Sketching at Work: How Drawing Together Instead of Presenting Improves Knowledge Sharing

September 29, 2010 | bit-wartung | Methods & Tools |


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Roland PfisterIn today’s guest post, Roland Pfister from the =mcm Media & Communication Institute of the University of St. Gallen writes about the downsides of using PowerPoint and pre-printed handouts as collaboration tools in meetings. He explains how new sketching concepts can stimulate systematic, collaborative and creative thinking in meetings, and illustrates this with the example of the Root Cause Iceberg sketch, one of 35 sketching templates presented in the guide “Sketching at Work” by Martin Eppler and Roland Pfister.

By Roland Pfister – You all know those meetings, where managers come together to discuss a problem which became more and more visible during the last couple of days or weeks. Somebody has put together a deck of slides which is supposed to give all the participants the information necessary to start discussing, and hopefully find a solution to tackle the problem.
What is usually happening is that by facilitating such a meeting using PowerPoint slides, the team immediately swings into presentation mode, instead of the appropriate discussion mode needed to solve a problem. PowerPoint is a presentation tool and not a collaboration device.

The question in group contexts, however, is not “What am I trying to say?”, but “What kind of reaction do I want from the audience?” It’s not about optimizing the presentation; it’s about optimizing interaction. There is a difference between somebody teaching and somebody learning. The idea that I appear to be a great teacher, but my class doesn’t learn, means I’m really not a great teacher.

So the challenge teams ultimately and very often face is how to create an environment which helps to clarify issues, supports guidance of discussions or simply communicates in a more engaging and memorable way.

Imagine the same meeting setting as described before: All team members are gathered around a u-shaped table. The meetings starts as usual, with the only difference that instead of  kicking the meeting off by distributing printed hand-outs, the project managers sticks a large brown paper to the wall. Instead of projecting slides on the screen, the team is going to develop the visuals during the meeting and will sketch them on paper. He therefore holds a pencil in his hand instead of a remote control. The technique they are going to use is called sketching.

But why should managers and organization scholars be interested in sketching? One of the main reasons may be the high number of benefits that such sketching can provide for collaboration and decision making in management. These benefits have been discussed and demonstrated in various research projects on the topic of sketching, primarily in the areas of design, engineering and psychology.

Iceberg sketch

Root Cause Iceberg sketch

To tackle the before mentioned meeting goal, he is making use of the metaphor-based template called Root Cause Iceberg. The image of an iceberg is a very strong and well-known metaphor because of the characteristics of an iceberg. Only the tip of the iceberg sticks out of the water; the bigger part is hidden below and invisible. Seeing only the effects of a problem, but leaving the causes and root causes in the dark is very similar to that. ¨

The meeting host thus starts sketching. At the top third of the page he draws a wavy line representing the water line. He continues by drawing a triangle, representing the iceberg itself. Two thirds of the iceberg are below the waterline to signify that most aspects of the problem are invisible. The problem, summed up in a single word or a simple phrase is positioned above the waterline. Now it’s time for the rest of the team to jump in.

The participants then identify the problem’s causes and root causes and use arrows to connect them to the problem. This meeting setting, where all participants are standing in front of this large brown paper board involves everybody. Using the visual language allows more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and motivates all participants to play a part in the discussion.  As a result, it makes them more confident about the outcome, but they also feel more committed to their final decisions, as they were reached in a collaborative and engaged manner.

Discussing things and capturing them with sketched visuals is an unusual, but highly effective way of supporting the joint sharing and integration of knowledge in teams. Using this approach does not require sophisticated design know-how, nor does it have to rely on a costly infrastructure. Sketching is a natural “third way” besides static, one-way slide presentations and unsystematic, fleeting conversations. They are able to combine the simplicity and immediacy of drawing with the clarity and richness of visual slides. But now stop reading, start drawing.

This simple sketching approach and 35 ready-to-use templates are described in a concise guide entitled “Sketching at Work”. It can be easily used in different professional contexts, ranging from problem analysis to negotiation. To read it online or order your personal copy, log on to

Roland Pfister, =mcm Institute, University of St.Gallen


Comments to“Sketching at Work: How Drawing Together Instead of Presenting Improves Knowledge Sharing”

  1. Thank you. A good approach.
    For further readings in how to sketch complex situations, I can also recommend the Atlas of Management Thinking by De Bono;
    quite an old paperback; but still useful.

  2. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Thanks, Roland Pfister for this article. I would like to share an experience with “sketching and drawing at work” made some years ago during a team coaching.
    In a Swiss canton, three formerly autonomous regional training centres are put under one management. In the past, each of the three centres had developed a quite specific and working culture.
    My colleague and I acted as external coaches in a two day team coaching. On the first day, after an introductory round, we invited the three “old” teams to draw each a large poster showing the strengths of the old team (what they positively have been known for). After a creative interaction, the teams presented their posters full of drawings, slogans, and anecdotes. One could observe how proud the members were about their past and their assets. In the evening, we celebrated their successes of the past.
    On the second day, we put together all tables of the room to have a 3x3meter working space, covered with chart paper. We then put the three posters on this working space and invited the participants now to act as one team (and no more as three teams) to fill the empty space between the posters with lines, drawings, and slogans in a way to integrate them into a common master piece of art.
    It was a great experience to see how the old teams started to interact with each other and how symbols of future cooperation started to fill the space. And the drawing was a perfect foundation to start talking about next concrete steps to take into a common future.


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