Key takeaways

  • By making a concept visual, it is more likely to be collectively understood.
  • Workplace behaviours and culture often fail to support communication using visual aids.
  • Visual collaboration leads to better communication, teamwork and alignment.

Imagine you are stood in the offices of a major Australian company. It is an organisation that employs thousands of people across the country and whose important services reach hundreds of thousands more. How do you suppose the employees in such a large and complex environment gel together in their working practices?

On a recent engagement, my team and I were tasked with helping part of the business adopt a new way of working. The focus was on team collaboration, transparency and continuous improvement, and the learnings would help inform the broader organisation’s transformation.

When we walked into the building, we were confronted with a blank canvas. The physical space was bare: whiteboards stood unused. There was nothing displayed on the walls, no business strategy, product roadmap, customer journey maps, or team missions. The workspace lacked a heartbeat. People would join meetings over video conferencing technology, even when all the participants were on the same floor.

In fact, our initial observations found little to no use of visual aids in the day-to-day behaviours of the employees. Making work ‘vibrant’ just wasn’t baked into their culture and behaviour.

Another way
to communicate

Visual collaboration is a core skill that is undervalued in many organisations. Automation and digitisation of workplace processes is undoubtedly important, but I wonder if this has caused some creativity to be lost along the way.

We all grew up in classrooms where the teacher used visual aids to communicate complex ideas and concepts. This inspired imaginations, or promoted debate and discussion among the students. It’s a fundamental approach to communicating which somehow gets left behind as we graduate to the workplace.

When you have an idea and try to share it verbally, it relies on the listener to process what they heard. This may work well for someone that’s an auditory learner, because listening is the best way for them to learn. However if they’re a visual learner (someone that absorbs information by looking at things like graphs, images, maps or diagrams) or a kinaesthetic learner (who learns by doing, such as moving a card from one place to another) it can be quite challenging to understand.

Paint me
a picture

There’s an exercise developed by designer Tom Wujec which involves drawing ‘how to make toast’.1 Participants are asked to sketch the steps involved in making a piece of toast. They can only draw; they can’t use words. Each person in the room shows each other their drawing. The insight is that most people have different starting points of the process — for example, going to the shops to buy bread, growing the wheat etc. This highlights how differently we represent the simple act of making toast.

The point is, it’s not until we’re both looking at a model (or process) that we can understand where the other person is coming from. There is huge variability in how ideas are perceived. Only when we make a concept visual — by drawing on a whiteboard, for example — can all participants truly synthesise a collective understanding and collaborate on the best approach.

On the
same page

The impact of misaligned teams is a major cause of waste and delay in projects. To get groups of people aligned, you have to enable them to collaborate effectively. Businesses leaders are aware of the value in this: in PwC’s 2017 CEO Survey, they listed collaboration as one of the top skills they seek.

Take a walk around your office floor and pay attention to the way that staff are working. How do colleagues connect with each other? Do they sit at their desk and dial into meetings when they could be held face-to-face? Are they collaborating in a visual way? How is the team environment set up to support the use of visual aids?

The writing (and roadmap)
is on the wall

Visual collaboration, communication and alignment are fundamental to the principles of agile ways of working and so those organisations that have adopted agile tend to lead the approach when it comes to visually collaborative behaviour. (Even so, it is often still a challenge for them.)

What lessons can we take from agile organisations? They understand that the physical environment can be an enabler or inhibitor to visual collaboration. Some have dedicated planning rooms to display their roadmaps, company vision, purpose, and team missions. These spaces aren’t just devoted to visionary propaganda: they may also display real-time customer sentiment, KPI dashboards, or impediments that are slowing down the teams in delivering value to customers.

There’s even a dedicated name for such a space: an ‘Obeya room’ (which means ‘big room’ in Japanese). Holding meetings in an Obeya room ensures that conversations are driven by visual aids and informed by customer data. This way, teams can be more aligned on progress and the approach. Importantly, such sessions are scheduled so there’s a regular cadence of communication and review.  

Encouraging a
visual culture

As well as the right mix of physical artefacts, digital tools should be used to enable remote collaboration. These can be as simple as video conferencing technology, digital whiteboards or collaboration software (which could range from a shared Google Doc to project management tools like Jira or Trello).

While the physical and digital environments play a large part in enabling visual collaboration, workplace culture is often the determining factor.

Visual collaboration must be embedded in the organisation’s culture and behaviour. Employees need permission and encouragement to do so, and the knowledge and support to make it part of the way they work.

Here are some ways to enhance visual collaboration in your organisation:  

  • Ensure your leadership team understands the ‘why’: better communication, collaboration and alignment. If you want to embed new behaviours, their support is critical. As is leading by example — so I recommend a little coaching to make leadership feel comfortable.  
  • Educate staff on what ‘good looks like’. Provide examples of how other organisations use visual aids and practices.
  • Encourage employees to adopt visual collaboration practices by explaining how it will accelerate and enable them to deliver value for both the business and its customers.
  • Use visual aids in all your meetings. The goal is to streamline understanding and alignment so that teams spend less time in status meetings, and more time delivering outcomes to customers.

We helped our client implement some of these items and several months later, the office is a sea of colour, energy and activity. Face-to-face meetings — in person for those in the office, or enabled by technology for remote team members — are now held daily, bringing everyone closer and keeping them tuned in to progress.

Each team uses visual boards to track their work. Walls are covered in sticky notes and print-outs; whiteboards show off the colourful smudges of ideas and action plans. The work that’s being done here is now visible to everyone, it’s more tangible. If it’s not visible, then it’s not valuable.  

Transforming your employees’ working practices doesn’t have to involve seismic shifts in technology or organisational structure. Something as simple as printing a page with a customer journey, pinning it to the wall, and gathering around it for discussion can have a positive influence on the outcome.

The client told us about the day the CEO visited that department. They walked around as teams held stand-up meetings, stopping to engage with staff individually, asking them about what they were working on, pointing to the examples pinned up around them. One employee took a card off the wall, which had been sitting in the ‘blocked’ column. They handed it to the CEO and asked them to help remove the blocker. What a way to align and drive progress!



Leigh Malcolmson

Leigh is a Ways of Working coach in PwC Australia’s Experience Centre.
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