Getting your team all on the same page can be a formidable challenge. The bigger the team (e.g., your entire company), the more difficult the challenge.

Which is why I've found the following brainstorming tool so fascinating. I stumbled across the tool while watching Tom Wujec's TED talk Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast. (You can watch the talk here.)

Wujec's process is simple enough:

Sit everyone down at a table. Give them some index cards, felt markers, and tape. Let them know the ultimate purpose of the meeting: to build a systems model of an important challenge (clarifying your vision, improving cash flow, etc.). Then, begin with a simple design exercise.

At this point, ask each of the participants to draw a picture of how to make toast. That's it. They've got 3 minutes, and no more instructions.

The results are interesting. You can imagine how different people see the process in their minds--some go back to the farming and logistics processes of providing the bread, others focus more on the 'people' aspect, still others on the mechanics. Depending on the background of the participants, you may even have different methods of 'cooking': a toaster for Americans, frying pan for some Europeans, and for MBA students...an open fire?

One thing is similar, though: People tend to break information down into what Wujec terms 'nodes' and 'links'--nodes represent the tangible objects (like the toaster and the people), and links symbolize the connections between the nodes. Most of us intuitively communicate in this way how we think a process should work. The value lies in our individual points of view: We see the process from different angles, and we assign different levels of importance to different aspects of the process.

The workshop progresses by moving into group brainstorming. What happens then? Tom explains:

It starts out messy...and then it gets messier, but as people refine the models, the best nodes become more prominent, and with each iteration, the model becomes clearer because people build on top of each other's ideas. What emerges is a unified systems model that integrates the diversity of everyone's individual points of view, so that's a really different outcome from what usually happens in meetings, isn't it?

After some practice with drawing the toast-making process, you're ready to move on to more complicated problems.

For example, imagine a workshop in which you've gathered members of your front line personnel, middle managers, and executives to brainstorm answers to some of your major problems, such as how to refine current processes. Bringing together these unique (and invaluable) points of view can help you see more in depth what you're doing right now (from a practical standpoint), what you wish you were doing, how outside forces are changing things, etc. This can be an organized and effective way to capitalize on your most valuable resource--your people. (Not to mention that it's a great team building exercise.)

To be able to synthesize several points of view from various strategic points within your organization, and having a simple system that enables you to communicate, record, and refine those points of view with a specific objective in mind--the results could be very productive.

How productive?

Wujec cites Rodale, a large publishing company whose flagship products include the magazines Men's Health, Prevention, and Runner's World. One year after losing 'a bunch of money', the executive team met for three days to visualize the entire practice. The end result? Wujec states:

After visualizing the entire business, systems upon systems, they reclaimed 50 million dollars of revenue, and they also moved from a D rating to an A rating from their customers. Why? Because there's alignment from the executive team.

Ah yes, 'alignment from the executive team.' As I've worked with various companies over the years, this is a complaint I hear over and over: Higher executives are just not in tune with the daily business.

If you ask Tom Wujec, the solution starts with getting everybody into a room, then drastically simplifying things.

So. Who's ready to draw some toast?

Want to run your own 'Draw Toast' workshop? You can find Tom Wujec's website here, with complete instructions and details.

Published on: Feb 20, 2015
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