Visual Thinking session at DevSum17 in Stockholm — photo: Dave Laribee

Want a High-Performing Team? Get Them to Talk About Art

“So you’re showing a bunch of geeks some art? Why?”

“How will this be interesting for more than five minutes?”

“Can you explain it again?”

“V-T-What now?”

When I first began studying and speaking about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) in 2016 I got a lot of questions, especially when my Visual Thinking talk starting getting accepted at tech conferences around the world. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to introduce this technique to hundreds of people, in five countries, on three continents. My excitement only continues to grow, and I think now is a great time to revisit exactly what VTS is, and how it can help your teams.

VTS is a facilitated group discussion of art — usually three artworks per 45–60 minute session. The technique is backed by over 30 years of field research showing its effectiveness and accessibility. The outcome is the development of critical thinking and collaboration skills such as:

  • Observing
  • Brainstorming
  • Speculating
  • Reasoning with Evidence
  • Cultivating a Point of View
  • Revision & Elaboration

The facilitator asks specific questions of the group to illicit storytelling — what do the participants think is going on in the picture and why? Observers must explain their point of view, and the story of the artwork evolves with the discussion. VTS isn’t an art or art history class, it isn’t “playing with toys”, and it’s not “just another game”. There are no right answers, and no consensus is being sought. No one wins and nothing is tied up neatly with a bow at the end. Because of this, VTS also helps build team and individual skills important in any design or development role:

  • Comfort with Ambiguity
  • Openness to the Unfamiliar
  • Civil Debate
  • Willingness to Participate in Group Thinking
Attendee notes from Agile2017 in Orlando — Photo: @annekjones

VTS creates a safe space, one that encourages participation from all viewers. I’ve repeatedly been warned by conference organizers to not expect participation from a particular crowd — that they’re “reserved”, “don’t like speaking in groups”, etc. I’ve learned to ignore these warnings; it never holds true. I’ve facilitated VTS sessions in groups large and small — often with several native languages in the room — and I’ve never been left with anything other than an incredibly lively and engaging discussion. The nature of the technique invites people into the conversation that might normally be reluctant to share. It’s fun, it’s interesting. Most importantly? It’s judgement-free. As a practice, it’s very much inline with the Modern Agile principle of “make safety a prerequisite.”

Why should you care? Because the skills advanced by VTS are the skills of the future. Future work is collaborative. It requires empathy and great communication. Several recent studies have revealed that “soft skills” are the best predictors of success in our modern work environments. In my next post, I’ll delve into these studies, mapping their findings to VTS.

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