You probably have a whiteboard in your office that looks as good as the day it arrived. There’s a good chance it’s in the meeting room. It might be roaming next to the cluster of desks where you sit.
When was the last time someone drew on it? Blank, clean whiteboards are daunting. The act of stepping up to a blank board and drawing where everyone can see your work seems to call for a certain courage. In real time, in front of your peers, you create something from nothing. Some of it isn’t worth keeping. Some of it doesn’t make sense. But when you step back, sometimes you see the solution you’ve been looking for.
Whiteboards are wonderful. And yet, when was the last time you “showed your work?”
It’s time to rediscover your whiteboard. Here’s what you need to do.
You should use your whiteboard.
There are no excuses. Unlike your new year’s resolution to go to the gym, you don’t have obstacles like purchasing equipment or travel time. If you’re on a product team, there’s a good chance you already have the equipment (the board, the markers) and your travel time is only a few steps.
You should draw.
Sometimes a problem seems too big or too abstract to fit into a neatly formatted list of requirements. It’s difficult to hold and pick apart a series of steps in your head. You want to connect ideas, follow many series of steps in different directions, while also considering constraints and stress cases. But your brain wants to follow one train of thought from beginning to end. Anything that looks like it’ll take you off track gets brushed aside, “We’ll come back to it.” You end up in a battle with your own mental capacity. You need to explore all sides of a problem while simultaneously looking for weak points. There comes a real concern of things slipping through the cracks because your brain can’t hold them all or remember them for long.
Visualizing problems on a canvas gets them out of your head and into the real world. You can put all the pieces in front of you so you — and everyone else — knows what you’re working with. Every time a new idea, challenge, or path comes up, make a note. You may not solve it at the same time, but it’s there, waiting until you’re ready. This frees up mental space to start challenging your ideas and working towards solutions that include everyone instead of barrelling down one track to the obvious, happy-path conclusion.
You are able, literally and figuratively speaking, to look at your work up close and step back to see it as a whole. Like a “Choose your own adventure,” you can follow it in different directions, viewing it from perspectives other than your own. Bring stories and understanding from user research, and apply it to the visualization. Does it break? Can it adapt?
Your team should draw.
Because whiteboards are part of our physical space, they can be gathering places. We sit together with our teams, but each facing our own personal, digital canvases: our monitors. Work is only shared when you as an individual feel it’s ready, or a colleague has asked you to share. When we work at the whiteboard, we share our work while we work — everyone gathered around the same canvas. Working at whiteboards gets people to turn away from their computers. The size — and often the placement — of whiteboards tends to make them conspicuous. They’re big and visible. When one person steps up to the board, it piques curiosity. People steal glances, swivel their chairs, and wander by under the guise of grabbing a coffee, but really to get a closer look, often with a casual, “What’s going on here?”
Soon ideas are opened up to wider, real-time discussions. Unlike the misleading “Jen is Available” status, you can see that everyone is present in the truest sense of the word. Questions are asked and answered and lead to more questions. You receive feedback on your exploration of solutions, not only the final solutions. Instead of whiling away on something at your computer then sending a link with commenting permissions so people can offer their two cents when you’ve already moved on, work and discussion at the whiteboard happens in real time.
Real-time discussions that include everyone lead to solutions your whole team can and want to carry forward. With everything out on the table, everyone is working with the same pieces. Every person brings their own perspective to the challenge and they can add to the whiteboard so that, once again, no pieces are lost and everyone has the same information. This can help your team avoid catching up or backing up due to misunderstandings when it’s time to decide on a final solution.
Everyone should draw.
The whiteboard is not a canvas for designers, it’s a canvas for discussion. Every person on your team brings their experience and expertise to the table. Every person is an equal addition to the discussion. I once heard a piece of â€œbusiness wisdomâ€ that if you want to lead a discussion you should be the one holding the marker. Too often, I see people treat â€œleadingâ€ like a monopoly. We wither before the HiPPOs (Highest-Paid-Person’s-Opinions). This is a discussion, not a lecture, and that means everyone is involved. Every person has a voice and every person should have a marker.
We are all able to contribute to the drawing on the board. The bar for drawing on a whiteboard is set low. Everyone knows that whiteboard markers feel clumsy to work with and whiteboards themselves are awkward to draw on. This means everyone is going to be messy — even your designers. With everyone contributing in a discussion format, there are no turns, there is no plan for composition or layout. Lines will be squiggly and writing will be illegible — all the better to hide spelling mistakes. This creates a setting where all feel welcome.
If you’re at the whiteboard, you’ve fought half the battle.
A clean whiteboard is daunting. It’s too perfect and seems to ask for perfection. When you go up to the whiteboard, marker in hand, you’ve already fought half the battle. The simple action of drawing something on the whiteboard tells your team that you want to communicate something and have a discussion. This is the core of collaboration. From here, one squiggly line at a time, you can build out and build up your ideas as a team.
This article was previously published on Jen’s Medium Page