Tom Wujec speaks internationally on innovation: why it matters, why it is a vital engine of economic growth (especially today), and how to foster it. TechAlliance is pleased to welcome Tom as our keynote speaker at this year’s Gearing Up for Growth Conference.
We were able to sit down with Tom for a brief Q & A about his expertise, and what he will be bringing to his keynote.
Q: You are an advocate for “making work visible”; what does that mean?
A: Making work visible is a powerful approach to fostering clarity, engagement and alignment. It’s a simple practice of using diagrams to solve problems and communicate more clearly. The act of visualizing an idea, whether picturing a customer’s needs, illustrating the steps to making a better product, or charting real flow of money, influence or risk, converts intangible abstractions into concrete representations. Making the invisible visible literally helps people view their work on a common page, viewing a shared context, vision, set of goals and ways of getting things done.
Q: How did your previous work with the McLaughlin Planetarium and the ROM influence your approach to innovation?
A: I’ve been a student of visual thinking for many years. As a producer at Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium, I had the opportunity to create massive presentations of celestial phenomena from star birth to supernovae. As a creative director at the Royal Ontario Museum, I designed and built interactive exhibits that explained a wide range of natural phenomena from dinosaurs’ locomotion to gemstone sparkling. These experiences taught me how to think in images and design to create interactions and behaviours.
Moving from the public to the private sector, I joined Alias and Autodesk, leaders in 3D computer software, where I designed and marketed many CAD applications, including Maya, which won an academy award. As my role progressed, I helped Fortune 500 customers tackle specific design challenges to create more stylish and sustainable cars, movies with more stunning visual effects, and buildings that could be built faster and with less energy. I’ve even worked on diapers, mines and pain killers.
Q: How did you develop your model for business visualization and how can it transform an organization?
A: In working with design teams, I began to see patterns of work. The teams that were consistently innovative represented their ideas better than the laggards. The leaders tended to use large display boards for collaboration. This was true for Pixar and Dreamworks who both storyboarded their movies better, NIKE and P&G who created product rooms that visualized their customers’ needs, and BMW and Toyota who used visualization at all stages of product development from concept development to lean manufacturing. The better the prototype, the better the team thought through their ideas, and the better the final results. Large visual pages created a tapestry for creative thinking.
For the past 15 years, I’ve compiled the best practices for visualization and collaboration. Now I teach this practice, called Visual Strategy, to Fortune 500 organizations and educational institutions to help tackle wicked problems by using visual thinking and creative prototyping.
The most progressive teams use visual thinking like LEGO building blocks: they doodle small pictures of the elements of a situation – the who, what, where, when and why – and snap them together into complex, accurate representations. It distills the essential aspects of Lean Manufacturing, Agile Development, Six Sigma and other workflow methods into everyday business situations. The essential underlying capability is being able to switch modalities of thought, from visual to verbal to mathematical.
Prototyping is the design skill of creating low-cost, low-fidelity versions of a product or service with the intent to learn, test, understand and improve. Organizations that innovate well prototype well. Without it, organizations tend to think in abstractions. To help organizations really understand the impact of prototyping, I have popularized an exercise called the Marshmallow Challenge.
Q: You’re probably the only keynote speaker who encourages team building with marshmallows and spaghetti. How did you come up with The Marshmallow Challenge?
A: A friend of mine, Peter Skillman, now head of design for Nokia, mentioned in passing how he used a simple design exercise to get teams thinking about how to design better. Teams of four people had to build the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one meter of tape, a meter of string and a marshmallow, which needs to be on top. I tried the experience in a workshop the following week and the results were amazing. Most teams failed because they spent too much time planning and seeking power rather than building and experimenting. Kids on the other hand were brilliant. They built better, more interesting and innovative structures than most adults. Over the years, I’ve now run over 200 Marshmallow Challenges, run a blog, and have discovered many further outcomes. It seems that in apparently simple exercises, there are deep truths about how we collaborate and innovate.