Episode 8 – Visualize this: Your strategy, better

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. Nitya is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations, where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. On the podcast today, we’re going to talk about the difference between graphic recording and facilitation, putting a more human lens on human resources, and learning how to start your graphic recording process!

Kristen G.: Welcome back to Upright and Better. The podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. I was trying to remember how we met, so I looked up the first email I sent her, and I realized that I emailed her after seeing her at a festival in downtown Portland. She had a table there with the library and was hosting a visual thinking exercise, which we’re actually going to talk about.

Let me just tell you a little bit about her. Nitya Wakhlu is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. I’m so thrilled to have Nitya on the podcast today.

Welcome Nitya. I’m so glad you’re on the podcast today. I’m really excited to have you here because we have worked together in the past, and I think we’ve known each other, gosh, at least two-and-a-half years now, right?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, that sounds about right, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast Kristen. I am a huge fan of the show and really, it’s a privilege to be here.

Kristen G.: I’m so excited. I’m glad to hear that. So I want to dive into something that I don’t even know the biggest difference between. Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about the work you do in graphic facilitation and graphic recording, and how are they different, and why do you use those things?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely, and yeah, thank you for asking. This is something that a lot of people want to know more about, but also are not sure of the distinction. I’d love to talk about that right now.

Very often I get hired to do work with clients as a graphic recorder. As a graphic recorder, what I do is I go to meetings of all kinds, so that could be a strategic visioning workshop, or brainstorming session, or a board meeting even. And what I do in my role there is listen very deeply to what’s being said, and distill the key information from that huge conversation. Then I use words and pictures to capture that information visually in real time.

Typically, what it looks like is I have a few large 4×8 sheets of paper up on the wall, and I’m really focused on capturing the key ideas and the key insights and using words and pictures to put that up on the charts. That is an example of what graphic recording looks like.

Kristen G.: Okay. I think that’s a fascinating tool, and I can see that being very useful for board meetings with nonprofits, with committees, but also with tech companies and startups that are maybe having trouble accessing their deeper thoughts about the brand or where the product is going. Have you done that kind of work before?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, I think graphic recording is a tool that is applicable and very useful, you know right across the spectrum. I’ve worked with groups of three people in a startup in their early stages of brainstorming. I’ve often worked at conferences with 300 people in the room. It’s a very useful tool in a wide range of scenarios, and it does a couple of things.

First of all, as a graphic recorder, we bring a quality of very deep listening into the room. And when we do that it makes sure that every voice in the room feels heard and validated. And I think that when people realize that there’s someone really listening to them deeply, it helps them feel more engaged. It helps them feel more collaborative, and then that really changes the shape of the interaction in the room. That’s something that I love about graphics recording.

Then of course the fact that we use words and pictures is a very deeply integrative process, so you have both sides of the brain being stimulated. It also helps people tap into a realm of imagination and of visionary thinking that they couldn’t have with more traditional processes. Of course, once you’re done with the meeting, the visual shots are an excellent artifact for you to take back with you to not only remember what happened, but also share with the rest of the organization.

That was a little bit about graphic recording.

Kristen G.: That’s helpful, but how is it different from graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Great question. As a graphic recorder, you show up into the room on the day of the event, and you might be a little involved before the event to understand what’s happening, but it’s mainly focused on the day of the meeting or the days of the meeting. But as a graphic facilitator, my role begins much more upstream. In this role, I will work with a client to understand their needs. Very often the call comes to me when people kind of know what they want but aren’t fully sure. So I will kind of go in, and then have a conversation with them and truly understand what their needs are, what the challenges are, and what their objectives are. Then I design a facilitative engagement and actually lead the facilitation.

What makes graphic facilitation unique compared with other methodologies you might have seen or used, is that we use a lot of visual tools in our work. For example, if I’m going into a strategic visioning session, I might, as a facilitator, come in with a pre-drawn history of what the organization looked like over the last 10 years, including the peaks and valleys. I might come in with a set of empathy maps or blank visual worksheets and templates for all the participants to draw in and fill out. I might bring in visual card decks. So basically as a facilitator, you’re in charge of designing the process, facilitating the process using a lot of creative visual tools, and it is your job to make sure that the group reaches it’s desired outcomes.

