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VISUAL MEETINGS by David Sibbet March 14, 2011

Posted by andrewbma in Uncategorized.

Review by Andrew Ma

In Visual Meetings, David Sibbet explains how using different strategies that involve visualization in meetings can not only make the meetings more productive and creative, but can improve team dynamics and help organizations execute plans.  By visualization, Sibbet doesn’t only mean drawing, but also graphical representation of data or ideas, and imagination.  One of the main points that Sibbet tries to drive across is that anyone can lead a visual meeting (not just artists) because humans have an innate ability to understand and communicate visually, even before written language.  He encourages people to experiment and try new things to become truly successful with visual meetings.

First, Sibbet explains that humans inherently convey meaning and communicate ideas beyond using just words.  An example would be the use of expressions and gestures.  Drawing graphics is simply an expression of gesturing with pen and paper.  Beginners can start by using simple shapes like straight lines, curves, and circles, and then begin combining them into more complex shapes such as arrows, and ultimately creating pictographs and ideographs.  These shapes, pictographs, and ideographs form the basis of organizing and presenting data and ideas visually.

Productivity and Creativity

Pictographs and ideographs can greatly increase the creativity and ingenuity of group members.  These simple drawings have meaning embedded in them to be interpreted by the reader.  Realism or accuracy is not the goal; in fact, if a pictograph or ideograph is slightly ambiguous, it provokes more thought and engages the reader’s imagination.  This thought helps tap into the creative side of the brain and may produce unexpected ideas.  The aim is to plant an idea or metaphor for the audience to latch on to so they form their own mental image.

For the more experienced, visual meetings can go beyond simple graphics to become large scale murals or posters.  These can be several feet in size and can depict landscapes, processes, or journeys as the background metaphor for the audience while showing a great deal of information about the subject matter.  An example of this is a storymap that Sibbet drew for National Semiconductor.  The drawing shows the company’s vision and goals and how it plans to get there.

Storymap of National Semiconductor's Company Vision

Storymap of National Semiconductor's Company Vision

Thinking visually is also about collaboratively organizing information.  Sibbet describes multiple cases where meetings he lead involved using sticky notes to record information and ideas, then sort it along multiple axes.  Doing this with sticky notes allows the entire group to see the discussion in real time based on the placement of the sticky notes.  For example, using sticky notes on a hi-low & easy-hard plot allows for team members to continually debate and rearrange which item has the greatest impact and is easiest to implement.  Seeing the items in relation to each other helps frame the debate and it soon becomes clear which solution is the best.

Meeting facilitators can also promote visualization in each individual to spark ideas.  One exercise involves having the audience imagining their company on the cover of a magazine being recognized for an accomplishment.  Afterward, they were asked to share with the group what the “accomplishment” that they imagined was, and how it was achieved.  This sort of free imagining and creativity in the audience was harnessed to get very good ideas for that company to implement.  Once a visualization was created in someone’s mind, it allowed them to access the creative aspects of themselves and grow upon it.

Team Dynamics

Visual meetings can also improve team dynamics.  Using several techniques during meetings can increase engagement and participation, help improve understanding, build trust, and help team members remember their commitment to others.  This helps the team work together as a more cohesive unit and helps pull the best from all members.

Visual meetings can increase group engagement and participation.  According to Sibbet, members of groups often times feel that their contributions aren’t truly welcome, or that they aren’t actually being heard by the leader.  If the leader writes down the key points of what they hear from the team members, then that provides feedback and acknowledgement that the leader heard and understood what is being said.  If what was said and what was written don’t match, others will feel compelled to correct the discrepancy.  In addition, having their ideas being recorded encourages more participation and is likely to provoke engagement and dialogue.

Visual meeting techniques also help ensure that there is a “common understanding” throughout the entire group.  Often times, within a group, different members have different mental pictures of what is being discussed.  Whether it has to do with an object’s spatial orientation, a building’s physical layout, locations on a map, or many other possible examples, confusion and misunderstanding are easy to come by.  By taking the time to draw out visually what is meant, not only does it give time for the other members to process the information, but it allows everyone to form the same mental picture.  This sense of clarity helps build confidence within the team and allows the focus to be on the things that matter.

Finally, this wide variety of techniques can be used to build trust, especially between a company and a potential client.  By meeting “visually,” the client can have confidence that he or she is getting their requirements across clearly.  In addition, Sibbet points out that in order to work visually, both parties should be sitting on the same side of the table—an instant sign of trust and cooperation.

