Learning via Artifacts: A Conversation with Dave Gray

Next Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 12:30pm PDT, I’ll be participating in a public Google Hangout with my friend, Dave Gray. The conversation will be about learning via artifacts. All are welcome to watch. We’ll also be using a public Boardthing to take notes during the conversation, and we encourage everyone to join in that as well.

Why are we doing this, and what exactly is “learning via artifacts” all about?

The short answer is that this is a response to my recent blog post over on Faster Than 20, “Documenting Is Not Learning.” That post was a mini-rant on how many people seem to equate “learning systems” with trying to get people to write down and file everything that’s in their heads so that others can read and access them. It’s an incredibly naive approach, but people often pour thousands of dollars (and sometimes orders of magnitude more) into trying to build these kinds of systems, most of which inevitably fail.

My overwhelming desire to make this point caused me to wave my hands past a subtle, but equally important point, one that is foundational to all the work that I do: The process of documenting is one of the most powerful ways of catalyzing learning.

Dave (and a few others, actually) called me out on this point on Facebook. I agreed, and I said I needed to write a followup. But since I was already talking with him about this, and since he happens to be one of the foremost practitioners in this space, I figured it would be much more interesting to highlight his voice. Thus, next Wednesday’s Google Hangout was born.

The Boardthing is a huge bonus. Dave and his team recently created a wonderful collaborative tool that is the online equivalent of putting stickies on walls. If that sounds simple, it is, but when done right, it’s also incredibly powerful. Up until now, no one has done it right. We’ll use Boardthing to model what we’ll be talking about, and we hope that many of you will jump in as well.

The long story starts with this gift from Dave on October 18, 2006:

Designing for Emergence

Dave was participating in a collaboration workshop I was facilitating in St. Louis. To him, this isn’t anything special. This is simply the way he takes notes.

To me, this was a gift on many levels. Whenever I think about that workshop, I think of this image first. I actually took copious notes from that workshop, some of which I even blogged. I wrote a piece about the things I said that led to Dave drawing this. I also posted pictures from that workshop, including shots of the flipcharts from the day.

There are lots of great knowledge nuggets, most of which have been sitting around, collecting virtual dust for years. Until I think about this picture, that is. This image, for me, is the start of a trail, and whenever I start poking around it again, I remember old insights, and I look at them in new ways. I’m willing to bet that this holds true for whomever reads this, that you are far more likely to start poking around than you would have had you not seen the picture. There is something about the visual that draws us in, that stirs our emotions, that makes us want to know more.

This is all after-the-fact learning. But what about in-the-moment learning? What was happening in Dave’s head as he drew that picture? How did the act of drawing help him learn? What would happen if you made that synthesis process collaborative? How would that impact learning?

I’ll leave you all with these questions for now. This is the stuff that we’ll be talking about this coming Wednesday. But I do want to say a few more things about Dave.

Dave is and has been my hero in so many ways. I’ve known many brilliant visual thinkers and learners for many years, but there has always been something about Dave’s style and presence that has encouraged me to practice these skills myself more actively in a way that others haven’t.

The first time we met, he explained to me how he draws stick figures. His trick? Draw the body first. Why? Because body language says so much! That’s really the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. How freakin’ simple and brilliant is that?!

My partnership with Amy Wu over the years has been strongly influenced and inspired by Dave and his work, and you can see that in the evolution of my slides over the years and even in the Faster Than 20 website. What you don’t see in those final products are all of the sketches that both Amy and I drew to help us think through these ideas. Dave is one of the people who strongly inspired me to work this way.

To me, Dave personifies the learning mindset. At XPLANE, the wonderful design consultancy he founded years ago, he started something called Visual Thinking School, one of the ideas that inspired me to start Changemaker Bootcamp last year. He is a great speaker and writer, but he is also constantly making things — tools like Boardthing, companies like XPLANE, brilliant books like The Connected Company, beautiful paintings.

When he learns, he learns out loud, so that others can participate in and benefit from all aspects of his process, not just the beautiful, final artifacts. He wanted to learn more about Agile processes, so he decided to write a book about it. He’s interviewing great practitioners in order to learn, and he’s doing them live on Google Hangout, so others can learn with him.

I love every opportunity I have to chat with and learn from him, and I hope many of you will join us this Wednesday!

I’ll write a followup blog post on Faster Than 20 after our conversation about learning via artifacts, but in the meantime, you can read and watch some of the things I’ve said on this topic in the past:

Finally, here’s video from a brown bag I led in 2011 entitled, “Saving the World Through Better Note-Taking.”

Generalist or Specialist?

