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Innovating Collaboration: Making Thinking Visible in Business - Articles Surfing

Design Thinking links strategy and execution to catalyze innovation. This article identifies one aspect of Design Thinking called Making Thinking Visible - a user-friendly framework to overcome issues separating people tasked to work in teams so they are able to think, make decisions and execute together. It is a strategy for giving and receiving immediate assessment and feedback.

The article is an update of one presented at AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) FutureHistory Conference, Chicago, 2004. The current version adapts emergent academic research for business.


It was on a plane coming home from a visit to the Reggio Emilia, Italy schools for young children that I was taken by the possibilities of what might happen if the model of documentation I had just witnessed fell into the hands of design students.

This came to pass as I developed a curriculum, The Teaching and Documentation Project at California College of the Arts (CCA), San Francisco. Simply put my students documented their design and teaching of an art/design project at a site in the neighborhood.

Recently I have adapted this material from higher ed for those keen on innovating communication flow within business. Documentation is a mind-set and a method balancing strategic thinking with execution and reflects an emerging business environment valuing collaborative teamwork at the intersection of creativity/logic, right/left brain and visual methods/text. Recognizing this link CCA is launching the first MBA in Design Strategy offered in the States September 2008.

Business Applications for Making Thinking Visible

1. Communication at the Front End Impacts Customer Experience: Testing products & services before budget is spent on development, getting data early while approaches can be changed; peer to peer assessment enables innovative marketing experiences to surface

2. Cohesive Teams Innovate: Introduces design thinking aligned to execution; supports the unique cultures of diverse teams; deepens transparency in cross functional teams; boosts morale by building and rebuilding trust up

3. More Immediate Customer Feedback: Sessions designed for customer participation

4. Higher Caliber Client and Customer Relations Creating process framed case studies demonstrates control over internal process reassuring clients and customers


Several snowy winters ago I received a grant to visit Reggio Emilia in Italy which Newsweek named one of the top 10 learning systems in the world. Their students are 3 months to 6 years old while my clients are grown-up so I was a little concerned about how much sense it would make. But it was Italy - there was no resisting.

The relevancy knocked my socks off and I returned with a burning question about the implication for adults. How could this collaborative model that provides equivalency to images in conjunction with the spoken word - whether or not we are visually versed or even if our professional context is word/text dominated - impact adult inquiry in business practice?

We reward talking in education - and pretty much everywhere else. Yet children do not have recourse to speech like adults do. In Italy I saw systemically how communication flows when the "tyranny" of the spoken word is balanced with other ways of knowing. The Italians call documentation "the second skin" of their schools.

The children's reflections about their work were visible everywhere. The Italians say that children speak 100 languages yet adults listen to just one: the spoken word. Again, adapting this material for business, a variant on their question: What are the 100 languages of adulthood?

Teachers have taught in Reggio for decades without burn out. What was going on? A colleague returning to the States said the hardest part was becoming a solo practitioner again while in a school full of teachers. Communications systems were missing.

Returning I began to embed documentation into my curriculum and felt an instant relief: the shared visual medium provided a powerful way to communicate alongside speaking, the dominant communication mode of teachers - and managers. In making visible the diverse ideas and experiences as well as the shared goals of the student group reduced stress and personality clashes were quieted or given a fresh (visual) inroad to address them. I looked forward to coming to class.

Introducing this improved discovery session into organizations echoes this: shared visual mediums lift morale by provide a framework to recognize differences, air them, unravel knots and implement more effective strategy design. This method replicates the ecology of a design lab generating, testing, organizing, clarifying, baking and rising ideas before implementation.

What is Documentation?

We ordinarily think of documentation as something conclusive occurring at the completion of a project. An emerging definition from higher ed, spearheaded in the States by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, holds documentation as a powerful tool for making learning visible. Here documentation is not something moribund but alive and responsive to a social context of learners. It furthers group thinking by making it visible.

Documentation is the footprint of an inquiry allowing someone who was not there to follow a thinking process through "reading" the images presented and to revisit learning, cull insights, connect dots and design next steps with increased clarity.

