Whiteboarding as a Structure for Thinking

Over the past few months, I’ve become an adamant proponent of whiteboarding — as a mode of organization, but more importantly, as a structure for thinking.

Every time I have a creative problem I’m solving, or a project I’m structuring, I take it to the whiteboard and I lay out a roadmap for the solution. I use it for work on a regular basis (at this point, I’ve commandeered half the whiteboards in the office — and we have a lot).

For example: we recently hired two new apprentices to work on our Praxis coaching team. I’ll be working closely with them as they onboard to teach them the ropes of advising — which means I need to take all of the tacit coaching knowledge that’s in my head and get it out in tangible form, as something I can convey coherently and clearly.

I took that problem to the whiteboard. I mapped out the fundamentals of the coaching process, the mathematical formula (I like thinking about concepts as math formulas), the steps of the learning process, and the objectives of a coach. I turned the jumbled thoughts in my head into something presentable and clear, which can then become

I came to the whiteboard with a jumbled mess of ideas, and it catalyzed them into a clear and cohesive framework.

It isn’t just work. On a broader scope, I find whiteboarding to be valuable when I’m exploring philosophical trains of thought. There’s something about it that sharpens my thinking and brings ideas into focus.

My speculation on why (alternate header, because I’m pretty certain about these: “The Benefits of Whiteboarding”):

  1. Seeing all of your thoughts in one place helps you think systemically. Your brain is aware of everything it can see — in the same way that you’re aware of all of your surroundings in a room, even when you’re focused on one thing. When it’s out of sight, it ceases to exist (unless you intentionally recall), but everything in front of you on a whiteboard is available for reference as you structure your thoughts.
  2. Constraint breeds creativity. You have a limited space within which to work — 3′ by 5′, if you’re lucky. Usually less. The lack of space forces you to hold your ideas within specific spacial confines, which increases their potency (rather than distilling them over a vast array of space). You start thinking in the terms of — “I have six inches here. What’s the most important idea that I need to dedicate to that space?” It forces you to be specific.
  3. Whiteboarding is visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (the three sensory experiences that drive the way we process information — with each of us experiencing one as our predominant form of intake). You’re using words (auditory), but you can see them (visual), and you can feel them as you put them on the board (kinesthetic). No matter how you intake information, it’s anchored.
  4. Distraction ceases to exist. Unlike your computer (with tabs, windows, browsers, and files), there’s nothing but you, the board, and the pen. The only information you’re intaking is that which you’ve already laid down — which makes you hyper effective. You don’t only maintain focus — you manufacture it, help it build its own resonance and momentum.

Ideas are only as valuable as the things you can do with them. Whiteboarding allows you to put them into actionable form.

But — how does whiteboarding structure your thinking?

The intellectual perks of the whiteboard:

  • Categories — in a similar structure as a mind map (but less formulaic), a whiteboard forces you to start with base level ideas, then branch outward and become more specific. When I’m whiteboarding an idea, I divide it into sections (for curriculum development, by weeks in a module. For ideas, by the different components of the subject in question). Each section then gets its own elaboration — which allows you to be specific while still maintaining the whole.
  • Connections — on the flip side, whiteboarding also allows you to see how seemingly disparate ideas fit together. You can draw connections and conclusions, which makes it easier to turn your ideas into a cohesive whole — a package you can work with.
  • Specificity — limited real estate requires that you use it well. Whiteboarding forces you to be specific with your ideas, which in turn hones and sharpens your communication ability — and your own ability to grapple with ideas.
  • Deliberateness — when I whiteboard, I care about the aesthetic appeal of my finished product. I want it to be something I take pleasure in looking at — because when I create a whiteboard, I often sit and study it for some time afterward, to internalize each idea in its finished form, and to determine how to proceed on to the next step. Because I care about aesthetics — because I want my ideas to be art, and to be things I’m proud of — I take the time to write carefully. This means that my work is deliberate, and that I have time to think. Instead of letting my brain run so far ahead of me that I lose all sense of center, my words are specific — because I’ve taken the time to ensure they’re true.

Besides having access in the first place, the process is quite simple. Start with the first inkling of an idea. Nothing more. The act of putting marker to board will help the ideas start flowing. As long as you know roughly what you’re trying to explore, you’ll be fine.

And — don’t stop until you’re finished. Else you won’t go back. Starting is hard. Re-starting in the middle of the week with a groove is far harder.

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