Kristen G.: Can you share an example, of course client names redacted, of you doing graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Recently, a large organization that I work with gave me a call, and they had an interesting challenge. They were at a point where it was a group of about 150 people, employees in that group, and they wanted to explore reevaluating the strategic vision for that group over the next 10 years. I don’t know what’s your experience been with groups that do this because what I’ve noticed is that traditionally leaders will go out into a resort or a spa or something like that for five days and close themselves there, and work on totally redesigning the vision. Then coming back to the organization and basically handing it to them. Is that something you’ve noticed that happens quite a bit?

Kristen G.: I’ve definitely seen that, and it’s challenging when you have a group that has done that, and they feel really excited and proud about it because you want to let them down easy, but you also want to tell them … And I’m sure you’ll speak to this, but I always want to say, this is most likely not going to be as successful in adoption from your own employees or your stakeholders because it was not co-created, and they might not buy into it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly. Thankfully the group that called me, the leaders had the vision and foresight to tell me that they didn’t want … I think literally there was, we don’t want a poster to put on the wall. We don’t want something that we created and looks nice, and we give to the rest of the organization. We want something that each one of our 150 employees has helped co-create and helped shape. Once everyone has their fingerprints on the vision, that’s when we know that we’ll get ownership, and we’ll get buy-in. Then it becomes something that we can all align towards, and we can all strive to.

That was sort of the brief that they came to me with, and I loved that experience. The way I approached it was we brought in a team of three other graphic facilitators in addition to me. Then broke this group of 150 up into smaller teams and had really deep conversations helping each of these small hubs imagine what they wanted the future of their organization to look like and really getting granular in asking them to visualize that and give us some really good information about what the future looked like.

Imagine a room of 150 people generating all these images for what the vision is, then of course, we took these images and all these ideas through a set of filtering processes and distilled them and polished them up. But at the end of this, we had a beautiful visual map that was a reflection of this co-creation, a reflection of this really collaborative process, and we ended up with a vision that people recognized, people owned, and now it’s with each employee. They look at it every day, and think it’s a beautiful north star for them to shoot towards. That was certainly something that I really enjoyed working on. It was also great leverage of the visual tools that I was speaking of.

Kristen G.: Definitely. One thing that is striking me about graphic facilitation is that it is such a human-centered process.

Nitya Wakhlu: It is.

Kristen G.: You and I have worked together on a couple of different human-centered design things, but I want to connect it … Before we dive into to… because I do want to talk about stuff we’ve done together because it’s fun.

Nitya Wakhlu: Right.

Kristen G.: I want to also connect this, and I’m maybe even thinking there’s a little bit of irony in that your background is in HR and organizational development, which ironically it’s not a traditionally human-centered field.

Nitya Wakhlu: I know.

Kristen G.: But you’re using graphic facilitation as a human-centered methodology to bring groups together, to move them forward, to galvanize them to action. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you seen that irony? Is that just my cynicism?

Nitya Wakhlu: No it’s not yours. I wish it was, the cynicism, but honestly-

Kristen G.: Me too.

Nitya Wakhlu: It’s the sad reflection of a lot of the current state. People come into graphic facilitation with all sorts of backgrounds. I think each one of these paths have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen people come in from illustration, and people come in from IT, being a business analyst, etc. I have noticed a few things, since I come at this work from a background in HR and OD. I have noticed that … You know one of my core principles, and I know that both of us shared this, is that the learner is the person that we put in the center of everything we do, or the employee, or the participant.

Every process that we bring to the table or every intervention that we design is focused on acknowledging that the wisdom already exists in the room. Our role as facilitators is not to come in and tell people what to do, but it’s to work as a crucible or to hold a space for that inherent wisdom to really emerge and reveal itself. I think that’s something that we both share, and I have noticed that traditionally HR is much more of, hey, this is what we think your problem is. This is what the solution is, and here, this is what we’re telling you to do.

So it’s much more of a diagnostic model, and I think the shift … I am seeing it shift a little more now, more recently to a more humble and to a more dialogic model were you invite people to have conversations. You really listen to what people are saying, and you don’t go in with any sort of a preconceived answer. You sort of go in with a good process, and you go in with big ears and trust I think.

I think I do see that evolution happening recently, but unfortunately, I feel like traditionally HR’s been much more of a prescriptive sort of a model, and that is incredibly ironic, for sure.