In the student example the first day of the semester we brainstormed "documentation" on the blackboard. The students came up with: research, evidence of progress, non-empirical evidence, meant to be read, understandable by whoever reads it, transference of knowledge without teacher present.

It's important to highlight this last distinction when coaching teams on the approach. Documentation is full of rapid decisions based on the knowledge of participants of the inner workings and rhythms of their culture since no one knows this better. The goal is for teams to ultimately craft this method as their own so it is sustainable going forth.

Several layers of documentation took place. My students documented their students at their respective sites in the community, I documented my students and they documented each other. In some cases my students' students were documenting. We all documented the objects and artifacts generated. The documentation took many forms: photographs, video, drawing, charts, interviews, paper and pencil, audio.

Digital recording technologies let us review process immediately while the project still had flex. We could also revisit a subject later on when data can overwhelm to remind us of earlier insights. In our case the subject of documentation was the students' teaching projects: papier mache mask making, a "blind" coke taste test and one about favorite buildings in the neighborhood.

Collaborative Intelligence

Although each of us acts within a social sphere this is not an area in which we are necessarily trained. Yet business environments require we become agile collaborating in cross functional teams. My documentation curriculum was shaped by a sustaining question: How to educate the "introvert" who creates and "extrovert" tasked with collaborating, managing, leading and teaching teams?

Making Thinking Visible facilitates group interaction and can have as its subject group interaction. The 14 students in the seminar worked individually and were teamed. Like a jazz ensemble it provided something rare: a rhythm of independence and interdependence - the opposite of the usual 'reporting out" passing as group work. Our project was not only about increasing knowledge but about transforming our understanding of collaboration. It's a method to accelerate individual learning while providing avenues to work across silos.


Making Thinking Visible is based in reflective conversation among stakeholders (the subjects of the documentation, the makers of the documentation, observers of the process and those who did not take part in of any of these - peers, managers, clients and customers) at various touch points to interpret the collection of shared visual mediums.

While assessment is part of any inquiry documentation makes this explicit. Its deliberate visibility invites scrutiny, comparison and lively debate. As co-constructors of the knowledge base being built participants more organically bridge disciplines and diversity of view. A manager who knew her team quite well told me afterwards she was "amazed to see the variety of solutions" they came up with. Engaging the "head, heart and guts" as author Peter Cairo suggests naturally builds buy-in and is a competitive advantage today.

Shared visual mediums melt resistance so people move through habitual (stuck) assessment quagmires more swiftly. As a participant said "It naturally encourages engaged listening". People get to know one another in an unforced way so there is more trust for those outside our discipline and within habitual ways of thinking and doing.

Making Thinking Visible has an unedited, in-house aspect and an edited, public side. In a safe context it deliberately reveals the back story of an inquiry - the gaffs, mistakes, "let's not go there again" moments - moving beyond cosmetics to learning experiences with substantial meaning. Sounds simple yet few structures for mistake making as a generative act actually exist. The idea is to fail fast, often and with others who are doing same around a topic of inquiry. The team jells and best practices surface. We become acclimatized to beginning again swiftly without making a fuss. Skateboarders excel at this.

Of the 5 senses vision provides the most distance - a cool lens to revisit moments we wished had never happened, paths abandoned or "redo's" with lightness and even humor to glean the learning. This activates flexibility of assessment.

Future History

On a plane coming home from documenting the first Making Learning Visible Institute at Harvard I thought of something I heard while there. One of the participants said how teachers here in the States care as much about their students as teachers in Reggio Emilia do. Education is a daunting issue everywhere in the world. I am most familiar with what makes our context so - no matter the age or context of the learner.

Documentation is a method and mind-set for innovation. While originally designed to address the question of who a child growing into a grown-up may become the implication is profound for adults in professional business practice as well.

(c) 2008, Linda Yaven. All rights reserved. Want to use this article in your e-zine or website? Sure, provided all links are live and include the copyright and by-line below.

Submitted by:

Linda Yaven

Linda Yaven is a Professional Speaker, Design Thinking Coach and an Associate Professor teaching Effective Communication and Experience Design in the MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her consultancy provides programs on Innovation and Making Thinking Visible and Meaningful Assessment. You can reach her at http://www.lindayaven.com



Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).


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