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Whiteboard Culture: An Organizational Competitive Advantage?

by Chris Curran on April 3, 2012 [email] [twitter]

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Guest post by Sachal Lakhavani

Does your organization have a whiteboard culture?  When faced with complex problems or collaborating with people with different perspectives, do the people in your organization draw to communicate in a dynamic and visual way, or do they rely solely on verbal explanations and static Powerpoint slides?

I recently attended a panel at SXSW that was instructively entitled “Shut up and Draw.” The panelists, Dan Roam, Sunni Brown and Jessica Hagy, made a very compelling case for why you should cultivate a whiteboard culture in your organization.

Pictures have high information density

This is particularly important in an age of information overload, when people are striving for more efficient ways to consume information.  This is one of the driving forces behind the success of image based information sharing such as Pinterest, Instagram and infographics.

Visual communication is more effective than verbal communication in getting people on the same page

“If you want to convince someone, draw them a picture,” said Roam. “It works much better than words.” According to Roam, the more you talk with people who don’t see things your way, the more you will disagree with them, but a picture can instantly unearth common ground.

This is supported by research that has shown that communicating political information visually is more convincing in “reducing incorrect beliefs” than using the equivalent words.  Ironically, the research paper itself makes little use of visualization to make its argument.

Drawing helps to clarify thoughts which are not fully formed in the mind

Personally, I’ve found drawing to be so effective in helping me build out half-baked concepts into robust ideas with action plans that I have two whiteboards in my apartment for use in my personal life (much to my girlfriend’s chagrin).

My theory is that writing your thoughts on the board requires you to keep less information in memory, so you can concentrate more cognitive effort on solving the problem at hand.  This is supported by an experiment that Daniel Kahneman mentions in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, in which he observes that individuals asked to perform calculations perform more poorly when they are also required to remember other numbers.

Also, it’s easier to correct and redraw your thoughts on a whiteboard than it is in Powerpoint, Visio, mind mapping apps, etc.

Benefits for CIOs

During the panel I couldn’t help but think about the how the benefits on a whiteboard culture are specifically relevant to CIOs.

More than ever before, technology organizations must effectively partner with other functions such as marketing, legal, risk, HR in order to address a dizzying array of challenges.  These include initiatives such as social media, mobile, BYOD (bring-your-own-device), cloud computing, etc.  Given that people in technology are often criticized for speaking a different language than others, perhaps drawing would help get past differences in terminology and culture so that people are conceptually on the same page.

Southwest Airlines’ original “business plan”

During the session, the panelists very insightfully communicated some of the key barriers holding individuals back from “shutting up and drawing”.  Obviously, not having whiteboards or markers is one problem, but we’ll focus on the others:

1) People who aren’t artists are sometimes insecure about drawing – Drawing for visual thinking is not the same as art.  The purpose of visual thinking is for the viewer to understand something.  The purpose of art is for the viewer to feel something.  As Sunni Brown said, when drawing for visual thinking, “perfection is not the point, clearer thinking is the point”.  Understanding this will help people understand that you don’t need to be a good artist to be great with a whiteboard.

2) People are visually illiterate – Many people struggle with articulating a complex idea in a visual way.  Like certain letters are strung together to make sounds and words, particular types of images are used to convey different categories of information. For example, if you’re trying to communicate the “how” of something, you need an image structure that will follow the flow of a process.  The perspective of the panelists is that people can be taught best practices for how to communicate visually; starting with what Dan Roam has coined Vivid Grammar.  It is understandable why someone would be hesitant to stand up at a whiteboard in front of their colleagues if they were not confident they could express themselves clearly, so helping the people in an organization learn and practices visual literacy is foundational.  Resources such as the blogs and books of the panelists (Dan Roam, Sunni Brown, Jessica Hagy) are certainly a great place to start.

Where to start with Whiteboarding

When I first joined the company, Chris Curran spoke with our start class and gave everyone a copy of Dan Roam’s book, “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.”  The book convinced me of the value of whiteboard culture, which I’ve in turn made a point of instilling in my team (with the help of instant stick on whiteboards from Whiteyboard).

A good example of how whiteboards can be used effectively was described in a recent article in Harvard Business Review on “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs” (Jobs was a huge fan of whiteboards “because they gave him complete control of a situation and they engendered focus”):

“When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. After a few weeks of product review sessions, he’d finally had enough. “Stop!” he shouted. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid. “Here’s what we need,” he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote “Consumer” and “Pro.” He labeled the two rows “Desktop” and “Portable.” Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be canceled.”

In what kind of organizations do you think whiteboard culture can add the most value?  Is a whiteboard culture right for your organization?  If so, what actions have you taken or are considering taking to foster it?  What are the barriers you see in instilling a whiteboard culture?

Image shared by David Boyle

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  • Chris Lockhart

    Agree very much with the theme of this post. It’s hard to compose and convey a story without the brainstorming that goes along with working the whiteboard. So many times things just don’t seem to make sense until the story gels during a group whiteboard session. After that, it seems as if the story was always there. It just needed coaxing out a bit by drawing.

  • Kevin More

    I have always been big on drawing pictures and using picture only Power Point slides to sell my IT plans or ideas. It keeps it simple and the old adage, ” A Picture Tells A Thousand Words” is timeless. In my corporate culture, which is very research centric, I doubt very much we would shift to a  “whiteboard culture”. Researchers and Finance people just love their numbers and eye charts!  

  • Kevin Pashuk

    We are a 1:1 computer school where every student and teacher has a tablet PC.  We are in our 13th year of this program and the technology is well integrated into the learning process.  Assignments are delivered, completed, and submitted on the computer.

    We recently ran a pilot with IdeaPaint ( which is an epoxy paint that turns any flat surface into a whiteboard.  We painted large sections of the classroom wall and the results were remarkable.  The flow of the discussion shifted from teacher led (front to back) to groups of students working in different areas interacting with each other (front to back to side to side),

    I’ve written more about our experiences on my blog post here: 

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  • Jessica Luo

    Easy-Cling Whiteboard is made with Micro-suction technology, Perfect use for any smooth surface. Ideal for brainstorming anywhere and anytime.

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