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)