Visualising a conversation – the key to effective collaboration
As a specialist business analyst (BA), my goal is to get the right people to collaborate and talk to each other about the right things, to ensure that conversations flow and can contribute towards successful system implementations.
Yet in reality do teams effectively talk to each other? My observations have shown that groups of people in a room rarely have a great conversation. A meeting with the right stakeholders does not necessarily result in everyone being on the same page.
Outlined below are the characteristics of an effective collaborative meeting, versus the frustration of what many meetings end up being:
Research shows that people do not process auditory information very well, while according to a National Academy of Sciences article, people can recall images with an 83% level of accuracy1. The article notes the speed and ease with which complex visual stimuli seem to slide into long-term memory. Auditory recall, on the other hand, is far inferior to this. Add to that the filters we apply to what we hear, based on our opinions and social bias, and I would conclude that merely talking to each other is a very ineffective way to collaborate.
The solution is to visualise the conversation. Someone must draw what the room is saying, as it is being said. A model on how to achieve this, so that a discussion becomes a common story that the team can reference and share, can be found further in this article.
As a specialist facilitator and BA, I am usually interested in three aspects of a collaborative conversation:
- What problem / solution is being discussed? Is it clear to everybody?
- How do we think about the issue at hand? Are we aligned?
- What momentum is created from this discussion?
1. Clarifying the problem / solution
Clarity at the collective level is the most important element of a decent discussion. Without shared context and shared understanding, we cannot begin to move towards a robust outcome. It begins with a clear statement of what items will and won’t be on the table for the discussion. I am amazed at the number of brainstorm sessions I have been to, which don’t have an agenda! This should be sent out prior to the meeting, to get the thinking going before the session. The issue(s) under discussion need to be visible to the room as a whole – write them down, and prioritise them.
Discussion about the agenda items should then start. This discussion, its pros and cons and differing opinions, must be captured visually. Some tips:
- Write down catch phrases from big personalities in the room, with their name next to the phrase
- Start with the problem, and stay with it for a long time. We jump into solution mode far too quickly
- Graphically represent the issue in boxes and circles, with arrows and lines and key statements. It is very powerful to be able to visually break a problem down into its component parts
- Use different colours and annotations to highlight points or denote a change in the discussion. People will remember that shift by the change in colour on the board when they later reference the picture
- The aim is to be clear, not pretty. Use diagrammatic elements with limited words if possible, but don’t be cryptic
- Take photos! This visual representation of the conversation is worth more than any other documentation the team will produce, because it is co-created
- If multiple sessions are being held about the same issue, draw a brief summary diagram from the session before, so the room has context and can move on. Stick up the photos from the first session(s), so they can be easily seen and read
2. Aligned thinking and the art of summarising
If collaboration was easy, we wouldn’t need it. The value comes in the debate, the fiery difference of opinion and unique skillsets that together make the outcome far better than a single viewpoint could have achieved. But we have to form “platforms” of agreement through the debate, or decisions can never be made. When a facilitator summarises the conversation, he or she is effectively creating these platforms.
Think of it as climbing a mountain. The entire team needs to get to base camp and agree on some very key decisions before they set off on the first leg. Once at the second camp, they need to consolidate supplies and the route plan based on their progress. They might need to re-align to make the summit or go back to base camp as some of the agreed assumptions have proven to be incorrect. Such is the ebb and flow of a collaborative debate and the role of summarising what we have achieved at each “camp level” on the journey, and what we should discuss to get to the next one.
I advocate making this summarisation step very visible:
- Summarise often, and document these summary points on a whiteboard as key decisions, principles or agreed terminology
- Summarising creates alignment in thinking, which is often more important in collaborative conversations than getting to the exact solution itself. With reference to the Spine Model2, principles tend to be a good level at which to align thinking. It allows for robust debate of practices and tools, under a direction the room can collectively buy into. Without summarising up to the principle level, teams often spin on the pros and cons of two solutions that are in fact very similar
- Each time you summarise, re-visit the principles and decisions from the last summary. Do they still hold true? Change them using colours, etc. and once again take photos. Note that decisions create momentum in the discussion (and after the session), while principles create alignment to support decisions now and into the future
3. Creating momentum
Excellent collaborative discussions should lead to action. Writing down the decisions which have been made already creates momentum. One should also capture the actions that must occur as a result of the discussion and get people in the room to commit their time to these actions through given deadlines, with assigned action owners and due dates written up for the entire room to see.
Below is a baseline for structuring your whiteboard to visualise a conversation for problem and solution clarity, aligned thinking and momentum.
Remember that visualization is for the shared context of the room, so everyone in the room must be engaging with the whiteboard/visual content. Step one is to have the confidence to stand up there, get everyone to look at you, and give this a go!
- National Academy of Sciences, April 2009, “Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory”, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2667065/
- Kevin Tretheway, Danie Roux, https://youtu.be/O5GYEctRMC4
BSG is an African consulting and technology company with 20 years’ experience across the banking, specialised financial services, insurance, telecommunications and oil and gas sectors. Clients utilise BSG’s services because we ‘get it done with you’, by creating flow between business and IT executives. Through a collaborative approach we solve our clients most important business problems, accelerate their business performance and grow the sustainability of their people. BSG enables this customer-centric approach by journeying with our clients from needs to results, using fact-based decision-making.