Vision Mapping in a Virtual World
Is it possible to collaboratively set your course, when you’re miles apart? It turns out, the virtual world has a magic all of its own, says our co-founder, Dan Porter.
We built our business and our reputation on the magic that happens when a bunch of people get together in a room to co-create a shared vision. So, what happens when getting together is no longer an option?
EARLY MARCH, 2020
On a Friday morning at the beginning of March, the senior team from digital transformation specialists, Difrent, gathered in our studio for a vision mapping session. Over the course of three lively hours, we talked, we drew and together we gradually nailed down what makes them, well… dif(fe)rent.
A couple of hours in, Chris and I began sketching up a rough composition. Everyone in the group was engaged, the suggestions were flying, and most of them sticking - finding a natural place somewhere in the picture. Soon, the sketch was populated with examples and details that told their story, the way they saw it. It came together quickly, with nothing feeling forced or difficult. Then, bang on the three hour mark, we were finishing up: Difrent were leaving, full of energy, excitement and a sense of accomplishment, still throwing in final thoughts as they put on their coats and downed their last swigs of coffee.
It was exactly the sort of session that shows us at our best and reaffirms our belief in the value of what we do. And, it was exactly the sort of session our studio was set up for: when we moved in to Northdown Street three years ago, we took care to design a space where colleagues and clients alike would find it easy to get their ideas out of their heads and up on the wall.
ONE WEEK LATER
But, just a week later the studio was empty - barely anyone would set foot in it for months - and, like every business, we were having some pretty serious conversations about what the future held for Scriberia.
One of our biggest questions was what would happen to workshops like this? The energy in the room, our confidence in our studio set-up and our process, the hands-on, tactile experience of grabbing a pen and sketching ideas; these felt fundamental to a successful vision mapping workshop.
But we had more in the diary, and frankly, given the ways things were shaping up we couldn’t afford to lose the work. Everyone, everywhere was taking their meetings online and adapting their day-to-day work pretty well. But would the delicate process of co-creating a picture with a group be so easy to replicate in a virtual setting?
As a team we’ve experimented with various collaborative whiteboard apps in the past. Our visualisers have taken to AWW, but I didn’t feel it supported the structure of our workshops. My primary concern had always been that, in using one big virtual canvas, we lost some of what makes those live sessions really work. In a live session, we don’t expect our participants to be creating works of art (any scribble is valuable to the process if it has meaning), but we do encourage them to draw. And, because we know that not everyone is a confident drawing in front of a crowd, we try to give participants a bit of time alone with pen and paper to capture their thoughts before they share them; a “safe space” to draw in. Collaborative whiteboards can be very exposing for participants who aren’t completely comfortable in the medium.
I was looking for something that would replicate the feeling of using different spaces to capture different stages of the process, as we do in the studio. We sketch and refine, taking what we need from the previous stage, until we are ready to tackle the vision map itself.
“The online sessions with Scriberia have been really successful. Doing this remotely hasn’t felt like a hindrance, and I’m confident the end product will do a fantastic job for us.”
Richard McLean, Senior Director, Technology Excellence & Performance at Elsevier
With a vision mapping workshop for scientific publishing and analytics company Elsevier looming, we needed to commit to our virtual set-up. In the end, I opted for the simplest solution on offer: Google Jamboard (just the app, not the hardware), in parallel with a Zoom call.
Though other apps, like Miro, have much to offer - the Jamboard experience felt closest to grabbing a pen and scribbling on a wall. And, in allowing participants to create their own slides, and share them at their own pace, I felt it would more closely replicate that workshop “safe space” we aim to create in real life.
In just a few short weeks, when working with clients at least, Jamboard has become our studio space and the subtle differences between facilitating a group in person and online are becoming easier to navigate with every session. In fact, I’d say our Zoom/Jamboard set up even has some advantages.
THE ELSEVIER EXPERIENCE
“The online sessions with Scriberia have been really successful - it’s been great seeing our picture progress,” says Richard McLean, Senior Director of Technology Excellence & Performance at Elsevier. “None of us are artists, but with their encouragement we were able to get our own ideas out, from doing very rough drawings and sketches to uploading reference imagery.
“Dan and Sam were simultaneously pulling together the key concepts into a more coherent sketch, which we’ve continued to iterate and feed back on within the online project space over the last few weeks. It’s felt like a very efficient process so far. We’ve all been able to have an input and shape the visual as a team. Doing this remotely hasn't felt like a hindrance, and I’m confident the end product will do a fantastic job for us.”
WHY DOES IT WORK SO WELL?
The democracy of the Zoom gallery irons out some of the subtle power dynamics that you might feel in the room. There’s something about that neat grid of faces in boxes that suggests everyone has an equal say. The fact that everyone’s in their home environment can be a great leveller. There’s nothing like a row of socks drying on a radiator in the background to show that the boss is a mere mortal like the rest of us.
Similarly, in the studio, it can feel like there’s a little too much reverence for the artist. The most important thing in any vision mapping session is the quality of the ideas, but when our team take centre stage and start drawing, they tend to become the focus of everyone’s attention. But, I’ve found, working remotely, this happens less. I’ve noticed people are more confident grabbing a virtual pen and marking up the drawing themselves, or throwing sticky notes at it. Perhaps it’s because the physical dynamic is different. In the studio we’re on our feet, while the participants sit and watch us, whereas when we work remotely we’re all sitting at our desks, occupying a similar space on screen.
While I’m not saying our workshops in the studio are plagued by constant distraction, they are more of an “occasion” than a Zoom call. They’re peppered with small talk, coffee breaks and commentary on the novelty of the studio environment and the process. But in a remote session, by contrast, the social niceties and the setting are nowhere near as significant, and I’ve felt that encourages people to just crack on with the task at hand.
The drawing tools in Jamboard are really basic, forcing simple, practical drawings that are about concepts not aesthetics. It’s the wrong time in the process to get fancy with colours, textures, fonts and so on, and this is the digital equivalent of grabbing a marker pen and blasting it out on the wall.
Jamboard is simply a series of slides, and anyone can claim a slide for themselves and doodle away in relative privacy without the worry that their messy drawing and thought processes are being broadcast to the group. Users can flick through the slides, so it’s always possible to see how others are getting on, but it stops people getting stagefright. In fact, they don’t even have to draw - they can upload a few images if they prefer. As a collection, the slides can become a storyboard of the picture’s development, going from an initial braindump of ideas to final artwork.
Half an hour after we’ve run a workshop in the studio you’d never know it had happened. Walls and sketches are photographed then cleaned or binned. But I’ve been struck by how naturally the Jamboards have been adopted as a virtual ‘war room’ after the workshop. They can be left up, for people to come back to in their own time. Often I’ve popped back in and seen a new cluster of post-its, and on one occasion a whole new project in development. If there’s a follow-up workshop you can immediately dive back in and immerse yourself in all the work that’s gone before.
A final thought - is it possible that we’re all a little more open to new ways of working since lockdown? There’s been so much discourse in recent weeks about learning new skills and getting more creative. Even if people haven’t actually learnt an instrument, baked sourdough, or started watercolour painting, I think perhaps they do feel more permission to express themselves and less embarrassment about doing so.