Embracing the Whiteboard

Navigating nearly any company today means being well acquainted with whiteboards, sharpies, and post-it notes. But how they’re used differs from setting to settings. In most corporate environments, you rarely see them used as a tools for innovation. Whiteboards in conference rooms are often devoid of any meaningful content and those hanging in offices are typically to-do lists.  Post-its are reminders to call such and such department, mini to-do lists, or notes to pick up milk on the way home. In contrast, agencies (whether design, advertising, or any other creatively inclined job type) use them as tools for ideation and collaboration. The reason is simple: in any creative firm, we sell time and thinking. Whiteboards and post-its are the tools by which we bring these things to life.

This isn’t to say that corporate environments lack the creative spark, but deign and idea generation follow a different pattern and are one of a number of functions. Additionally, most corporate environments are not designed spatially to drive collaboration in what is, ultimately, a very public, very exposed way of creative problem solving. People are spread out over multiple floors and grouped by departmental function rather than by task. What this means is that cross-functional teams are difficult to bring together in a single space where they can have discussions and working sessions with a shared work pallet. In an agency setting, because we sell ideas above all else, the shared space becomes the norm out of necessity. Collaborative ideation is the central theme of most interactions, and therefore the public expression of the ideas are emergent. In other words, we must come together and work very collaboratively in order to fulfill our central functions – design and innovation. You have to see thoughts develop in real time, respond, build, break, and build again.

Why does any of this matter? Because what I’m suggesting is that for a corporate setting to become more adaptive, more creative, and more inspired, it needs to embrace the idea of an iterative, public work process. It needs to take a design thinking approach to daily problem solving. Design thinking is an approach that can be used to consider issues and resolve problems more broadly than within professional design practice, and has been applied in business and to social issues. Design thinking includes “building up” ideas, with few, or no, limits on breadth during a “brainstorming” phase. This helps reduce fear of failure in the people involved in the work and encourages input and participation from a wide variety of sources in the ideation phases.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It also means embracing the whiteboard and ideation in an open forum.  It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete. So, pick up the sharpie, break out the post-its, and step up to the board. The end results will transform your company and your brand.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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