I’ve been working with lots of teams in different organisations over the past few years on a question that generally starts along the lines of “We’d like to know how to use Product X”, where ‘Product X’ is one of Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite, Slack or one of many of the dozens of products that are touted as being able to help you and your team collaborate more effectively.

The challenge with these tools is that they make a few major assumptions. Some of those are cultural assumptions about the way that organisations work that are based on the premise that all organisations work pretty much like a (usually West-coast American) software company. This is a fatuous assumption that is rarely if ever challenged, and is the subject of a forthcoming blog post.

There are also assumptions that people know what they mean by “Collaboration” and would also be able to identify improvements in collaboration. This is also fatuous. My research over the past five years has shown that, generally, there are seven different kinds of ways in which people might work with one another (another blog post on that to come) and have four general reasons why they would want to improve it (I’m building up a backlog of posts here, it seems – but you can get an overview here: Collaboration Cheat Sheet).

But one of the hardest assumptions to overcome is that people actually understand how they work at the moment. It’s all very well trying to understand how a group of people might work differently using a new technology, but if they don’t understand the reality of the present, then you are on a hiding to nothing.

In the past few months, I’ve been using a technique that is loosely adapted from the idea of “rich pictures” that was stolen from the Soft Systems Methodology created by Michael Checkland and other at Shell in the 1980s. The key word in that last sentence is “loosely”. It helps a group of people to explore how they currently work, and therefore spot opportunities for change and improvement using technology. It goes a little something like this:

1 Preparation

You will need a box of Artefact Cards or PostIt notes in at least 4 different colours (3 if you’re using the cards as you can use the white reverse side). You’ll also need a table top to work on.

2 Warming up

I quite often will use a visual metaphor game to get people thinking, using a pack of random photos spread out on a table or on the floor. Ask participants to pick two photos, one that somehow represents how they currently think they work as a team, and another that shows something about how they might work better in the future. If you don’t have a pack of random photos, you can download my set here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/2fwbtGT6lZQzIFy43

You end up with something like:


It gets people thinking, and the photos get people to express things that often they’d find hard to otherwise articulate.

3 People

Now into the meat of it. The first step is to get people to map out the different people with whom they interact. That might be specific names individuals, it might be types of people, it might be other teams. Asking questions of “who is that/who are they” help to get the group to articulate at the right granularity.

I usually do this at first individually – give everyone a set of blank cards and a pen. Make sure all the cards are of the same colour. Then you can play “Snap” (this really doesn’t work as well with PostIts, but you can try), where people take turns to reveal a card and then if others have the same one they lay them down on top. Cards get laid out across the table top.

Lay the cards where they feel sensible to the group – you’ll find a clump around members of the immediate team, and then different clumps for people and groups outside (customers, suppliers, other internal groups and so on). This is as much art as science – go with what feels right to the group. Cards are much better as people are more inclined to move them about than stuck-down PostIts.

4 Things

Next up you want the group to identify the things that they create – the information artifacts. Types of documents, requests, meetings… they should be described as things independent of any system (“Project Report” not “Word Document”). These go down on a different colour where it makes sense to place them. If the people cards need to start moving around, so be it.

5 Systems

Again on a different colour, identify the systems and media that are used. That might include face-to-face or paper-based channels as well as IT systems, telephones and so on. You might have picked up on some of these already, so it’s good as a facilitator to have noted those down as the discussion flowed before. There might be some artifacts that cannot be separated from their system – that’s also fine.

6 Opportunities and pain points

Having had the discussion to get you this far, you’ll now be in a position to (in a final colour) pick out current points of pain, or opportunities for improvement.

An example final state from an HR team is shown below. Yellow and orange (I ran out of yellow) represent people, Blue artifacts, Green Systems and White Opportunities and Pain Points. Those last things are then where you focus the team on helping to find ways to explore the new technology.

You’ll almost certainly also pull out a bunch of issues that are more systemic, and finding ways to help the team address those (not through the magic application of software) is probably where the most value is to be had in this whole exercise.


If you’re interested in me helping you to run similar sessions in your organisation, just drop me a line.

4 thoughts on “Understanding collaboration through rich pictures

  1. Pingback: SITPF

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