How to Document & Collaborate with Visual Thinking?

Dan Roam’s new book, ‘The Back of the Napkin’ illustrates the power of visual thinking to solve any problem – individual or organizational, including so-called business problems. The companion website has a very compelling whiteboard presentation on the four steps of visual thinking, the five focusing questions and the six ways we see and show.

Seeing the art of visual thinking framed in a ‘scientific’ context is a relief. This is the second big validation I have come across – the first (for me) was Bill Buxton’s book on ‘Sketching User Experiences’. I am a white board junkie and have been known to start arranging paper-clips, coffee-cups and pens in a drawing representation if paper and pen are not handy. I have written about my awe of sketching…and look for ways in which this individual tool can be scaled up beyond a small team into corporate settings. How do you take sketches enterprise wide? Not just as pictures of the whiteboard or screenshots of your doodling on a TabletPC…..but as business documents similar to ones created in  Microsoft Word, Excel, etc…or even Google Documents..where dispersed teams can review, comment and collaborate.

My experiments with Microsoft OneNote, Mindjet MindManager, Google Sketchup and Evernote’s Evernote have been great personal tools and I continue to use them in varying degrees depending on the problem at hand. Some of these tools do allow collaboration and team review….but they are not mainstream yet. I have not been able to scale up the experiments to a point where I can say with confidence that the tool itself will not distract from the goal of visual collaboration.

So, all of my electronic sketches get distributed via PDF to the team…who can mark up a paper-copy and we sit down in a conference room with my electronic sketch displayed on the wall and make changes for everyone. While we are making do with this level of tool sophistication, I am focused now on getting to animated sketches so that a story can be told with higher fidelity….cutting down on misunderstandings and sharpening the follow-up questions that can actually take the analysis or the solution or the execution further along. Animating pictures is now taking me to our Graphic Designers and their Adobe Flash tools, etc. Fun stuff and I like messing around with that when I have time.

But the nagging doubt remains – how do I get visual thinking and sketching into the mainstream?