supporting the pillar of transparency.
An Effective Way of Communicating
A picture paints a thousand words. So don’t underestimate the power of visuals. In fact, it is often stated that up to 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Even if you doubt the science behind this statement, it is a fact that visual imagery has been used as an effective way of communicating and sharing information since the beginning of humanity. In modern times, we could rely solely on people’s deep understanding of The Highway Code to maintain order on our roads, but we choose to use a blend of written text and visualisation methods. Think about it, an octagon shaped sign tells anyone, anywhere in the world that they must stop. This information is transmitted to the recipient quickly. It does not discriminate based on a person’s ability to read text and can be easily interpreted even when obscured by snow or other means. A quick, simple, effective, and almost universally recognised method of communication – beauty in simplicity.
Visualisations Help Create Better Outcomes
In a business context, using visualisations in the workplace encourages healthy team interactions, increases alignment, and simplifies the exchange of knowledge. How? Well, let’s refer back to the scenarios we explored at the beginning of the post. In the first scenario, the team are interacting in a way that is far from agile – in fact, they are barely a team at all. Getting any real sense of alignment is laborious due to the siloed nature of their approach. Information is shared in the most time consuming, and arguably the least effective way possible – by sharing documents. People’s entire focus is on playing a bizarre game of corporate Chinese Whispers – providing little opportunity to round out ideas which leads to single-faceted sub-optimal results, and (probably) rework.
On the flip side, our second group use visualisations and other physical methods in order to generate, improve, and share ideas and information. Right off the bat, the team greatly enhance their interactions just by being in the same room (which their tools actually encourage). They choose (and it is a choice) not to let their digital tools and other methods drive their behaviours or kill creativity. They bounce off one-another, offer conflicting ideas, and clarify points of misunderstanding in the moment – sketching and crossing out at will. They are working together as a cross-functional team and are able to leverage the deep skills and expertise of each and every one of their team members. The likely-hood is that the sum of this approach will lead to results that are far greater in value than the contribution of a single ‘star’ performer.
Transparency Helps Teams with Critical Thinking
As I described in my blog post ‘Thriving in a Complex World‘, today’s businesses are operating in a fast-paced, shifting, and information-driven environment. Complexity surrounds us.
‘We receive more change-producing, project creating, and priority-shifting inputs in seventy-two hours than our parents did in a month or even a year.’ – David Allen. Getting Things Done.
Visualisations allow us to see the invisible. Being able to clearly visualise the complexity that surrounds us in our work; our systems, interactions, and processes, makes dealing with complexity and change infinitely more manageable. Visualisations help teams skillfully conceptualise, apply, analyse, synthesise, and evaluate data generated by, or gathered from observation, experience, reasoning, and communication to guide personally held opinions, decisions, and actions. Think about it, which of our groups would be best placed to deal with sudden (potentially catastrophic) changes in the market?
So, strong teams aspire to ‘see’ not only what comes within clear sight, but also what they are unable to see easily through the use of visualisations in order to aid critical thinking. Today’s working environment demands that teams are as adaptive as possible. The use of visualisations and other quick, flexible, and human methods of working help deal with complexity by ensuring that decisions and actions are based on the skilful evaluation of data – a highly important competency in an age of complexity and constant change.
The Fear Surrounding Transparency
The question remains. Why do so many teams resist a transparent and open way of working? On a superficial level, I tend to believe that resistance is born of ignorance – a lack of understanding of how certain behaviours and tools affect business outcomes. This is fairly easily solved through education. But, at a much deeper level, I believe that resistance sometimes comes from team members’ unwillingness to be vulnerable within their teams. Resistance in this case is born of fear. You see, a highly open, visible approach puts it all out there – warts and all. An environment must exist where people are confident enough to be bold, the people within that environment prepared to challenge and be challenged – to risk their own ego in the best interest of the work and push themselves to be better.
In this post, we’ve explored the effectiveness of using visualisations in our work and the importance of transparency; but remember, transparency is not a worthy end goal within itself – the hard work will start once everything is gloriously illuminated and laid bare. It is not easy. It can be uncomfortable. However, once you have stepped out of the shadows, endured the pain, gone through the hard work, and become better the outcome will be something of great value – born of raw human interaction and vivid creativity. Something the legions of gray men (and their documents and links) will never be able to achieve.
Major credit for this piece goes to Stuart Young whose work inspired me to give visualisation techniques in the workplace a serious try. His insights and key-learnings play-out throughout this post.
Stuart Young. Visualisation is the superpower you didn’t know you had. Agile Turkey 2018.
Kyvete Shatri. Kastriot Buza. The Use of Visualization in Teaching and Learning Process for Developing Critical Thinking in Students. European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research. April 2017.
Patrick M Lencioni. 5 Dysfunctions of the Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Basset. 2002.
‘I help teams re-frame how they think about product development.’