Visual Thinking Strategies as a better way to learn in organizations

I recently read the wonderful book ‘Visual Thinking Strategies’ by Philip Yenawine (thanks to Dave West from Scrum.org for the recommendation). It describes an alternative approach to learning that is based on shared sense-making and relies on inquiry to drive learning. Most traditional approaches to teaching are based on giving people information (through sheets, books, presentations). But research in this area clearly shows that very little of this actually sticks — even immediately after training. Our minds don’t seem very willing to digest regurgitated expertise no matter how profound, wise or clever it is.

Our minds don’t seem very willing to digest regurgitated expertise no matter how profound, wise or clever it is.

This is a fundamental insight. Especially when you consider that learning is not something that only happens in the classrooms of high schools and universities but is an integral part of life in modern organizations. Take:

  • Learning other/new approaches to working together;
  • On-boarding new employees;
  • Analyzing critical incidents and discovering how to avoid them in the future;
  • Teaching new skills (e.g. unit testing, dealing with users, marketing skills, etc);
  • Sharing company strategy;
  • Learning how to improve work as a team or a department;

Interestingly enough, most of the times the above is done with expert-based models. People are sent to internal or external training to learn something that is beneficial to the organization (and hopefully to them as well). Or external experts come in to analyze the situation, write a report and share their findings in the hopes that people will learn from that. It seems to me that this is quite broken (and most of us seem to know and feel this in their gut).

Combine this with the increasing complexity of our world and the work that we do, making the value of expertise (in the traditional sense) increasingly irrelevant. All fields that acknowledge this complexity — like Agile, Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, Liberating Structures, Learning 3.0 and Lean Startup — assume that shared learning is a more important foundation than a reliance on plans and external experts. So I think we can do better. And Visual Thinking Strategies seems like one such approach.

What are Visual Thinking Strategies?

Philip Yenawine developed Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) about twenty years ago within the context of art museums. They initially wanted to improve how people learn from studying art. The regular approach in museums of telling people interesting details about the painter and the painting (with audio tours, booklets or information panels) turned out to be very ineffective in terms of ‘stickiness’.

Building on insights from cognitive psychology and learning sciences, they developed an approach that is designed to actively trigger people to explore and make sense of material for themselves with a group of peers. In VTS, teachers ask three consecutive questions:

  1. What is going on here (in this picture)?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can we find?

It’s that simple, really. Acting as facilitators, teachers do the following:

  • They repeat what participants answer in response to the questions, but using their own words. This allows teachers to acknowledge what was said and to anchor responses into whatever model is important (e.g. art history, natural sciences, etc);
  • They create a space where everyone has the opportunity and safety to respond;
  • They use open-ended questions to encourage deep thinking;

Coming from an expert-based model of teaching, this may seem completely counter-intuitive. In VTS, the teacher is not actively teaching the group. But they are actively facilitating the conversation and the shared discovery of the group.

What is going on here? You can practice VTS with whatever comes your way — but art works really well because its accessible to everyone. P.s. I failed to discover who created this painting. If you know, please let me know so I can attribute the painting correctly.

Why do Visual Thinking Strategies work so well?

In the book, Yenawine shares many, many examples of how VTS is being used in different areas of learning. They discovered that:

  1. People are more actively engaged with the topic at hand. Rather than being provided with answers, they are invited to seek them out for themselves. And these answers that they uncover stay with them much longer and much more vividly;
  2. Working together, groups know far more than individuals. They can build on each others observations and knowledge to paint a more complete picture;
  3. The more often groups do this, the more proficient they become;
  4. VTS gives a voice to people that tend to be silent or withdrawn in groups, allowing the group to benefit from their perspectives as well;
  5. A good way to learn VTS is to start with art. Yenawine argues that art is experienced so diversely and subjectively that it offers a good, low-threshold opportunity for people to participate. After practicing VTS with this, you can use the same principles elsewhere;
  6. The process of learning is more engaging and rewarding for participants;

Using Visual Thinking Strategies in organizations

Although VTS was designed for use in museums, you can use it in wherever teaching takes place. So within the context of organizational work, VTS can be used for:

  • Doing evaluations or retrospectives together with everyone involved;
  • Replacing traditional on-boarding that rely heavily on training programmes with VTS-styled approaches where new employees are paired with experienced employees. Using VTS to share experiences of new employees is a great way to learn about organizational culture, common practices and perhaps even identify potential improvements;
  • Learning new skills. For example, for developers you can use example code that they then reflect on together. Or replace marketing training with role-play and VTS-questions;
  • Driving critical incident reviews;
  • Replacing traditional training and workshops with VTS-styled approaches. At The Liberators, for example, we teach a lot of Scrum. You can easily present the Scrum Framework to a group and let them explore it with VTS. The same goes for how roles and responsibilities are distributed;

Closing

We strongly believe in the local wisdom and intelligence of groups. VTS is a powerful and simple technique for helping groups to learn together, giving a voice to everyone. Give it a try and see how it works for you.

If you’d like to experience techniques like VTS, come join one of our Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops or our Professional Scrum Master II-class. Both are heavily inspired by these or similar approaches.