Visualizing Research Problems

“The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”

– Albert Einstein

Making toast doesn’t sound very complicated — until someone asks you to draw the process, step by step.  asking someone to draw how they make toast, is a process that reveals unexpected truths about how we can solve our biggest, most complicated problems in our research teams and groups.

The act of making ideas visible – representing situations as visual interconnected systems composed of nodes and links – can convert unproductive discussions about research problems into effective working sessions that foster clarity, engagement and alignment.

There are 8 Simple Steps to Visualize Research Problem:

  1. Prepare

    Get the ingredients: felt markers, thick paper stock, sticky notes or index cards, and masking tape. Stage your room with tables, chairs, and a clear wall where you can post your work. It’s important to have enough room for all participants to see everyone’s creations.

  2. Invite

    In your invitation, set expectations that your meeting will focus on building a systems model  of an important challenge – clarifying your vision, improving cash flow, figuring out the next bold challenge. Begin with a simple design exercise.

  3. Conduct

    Run the meeting informally. Hand out markers and paper to everyone and ask people to draw a picture of how to make toast.

    Give them 2-3 minutes.
    You may want to play toast-making music.

  4. Reflect

    Have each person hold up their drawing for all to see. (Let the laughter start) Have the group place their drawings on a large wall space and comment on the drawings; pointing out which are simple and complex, which have people and which don’t.

  5. Video

    Play the DrawToast video and let it explain the big ideas about systems thinking. After it plays, ask the group how many nodes they drew and what kind?

  6. Draw Your Challenge

    Have people draw a picture how to improve what what they are working on as a group. This can include almost anything, strategic or tactical. See ‘Draw Questions’ for inspiration. Make sure people draw individually and in silence.

  7. Share

    Have people work at tables. showing and explaining their diagrams. Compare and contrast the diagrams and see what is similar and different between them. What links and nodes are common?

  8. System

    If you have the time, have the group develop a systems diagram of the challenges using sticky notes and drawn links. Building on the previous individual diagrams, have groups of 4-6 people create nodes and links to to solve the challenges.

The video below will teach you how to run this exercise yourself, by hearing some of the surprising insights from watching thousands of people draw toast.

If you’d like to learn more, Download the DrawToast Systems Thinking Guide from this link

 Tom Wujec

Tom is a Fellow at Autodesk where he helps leadership teams solve complex challenges and design their future with emerging digital technologies


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