Kristen G.: Yeah, it is. I love what you said, that your job is to be a crucible and to hold space. I’ve never thought of myself as a crucible, but I so resonate with that, or your words resonate with me about holding space for this to happen because one of the things that I’ve always believed about my work, and also, I think I see it in your work too, is that people have the answer. They can get to it. It’s just that there is a lot of flotsam, a lot of just I’m kind of in the way. And our job is often to help them peel it apart, and that the juxtaposition you made with kind of being a crucible and holding space, versus a diagnostic model makes me think of almost the sick care.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly.

Kristen G.: You know we don’t have healthcare in this country, we have sick care. I think people can have, especially a lot of executives and founders I know have a pretty visceral reaction to human resources, and I think if you press them, they might think of it as sick care. But I think what you’re doing is trying to bring an organization to that well-care. You know, how can we build trust with each other? How can we lean on one another and have a dialogue that is authentic to this organization. I love that. That’s amazing.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. I think this is something I learned from you, which is going in with a spirit of humble inquiry really changes the outcomes, and sometimes it is difficult when you talk to clients, and they want a really prescriptive agenda or session design for the day, so sometimes it can get a little challenging to say, hey I’m going to go in prepared and trust the process, and I might throw away my agenda during the day. That happens to me very often because I believe in just being in service of the group.

But I found that that’s the most effective methodology, and very often, I’ve worked with clients maybe have had hosted discussions for example. Again, we had about 150 employees in the room, where the brief was, let’s find out from them how we might shift organizational culture. What can we do as employees to make that shift happen. And we’ve taken these 150 people through a series of hosted café-style conversations. I think the stuff that’s emerged from these discussions, I think it’s powerful, and it’s something that could not have emerged from hiring consultants to give you a report or something.

Kristen G.: A report, yeah.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly, so yeah, that’s been pretty powerful I’ve noticed.

Kristen G.: It is. We’ll come back to that in a little bit because I want to ask you about some of your big goals, but I do want to connect to some of the work that we’ve done. We’ve worked on some human-centered design workshops, and one we’ve done for actually HR practitioners, and I’m curious. What are your thoughts about those workshops? Do you think that they were useful for the participants? How might we build on those kinds of things?

Nitya Wakhlu: I think so. Human-centered design is a process of again putting your customer in the center, and for HR groups of course, that’s most likely the employee. Again, I think to a point that we were talking about in the past, one ironic thing that I have noticed within organizations is that while a lot of the innovation teams use human-centered design, the HR teams hardly ever do that. A few organizations where I have seen the HR teams leverage human-centered design, I think it’s been transformative for them and a huge breakthrough in the way they work. So I definitely think that this is a methodology that is not only helpful for HR, but I think it’s essential in the way they work and in the work they do.

Very recently, for example, I was invited with a team to help them redesign their non-compensation reward system. This was a taskforce that was put together, and they were told to … You know for example, very often, organizations as a reward, as a recognition, they give people like a little certificate or like a little gift card. This company wanted to really find out what is a reward for employees that is actually meaningful, and that really makes a difference.

So this task force went out and did some research and listened to employees. Then came back, and then we went through a two-day process that I helped them facilitate, where they shared the insights from the employees, and then we used a bunch of visual tools. We did empathy mapping. We did a lot of ideation, a lot of live visualization, and came to a really robust place of this non-compensation reward system that was something that really made a difference to their employees.

That’s an example of how using human-centered design can help shape HR systems and processes, and that could be onboarding. It could be redesigning managerial training programs. It could be compensation, even performance management. So I certainly think, not only the methodology, but even the basic mindset of human-centered design, which is whatever I do, I’m going to put my employee front and center, and I’m going to design something tested with that employee, and then help that feedback shape my design.

Kristen G.: Right. I think that’s incredibly powerful, the mindset of human-centered design. I actually recently taught a couple of versions of the work that we did together to learning practitioners, to other instructional designers.

Nitya Wakhlu: That’s interesting.

Kristen G.: It was interesting because I kind of thought that it wouldn’t be new, but both of those workshops were flooded with people, which is flattering, but it was such a shift. Even for people whose whole business and way of working is supposed to be centered on the learner. Trying to help them see the value of creating a persona, and understanding, and actually going out and interviewing that person, and trying to develop empathy for their environment and their situation so that you could better design a solution that you could then prototype and test, that was a very big shift for a lot of people. I think one of the bigger things too, not just the persona and the empathy, but the testing mindset, this prototyping mindset.

