All drawings and photographs are by Yuri Malishenko.

How visual thinking can make you a better agile coach

Learn how applying visual thinking methods to the job of an agile coach can take make you a better professional and bring more meaning to your day to day life

Yuri Malishenko
graphicfacilitation
12 min readApr 12, 2020

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Discalimer. I don’t think I am a better agile coach than others. I am on a journey. But visual thinking does help me get better and better version of myself, a small bit every day. And it can help you get better in your job too.

I have been recently interviewed by

for his Sketchnote Army podcast and we talked many things visual thinking and one of his questions was about how do I personally apply the methods of visual thinking to my agile coach job. I hear this question often from other people too — they want to know how they could apply to their work, and the best way to relate to something is to learn how one is using that thing.

Listen to the entire conversation with Mike here:

https://sketchnotearmy.com/blog/2020/4/13/yuri-malishenko-se07-ep06

UPDATE — Since the time the article had been written, I was honored to talk about my ways of agile coaching with Ian Gill for his wonderful podcast on the topic. In our conversation we inevitably ventured into the topic of visual thinking and you can listen to the full conversation here:

UPDATE — There has been another conversation with Gerd-Jan van Gils & Maarten Tomassen from the Coach Labs Podcast where we discussed the application of visual thinking to agile coaching:

And here is my story.

As an agile coach, I go through a lot of activities on a daily basis. I am just a participant in some meetings, I facilitate some of them, and sometimes I train. I engage in coaching and mentoring sessions, I engage in problem-solving and brainstorming activities. Alone or in a group, sometimes in the capacity of a team member.

And here is how visual thinking is supporting me in these activities.

Visual note-taking

My usual day has check-in meetings, sometimes people call them dailies. In those, we would share updates and offer our help to each other, outline problems that stand in our ways. In these meetings I always take notes. In fact, I take notes in all types of meetings. I take notes on paper, as I am carrying my notebook around with me:

Some examples of how I take notes in notebooks of different formats and binding types. I often prefer to use a technical pen to take notes, oftentimes I apply brush pens of light grey and yellow colors to pop things up and highlight important pieces of information. I scribble with pencils on the sides, I mix and match constantly experimenting with layouts, materials, and techniques.

Some time ago I have started taking notes digitally on my iPad Pro:

One of the examples of using the technology to take notes during a conversation with the team.

I experiment with different applications and so far I prefer using Procreate and Concepts. And I am eager to learn other tools too.

Sometimes when I forget to take a notebook with me or iPad is discharged, I make do with whatever is available at the desk or in a meeting room. In these situations, I like to use sticky notes. The way it works is I start writing things down on the first sticky note and then I do not stack another one on top of the previous one, but I rather arrange them on a table as an ever-growing canvas. Then I take a photo of the final result and keep the digital copy of it. Sometimes I take the stickies with action points with me to follow up:

Taking visual notes on sticky notes. Usually, they can be found in a meeting room in most companies and are great for taking notes. Start by scribbling things down, add more stickies when you run out of space and arrange them in an emergent canvas. Take a picture and keep the ones that hold important follow-up actions.

As a summary, visual note-taking plays a large role in supporting my daily activity. I do it unconsciously, it is a natural part of how I work. And I do not lean toward any particular medium or technique. I like to experiment constantly and look for easier and more effective ways to capture the conversation.

Visual note-taking helps me:

  • Stay engaged in a meeting.
  • Connect with the information on a deeper level.
  • Have an artifact that is easy to share with others — by simply sending an email with a picture of my notes.
  • Have more fun and inspire others.

Problem-solving activities

As an agile coach, I am either a part of a workgroup tasked to solve a certain problem or I support teams and leaders in their daily work, which is all about solving challenges of creating great products and services that positively impact the lives of customers.

Naturally, visual thinking plays an important role in problem-solving sessions. During those we align on our understanding about a problem or a task, we share our expertise and insight, we explore options and navigate possible solutions and we make decisions.

My tool number one is a whiteboard.

Working with whiteboards

When the situation allows, I use whiteboards to support our sessions visually. It requires that people are in the same room, of course:

I use different types of maps and diagrams that I build as we go, I combine drawing with sticky notes. I encourage everyone to contribute and help emerge the visualization of the process. It is always very engaging and inspiring to work this way.