Dave Gray shared one of his latest visualizations, which differentiates between specialists and generalists:    (MIT)

https://i0.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1408/1180687751_72509dc2cb.jpg?w=700    (MIU)

I like the aesthetic of the diagram (which is how I feel about most of Dave’s work), but when I first looked at it, I couldn’t help but think that it was off somehow. After pondering, I realized my problem had less to do with the diagram than it did with how how he frames his conclusions:    (MIV)

  • “Generalists are best when DEFINING the problem or goal.    (MIW)
  • “Specialists are best used when SOLVING the problem or EXECUTING THE PLAN.    (MIX)

The distinction between a specialist and a generalist isn’t the ability to state versus solve a problem. The distinction has to do with the kind of problems they are good at addressing. Generalists are good at defining general or, more accurately, system problems, which, by definition, cannot be solved by a single person. But a generalist isn’t necessarily good at defining specialized problems.    (MIY)

The diagram itself is very good. I like the dimensionality of it, which jives with our traditional notions of horizontal versus vertical thinking (or breadth versus depth of knowledge). I also like the network depiction of the generalists’ plane, which emphasizes the systems view.    (MIZ)

However, there are some important nuances missing. First, because of the colors in the horizontal plane as well as the top-down view, the horizontal plane seems to hold greater importance than the vertical plane. That’s misleading. A true systems thinker views a problem from all three dimensions, not just one plane. I think adding some color to the vertical lines would help alleviate this.    (MJ0)

Second, while I like the fact that the vertical plane depicts mostly linear problems, I think these planes should show some network characteristics. This would also help emphasize the three dimensionality of the entire space, and the need for generalists and specialists to collaborate.    (MJ1)

Finally, while I have plenty of nitpicks, I wouldn’t have thought deeply about these nuances in the first place if the diagram hadn’t helped clarify my thinking. It’s yet another demonstration of the power of Visual Thinking and of Dave’s skill at facilitating it.    (MJ2)

Visual Thinking and Shared Understanding

One of my favorite conference moments occured at the Computers and Philosophy 2002 conference, where both Bob Horn and I spoke. I sat next to Bob during the other talks and peeked over his shoulder as he took notes. That man is insane. My notes are barely legible scribbles; his are pristine visual diagrams.    (LEX)

A few years later, I got to work with Bryan Coffman at the MGTaylor 7-Domains Workshop. As with Bob, I got to see Bryan’s notebook and concluded that he also was insane.    (LEY)

Visual languages are extremely powerful and totally underutilized in collaboration today. Part of the reason for this is that the techniques seem inaccessible. If you can’t draw a straight line, you’re probably not going to be doodling your notes, much less doing it live on a whiteboard in front of a crowd of people. Tools like Compendium and Mind Mapping are great in this regard, but they represent only a fraction of what’s possible. (In the case of Compendium, I think it’s question-orientation is as important, if not moreso, as its visualization capabilities.)    (LEZ)

When I found out earlier this month that one of Dave Gray‘s mentors was Bob Horn, I told him I had to peek at his notebook. No problem, said Dave. He posts many of his sketches on Flickr.    (LF0)

Dave also told me about an exercise he likes to do at his workshops, which is to ask participants to draw a diagram of a toaster. You can see the results from a workshop he recently did in Toronto. I like this exercise a lot, because it shows the very different ways that people think about a relatively mundane device in a very concrete way. Each of those pictures are clearly different, but they are all also accurate.    (LF1)

This technique is great for building Shared Understanding, and there are all sorts of great variations. You can have people draw, build things, and so forth. Luke Hohmann had us design cereal boxes at DCamp last May that would make people say, “DCamp — gotta buy that conference!”    (LF2)

Michael Eakes recently blogged about a sixth grade exercise, where the teacher asked her students to draw Mickey Mouse from memory.    (LF3)

https://i1.wp.com/www.eakes.org/blog/images/mickeyposter-small.jpg?w=700    (LF4)

Read Michael’s analysis of the variation; it’s fascinating.    (LF5)

Designing for Emergence

Towards the end of the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop this past Wednesday, I said something about designing for emergence. Dave Gray thought enough about the point to note it in his own special way:    (LBW)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/118/273880986_8153abce06_m.jpg?w=700    (LBX)

(Full size picture at Flickr.)    (LBY)

It’s not an exact quote, and his sketch is a bit stingy on the hair, but it captures the essence of the point. A more verbose version of what I said goes something like this:    (LBZ)

Designing for emergence is scary. I’ve facilitated several of these types of gatherings, and I’ve attended several more, and they always work. But they always stress me out, because you never know what’s going to happen. And that’s exactly the point.    (LC0)

What prevents me from going completely nuts is complete and utter faith in the following principle: If you get great people together and get out of their way, great things will happen. Good processes ultimately get out of people’s ways.    (LC1)

If you have great people, and if you trust your process, you have nothing to worry about. But I still get stressed.    (LC2)