Executing Plans

Visual meetings also help teams execute plans more effectively and successfully.  Not only does it create a “common understanding” of the action plan (similar as was discussed previously), but it also helps solidify team commitment.  Visual meetings encourage group participation and generation of content.  When a group generates a plan together, each member has input.  This creates a sense of “buy-in” for the team.  In addition, a visual “artifact” such as a poster or a photo that can be created during this meeting can serve as a reminder to the agreement and consensus that the team reached.  These two things can help reinforce a team’s commitment to any plan and help it run with more determination.


Visual Meetings is organized in a very practical, “here are the basics of what you do” sort of way.  The book is essentially written with a little bit of context followed by a lot of “mini case studies” that showcase examples in where certain strategies work.  The book is organized with many fine points that I can imagine myself, in many cases, having a specific problem and being able to look up how to approach it in the table of contents.  It is clear that David Sibbet has a lot of experience and is very knowledgeable in the subject matter; however I sometimes find the quick jumps between different “cases” hard to follow and sometimes seemingly disjointed.  Perhaps a more visual “roadmap” at the beginning of each chapter might help to solve some of my disorientation.

A final aspect which I would be interested in seeing is more formal “data” or research explaining the success and theory of “Visual Thinking.”  Unfortunately, every story in Visual Meetings seems to follow the same formula: (1) there was a problem, (2) we started visual meeting strategy “X,” and (3) people were much more engaged and the meeting was a success.  I find myself oftentimes thinking “I want to believe” while reading about meeting styles that I am completely unaccustomed to.  Granted this is a book, not a research paper, but a little more background theory would have been welcome.

Criticism aside, this book definitely contains many useful takeaways that can be employed in meetings of all sizes.  Personally, it has given me a great deal to think about for meetings I participate in, and I definitely look forward to trying some of Sibbet’s suggestions for myself.



1. Jon Pittman - March 15, 2011

Andrew – I know David and he, in fact, does have quite a bit of theory behind his techniques. He provides a glimpse of the theory in the book, but the book is mostly a “how-to” book. As I mentioned in class, I have seen Tom Wujec do many of the things in the book and finally saw an explanation for when, why, how to use particular techniques.

2. David Sibbet - March 15, 2011

Dear Andrew: I’m very impressed with your thorough review of my book, and what I sensed was some real excitement about the ideas it contains. I’m in fact writing a second book right now on Visual Teams that will take these ideas to the next level and show how and why they work out over time for teams that have to be productive.

Your note about “hoping around” is well taken. I do some of this deliberately, so as to keep the reader thrown back into his or her own reserves and imagination. I increasingly think of the kind of facilitation we do at The Grove as a kind of conceptual jazz, that doesn’t follow explicit formulas so much as a common discipline and commitment to improvisation in the spirit of listening. Thus the temptation to lay things out neatly and provide a clear roadmap all the way along is one I resist a bit, believe it or not. It’s a norm in a business book, I realize.

There is a lot of theory under the work. I didn’t delve into the neuroscience very far, since authors like Daniel Pink and others are doing a great job with that — as to why visualization is so powerful in our imagination. Much of the theory under the work is about how process works, and since visualization is a process it applies there for sure. I also have a deep engagement with general semantics–a somewhat obscure but influential approach to epistemology–which is the study of the relationship between our representational mind and our actions. GS, as its called by Hayakawa, Bois and others who have interperted its seminal thinker Alfred Korzybski, is mostly known for its insights into how the structure of the English language shapes our thinking. I don’t treat this body of work explicitly in Visual Meetings, but it an underpinning. Concepts like “the map is not the territory” and “ladders of abstraction” apply very much to visual thinking.

If you are interested in the Theory of Process I can send you an abstract of it. It doesn’t treat organization work or meetings or teams explicitly, but deals with how science describes process in the larger universe, and invites users to apply these distinctions like camera lenses to the buzzing details of different professions and sectors. I spent about ten years working with a study group in Berkeley in this regard, and the Group Graphics Keyboard came out of that, and now the Team performance Model about which I am currently writing.

I’d love to hear more about what kinds of research you are imaging would help.

Thanks again for your time and attention.

andrewbma - March 17, 2011

Hi David,
I’m humbled that you took the time to read my review. I’m a structural engineer by training, and as I think you mentioned in your book, I’ve used some visualization tools to better understand our designs. My engineering background may also explain my inclination for more “structure” and having a “clear roadmap,” but now that you frame it in the same spirit as “improvisation,” “flexibility,” and “experimentation,” it seems to make a little more sense.

What excited me most was although I’ve used to visualization for understanding things, I’ve never considered using “visualization” to help with engagement or increase creativity. This definitely surprised me.

If you could send an abstract about the theory of process, that might be interesting for me to read.

Andrew Ma

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