Working with paper

Sometimes I work with flipchart paper instead of whiteboards. Paper is better if you plan to keep the artifact and also there is more opportunity to get creative — you have more options for various types of markers, chalks and so on. And of course, it is always a good idea to use sticky notes — they add an extra level of flexibility to your conversations:

The example of an artifact created with a team during a problem-solving session to come up with a structure for ways of working. In this case, the use of paper was justified by the intention to keep the final result in the team’s space.

Expanding drawing space with a DIY approach

Here is a small hack for you to create a large space on the wall to draw your diagrams. Take a few flipchart paper sheets, attach them to the wall with the use of masking tape, overlap them a bit, so that there are no gaps between sheets. Then secure the overlapping seems with matte Scotch tape — this tape allows you to draw over it and it behaves like paper. The glossy one is a no go, markers ink will not stick to it:

Need more space on the wall for your diagrams and maps? Or maybe there is no whiteboard in the meeting room? Attach flipchart paper to a wall with masking tape. Then secure the seams with a matte Scotch tape as shown above. Enjoy!

Creating presentations

In large organizations presentations (aka ‘powerpoints) play a very important role in communication and documentation. I am not a big fan of presentations, especially poorly made ones. But while they are a predominating format for both communication and documentation, I would like to at least improve the practice around creating those.

As an agile coach, I am expected to contribute to the knowledge base built up by creating powerpoints. And visual thinking helps me a lot with the task. There are two major methods I use.

Icons library approach

I use a custom made a visual library that I then use as images on the slide, I move them around and create diagrams right inside of the MS Powerpoint slide:

I create icons in Concepts app on my iPad Pro which I then use inside of MS PowerPoint to mix and match and create diagrams there. This way diagrams are editable by other people.

Hand-drawn illustrations approach

Quite often I draw illustrations for my slides on paper or sticky notes. And sometimes I draw illustrations digitally. But for me physical drawing is much faster:

I quickly draw an illustration on copy paper or sticky notes, take a photo and insert into a slide.

Once I am happy with the illustration, I insert it into a slide:

After some tweaking with brightness and contrast, the imported images blend in the slide and look great! And I am amazed at how easy it is to come from a drawing to a compelling presentation! You MUST give it a try too.

Communicating

As an agile coach, I would like to communicate effectively as I have to do it a lot. I would like to encourage new practices through popularizing communities. I communicate new ideas and I want them to look attractive so that people would be interested to learn more. And visual thinking is helping me succeed:

Just a few examples of using drawings and diagrams to communicate. Left to right: an internal event announcement, a diagram explaining the intention of a process change and a poster next to the door where an event is happening. Visual thinking is a lot of fun!

Facilitating events

I strongly believe that an agile coach is most of all a facilitator. At least I facilitate a lot. Small sessions, big sessions, workshops that last a few days. I like facilitating as it is a very challenging task. And again, visual thinking is a huge part of it.

I use visual thinking techniques to visualize the agenda:

Agenda with sticky notes from one of the workshops I facilitated.

I organize a lot of visual displays in the room to foster a productive process:

I use everything I can — flipchart stands, whiteboards, pre-printed materials. In this one paired up with — hi buddy! :-)

When used properly, visual thinking inspires people to participate, to contribute and be positive about even tough questions during the sessions:

The use of collaborative visual aids encourages and invites participants to actively engage.

I am not a big fan of facilitation canvases as I prefer full flexibility, but I certainly respect and use this tool a lot:

When appropriate, I use effective facilitation canvases. Like the customer journey or empathy map in these two examples.

And of course, I use the tools like parking lots, expectations and many more:

Expectations poster is a great way to collect and keep track of participants' expectations towards the session and its outcomes.

Training people

An agile coach is also a trainer. I do a lot of classes. I teach agile principles, I teach methods and techniques. And I love this part of my job — I like the magic of exploring possibilities with other people. Visual thinking is my approach to training people — be it the topic of agility or visual thinking itself. I do not use slides at all. During a class, I draw everything on flipchart paper, or whiteboards, digitally or on A4 paper broadcast to a screen with the help of a document camera. Check my other article to learn more about my use of the document camera in my teaching process.

