Tom Wujec: Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast

Speaker

Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He’s an innovative practitioner of business visualization — using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.

Summary

Asking people to draw how to make toast can reveal a lot.

  • Most people draw a flow chart: images (nodes) connected with arrows (links). We intuitively know how to break a drawing down in this way.
  • The details people go to can reveal more about them: whether the supply chain of bread, or engineers drawing the inner workings of a toaster
  • people from different countries see toasters differently (Americans draw an electric toaster, Europeans a fry pan, or some draw fire).
  • Number of nodes is usually around 5, and 5-13 is the best to describe the process. Fewer nodes are too simple, but more than 13 difficult to understand

The second step is to draw the nodes on sticky notes or cards. This lets you rapidly rearrange or change the nodes, to make it better faster. These diagrams tend to have more nodes than one drawn on a sheet of paper – making them richer.

The third step is for a group to draw on sticky notes and rearrange them together. This results in more nodes again, but map shock isn’t an issue because they all saw the process come together. They group automatically organises the nodes to group similar nodes or deal with contradictions.

Managers can use this simple process to map out their organisation or strategy – to break a very complicated entity into the working parts. They simply draw the nodes, then organise or refine them until the patterns emerge. These models can extend to hundreds or thousands of nodes. An executive team for a publishing company spent 3 days organising post-its, and their newfound understanding let them reclaim $50million of revenue and customers now rank them as an “A” – from a “D”.

Next time you are confronted with a complicated problem, try breaking it down in terms of visibly nodes – it is fun, simple and powerful.

My Thoughts

A simple exercise, and definitely worth trying to understand a problem. However, having seen the exercises in business a few times, I’m not sure they always yield results. Ones I have been a part of tend to be too structured and quick (~1/2hr) – rather than the random self-organisation and iteration Tom suggests. These exercises tend not to result in an answer or clarity at all.

Having had the logic explained through this talk, I will try it alone though. Take an idea or problem and break it down, then see if it can be re-organised in a useful way.

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