Visual Facilitation

With the pace of innovation and competition getting faster and faster, we know that it is becoming ever more critical to solve complex business problems in

With the pace of innovation and competition getting faster and faster, we know that it is becoming ever more critical to solve complex business problems in unique ways that quickly deliver insight and results.

Over the last 20 years, XPLANE has developed an approach to problem-solving that combines visual thinking with gamification principles applied in a workshop format. These sessions are designed to bring a group of people together to solve complex business problems in a unique and co-creative way.


A consultant and a designer work closely together to ask questions and visualize the conversation as it unfolds. We put our laptops and smartphones away and work in an analog way using giant posters, “stickies” and markers. Everyone draws, shares ideas and plays games designed to drive the group toward concrete results.

At the end of the day there is a powerful sense of accomplishment in seeing the room wallpapered with the conversation that has taken place, the discoveries made along the way and a clear plan for what happens next.


Many of the tools we have created and adapted over the years are in Gamestorming, which we use as a recipe book and continual source of inspiration. The individual tools can be powerful, but bringing them together in a meaningful way requires a fresh approach in every situation. Here are some core ideas that help us succeed:

1. Sessions have a shape.

Every good game, meeting or session is made up of three distinct phases that we can picture as a pencil sharpened on both ends. The first phase is about OPENING: divergent thinking to generate a lot of ideas. The middle phase is about EXPLORING: diving deeper, examining and experimenting with content.  The third and final stage is about CLOSING: using convergent thinking to make choices and decisions and drive concrete action. Keep the OPEN and CLOSE phases separate because it’s counterproductive to think creatively and critically at the same time.

From Gamestorming (XPLANE founder Dave Gray,

then-head of XPLANE consulting James Macanufo and Sunni Brown)

In choreographing a session, bear this shape in mind and choose exercises for each phase that takes goals, group size and dynamics into consideration. In the OPEN phase, drawings and Post-its help quickly generate a lot of information quickly and democratize the conversation so that everyone has an equal voice. Set a time limit, write one idea per Post-it and do the exercise silently rather than as a shout-out. In the CLOSE phase we use a number of exercises, like forced ranking and dot voting, to help groups make the tough choices between the ideas they’ve generated.

2. Prepare.

Research and prepare sessions in detail, knowing that it’s easier to depart from a plan than not to have one. Explore the vision, goals and challenges in order to clearly define what success looks like. Learn as much as possible about stakeholders: who will be there, what they care about and any group dynamics. Then design collaborative exercises to answer the key questions the session needs to answer, always applying the key filter: what will make this fun? Sessions are intense, and to keep energy levels high it helps to create a mix of individual and group work, drawing and listening, and breaks so that people can recharge. Where possible, give participants pre-work or thinking exercises so they arrive ready to engage.

3. Be nimble.

The excitement of entering a session is walking into a room of real people who will almost certainly break perfectly laid plans. You might learn in the first few minutes that the key stakeholder wants to use the time differently than originally planned. Relying on improvisation is part instinct and part experience, but it really helps to embrace surprise as an opportunity to try new things. Taking risks with visual facilitation is the way to learn and grow, and flexibility is an essential counterpoint to your detailed planning. If something is not working, explain your thoughts to the group and change tack.

4. Don’t skip the key steps.

No two sessions are alike but some steps are too valuable to ever skip:

  • Start with an icebreaker to warm up the room. It often works to pair a topic with something personal—if you’re in the footwear industry, you might ask participants to draw their favorite shoe and to explain what it says about them;
  • Visualize your goals, make sure the group is aligned with these goals, and revisit them throughout the session to make sure you’re on track;
  • Define a clear set of next steps and assign ownership;
  • Close with a Plus/Delta, asking everyone to share what worked well and what could be improved the next time.

5. Lean on artifacts.

Artifacts are portable physical objects that make ideas tangible and shareable. In a restaurant you might describe an idea using salt and pepper shakers or a quick sketch on the back of a napkin. Post-its are familiar to anyone who has been in a brainstorm, and we often wonder how civilization ever existed without them!

Core to visual thinking is to lean heavily on drawings and diagrams, continually asking, “What does this look like?” While not everyone can be Picasso, anyone can draw simple primitives, like boxes and circles, to communicate ideas. Frame drawing as a thinking activity rather than an artistic exercise to enable participants to express themselves visually in ways that accelerate understanding. Use these sketches to uncover blind spots and make new discoveries.

6. Use meaningful space.

Space is important to successful visual facilitation. Where possible use rooms with plenty of flat wall space, room to walk around and furniture that can be moved for break-out exercises. And during the session, keep the content organized and visible on the walls at all times to help refer everyone back to key points, compare information and pull it together in new ways.

7. Follow through.

Lastly, create a visual capture of the session, documenting the diagrams, illustrations and models created by the group, and summarizing what happened, what the group learned, what decisions were made, and what the next steps are to build on the session results. Sometimes additional sense-making happens after the fact, when one looks at the information again and makes new connections. Session captures are extremely helpful in holding people to the action they have decided to take.

We hope these tips will give you a powerful way of sparking creativity, accelerating alignment and conquering complexity. Each session invites us into new territory, and these core ideas, along with an ever-growing toolkit and open mindset, help us accompany our clients on exciting journeys of discovery.

Boris is vice president of business development at XPLANE and Maia is a senior consultant based in Amsterdam.

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November 23, 2016