Preparing the material for a class

Visual thinking comes handy when I need to sort my thoughts out when preparing the material for the training:

The example of dumping my mind on paper to understand how I would like to structure the material of the training. In this example — for product ownership training.

Planning training events

Visual thinking methods help me plan and prepare for training sessions:

I draw agenda, room setup and other important things to make sure I keep important things in check. I use small-sized sticky notes to move things around so I do not have to redraw everything — especially when I am not yet sure about the sequence of modules.

Running a training

When I run the training, I explain the material by drawing in parallel to my talking — and that is also a visual thinking technique. A very powerful one.

Just a few examples of posters created during training:

The way I explain the agile manifesto and Scrum events visually.

Drawing training posters is great fun for me as a trainer but at the same time it is a game-changer for the course participants — their engagement and immersion into the process is ultimate compared to other ways of performing a training.

A few more examples of how my training posters look like.

Learning — attending conferences and classes

And when reading books or listening to podcasts.

An agile coach has to develop and grow constantly. You need to sharpen your saw. I attend meetups, courses, and workshops to learn new things and to deepen my understanding of the concepts with which I work. I read books and I listen to podcasts. I immerse myself in a huge amount of new information. And visual thinking helps me stay sane, helps me focus on the underlying essential concepts, take in and absorb the most important parts first.

I use sketchnoting and drawing a lot to help myself concentrate and make a better sense of the new material:

My notes and visual exercises from attending courses.

When presenting myself to new people

When you are an agile coach, you meet new people and get introduced to new teams all the time. It is good to have your thing to present yourself and make the first impression. I naturally prefer to present myself a visual way. Here is an example of how I do it:

When I present myself to new people, I prefer to do it visually. Here is an example of a visual presentation of myself. Check my article to learn how I do it.

If you are interested in learning how you can present yourself visually, check my article on the topic.

Creating explanation videos

A couple of years ago I have started experimenting with video production. I know for a fact, that video material is the most engaging when you try to get a new idea across. I am still relatively new in this field but I have created a few educational videos on the topic of agile and people loved them!

A few backstage pictures of the video production — here we together with my colleagues were working on a video on high performing teams. We have decided that the video should be hand-drawn. It turned out to be a fantastic video but unfortunately, it is not available publicly.

Check some of the videos I created on the topic of agile:

Explanation video on the topic of relative estimation.
In this video, I explain communication levels in a large organization.

Coaching and mentoring

The agile coach is a coach. I do a lot of coaching, mentoring and supporting individuals and teams. Visual thinking is great in this area too — when you put things to paper, suddenly it is not you who says those things, suddenly, the paper with the notes becomes the extra participant of the conversation where you and the person can stand on the same side while observing those facts. It is a very powerful phenomenon that I exploit to a full possible extent.

Oftentimes coaching sessions happen in an informal environment and I use everything available to draw our conversation — loose paper, napkins (big thanks to for the idea to use napkins!) and even paper plates! Everything goes as long as the process is valuable for the participants.

Goofing around

Agile coaches are people too! We are also prone to stress, depression and lack of motivation. We are struggling to help organizations change the culture. We are exposed to a lot of frustration and disheartening. For me, visual thinking is a great source of humor as a defensive mechanism from dark thoughts and bad moods. Humor helps us smile when we are sad.

When I feel confused or frustrated, I draw funny things — to find positive things around me.

Coming up with your memes

And if not as a tool for building up your resilience, visual thinking is a great tool to promote yourself on social media. For example, by coming up with funny stuff:

By the way, follow me on Instagram. I share a lot of cool stuff.

Self-reflection

And finally, I use drawing for self-reflection and self digging. It is good to explore your thoughts by putting them on paper. Sometimes cool things emerge.

Afterword

As you can probably see now, visual thinking is not a tool I choose to use or not to use on a daily basis. It is deeply rooted and tightly integrated into how I work and operate, as an agile coach. I cannot imagine myself without the tool. I hope you got some ideas and inspiration for what you could use for your work. And if you are not an agile coach, I hope you can see that the application is universal and can be taken to any other profession as well.

Thank you for reading!

I am an aspiring product manager, agile coach and a visual thinker living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I blog on visual thinking and share my random agile thoughts if you want to read more. You can get in touch with me via my website or Instagram account or on Twitter. All the best!