I said something similar, but more general, at the first “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop. The gist of it was:    (LC3)

You can’t organize self-organization. You can’t control emergence.    (LC4)

The biggest mistake that people make is that they point to Wikipedia or to MoveOn, and they say, “I want that.” Then they install a tool or spend a lot of money, and they expect some grand end state to emerge. That’s not how things work.    (LC5)

You can create conditions and space, and you can facilitate and catalyze what happens in that space, but you can’t control it. As soon as you try, you break your conditions, and you will fail.    (LC6)

On a similar vein, Kellee Sikes passed along one of Marcia Conner‘s sayings: “Stay on course, not on target.”    (LC7)

Something Special in St. Louis

There’s something special brewing in St. Louis, and it ain’t Budweiser. My side of the story begins in the Bay Area. We’ve got this special culture here in California. It’s a culture of openness, of collaboration, of entrepreneurship, and of tolerance. Combine that with a wonderfully diverse and intellectual community, and you get a tremendous amount of good vibes and innovation. The Bay Area is so wonderful, most of us don’t see any need to go anywhere else, and those who do often experience severe culture shock. Yes, Virginia, not everyone is like us Californians.    (LBJ)

In some ways, that’s a good thing, but in many ways, it’s sad. True, California is beautiful. True, the people here are brilliant and wonderful. But, there are brilliant and wonderful people who live outside of California, and there’s no reason why those folks can’t enjoy the same community vibe that we do out here. The Internet allows us to transcend geographical boundaries and form a virtual community with a similar vibe, but it still pales in comparison to the experience of being physical immersed in this type of environment. The barrier to this sort of vibe emerging in a geographical community is usually culture.    (LBK)

Is it possible to shift the culture of a community (or an organization) to be more collaborative, more tolerant, more innovative? Absolutely. It’s not easy, but it’s possible, and like all great things, it starts with great people, and it has to start small.    (LBL)

St. Louis has these ingredients as well as a growing consciousness about what is possible. The right people are there, and they are starting to discover each other. If this growing community fosters these opportunities, a wonderful prairie will emerge.    (LBM)

This past Wednesday, I did my part by co-facilitating the first gathering of the St. Louis Collaboratory, which was formed by Kellee Sikes and three of her colleagues (Mark Richman, Donna Mickens, and Valerie Hartman). (Pictures from the event.) The gathering was modeled after the “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” (TCC) workshops I co-organized with Jeff Shults earlier this year in San Francisco. Kellee attended our second workshop, and enjoyed it so much, she decided to try and bring a similar experience to her community in St. Louis.    (LBN)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/92/273875599_bd3b84ff7d_m.jpg?w=700    (LBO)

Kellee, Mark, Donna, and Valerie recruited a fantastic and diverse group of participants. We had folks from both non- and for-profits, from large and small companies, from technology, health care, and organized labor. These people were thoughtful and open-minded. They came into the workshop with a healthy dose of skepticism, but also a willingness to play. What surprised me the most was that several of them had thought as deeply about collaboration as anyone else I’ve ever met.    (LBP)

I learned a tremendous amount listening to this group and watching them work. I could write 50 blog entries about the things I learned, stories I heard, and insights I gained. (I’ll be happy if I manage three.)    (LBQ)

At dinner later in the evening, I told several people that it would be a travesty if they did not continue engage with each other. You can do amazing things in a day. My goals were to expand their consciousness, to make them aware of each other, to start seeding Shared Language, and to give them an opportunity to experience a different kind of collaboration. We met these goals, but they barely scratch the surface of what’s possible.    (LBR)

The opportunity is there. Kellee and company are planning another workshop in January, and hopefully some of the participants from this week will play a more active role in designing the next event. Moreover, there are complementary events cropping up in St. Louis.    (LBS)

Through a serendipitous conversation with Jay Cross last month, I discovered Dave Gray, the founder of St. Louis-based XPLANE, which does visual modeling and facilitation. Dave introduced me to Matt Homann, a lawyer by trade who recently formed a company, LexThink, to organize more collaborative gatherings. Matt has been experimenting with a different kind of networking event in St. Louis known as Idea Markets, and the second one just happened to be this past Tuesday. It was an excellent event, and I’d encourage people from the area to go. This style of event is a dime a dozen in the Bay Area, but we rarely see the mix of people that Matt managed to draw.    (LBT)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/91/273871891_6afb850afc_m.jpg?w=700    (LBU)

What’s different about St. Louis Collaboratory and events like Idea Markets is that they’re not about Drive-By Networking. They’re not about, “What can you do for me?” They’re about, “What can we do with each other?” That, my friends, is what collaboration is about. I’ll be watching these developments closely to see what emerges.    (LBV)