I don’t know how I would survive without that mindset. I mean that’s how I run my client projects. That’s how I do pro bono work, all of it. I think I even do it in my own personal life. It doesn’t make sense anymore to go away for a month, six months, 12 months, and kind of seclude yourself and produce something that’s very shiny and beautiful, but then at the end doesn’t work because you didn’t test it out and try it out.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I love visual tools is because I think visualizing an idea or visualizing a problem or a complex solution or a complex current state, is a really powerful tool to bring something to life. For example, if I wanted to build a low-fidelity prototype for an idea, I think instead of trying to go to people and giving them a PowerPoint deck or trying to explain my way into their minds, I think creating a visual really helps people get it faster and align around it quicker, and get feedback, which is why I love consumer journey maps. I love sketching, and I think whiteboarding as a tool to get into that really quick iterative prototyping and testing work out.

Kristen G.: Definitely, well this brings me to a different question, which is what are the big goals that you have for the organizations that you work with? What do you hope from kind of a 50,000 foot standpoint that they take away from their work with you?

Nitya Wakhlu: From a 50,000 foot standpoint, I think what I would love for every organization I work with is to see and embrace the fact that there’s another way to do things. There’s another way to run your meetings. There’s a new way to determine your strategy, to redesign your processes, come up with new ideas, get your employees into the room, create a space where the employees can shine, use visual tools to make complex ideas simple. Then I think by doing that, my clients and organizations will see that work becomes much more productive because you have people aligning around ideas quicker. You have people making decisions faster. You have ideas living for much longer than they normally would. So work not only becomes more productive, but it becomes more fun. And I think we can all use a little bit of that within organizations.

Kristen G.: I completely agree. A little bit more fun and a little less taking yourself so seriously.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: As we go, what are some ways that somebody could use some of these techniques without being as talented as you are. Obviously, they could hire you, but what might you give to someone who wants to try this in their basement or their backyard.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Also, just to put this in context, I’d say that I have absolutely no background in art. I went to engineering school and business school, then worked with G.E. Then ran my own business, so I don’t come from an artistic background. So I tell my clients that if I can do it, anyone can. It’s about 10% talent and 90% practice. And interestingly Kristen, a lot of my clients are now inviting me in to teach them the basics of visual thinking, so that they might start using this visual language within their organizations.

To someone who wants to get started, the first thing I would do is tell them to just practice. One of the things, a best practices to put up, a flip chart in your office or your room, or your workspace. Start thinking of the ideas that you hear of very often in your work. That could be innovation or growth or human-centered design, and start practicing very simple icons that help you depict these ideas. That’s one good way to get started.

The second thing that I tell people is that if you have an internal meeting, or you know three or four people brainstorming around the room, and if you’re the person who’s drawing and taking notes in your notebook. Instead of doing that, stand up and start using a flip chart. That’s a good way to bring in visual thinking into your meetings in a low-risk way.

The third thing Kristen, is that I don’t think people even need to draw if they don’t want to. For example, a lot of the tools that I use aren’t even about me drawing. I bring in a lot of visual templates, visual frameworks that people can write into. I use a lot of photo cards. I use a lot of collage images from magazines. Get creative in the ways in which you can leverage visuals and that doesn’t even have to be about drawing at all.

Kristen G.: Yeah, I love that. I think those are really good tools. And we can probably link to some of them in the podcast notes.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: Where can people find more information about you?

Nitya Wakhlu: My business is Drawbridge Innovations. You can email me at Nitya@drawingbridges.com, and we’ll put that in the show notes. Also, visit my website and listen to a five minute Ignite talk that I did about graphic recording. That’s www.drawingbridges.com. That’s a good place to find me and hit me up in case of any questions or anything you want to know about this.

Kristen G.: Definitely. We’ll link to all of that, and Nitya I just want to say thank you so much. I’m so happy to have you on the podcast and can’t wait to have you on again.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much Kristen. It’s a great privilege again to talk to you but also to all your listeners and to your tribe. If there’s one thing that I want to make sure that people know about the world of graphics recording and graphic facilitation, it’s about ideas, not art. So don’t let the names fool you. It’s about making complex ideas simple. Anyone can do it, so I invite all your listeners to go ahead and give it a shot themselves.

Kristen G.: Definitely. Thank you again. I appreciate it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much. Have a great day Kristen.

Kristen G.: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Email: nitya@drawingbridges.com

Website: www.drawingbridges.com

Much gratitude to David Sibbet, who has given our field a rich shared lens and language to talk about our work.

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