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Need to solve a problem? Learn how to draw toast

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It may seem trivial – not to mention odd – at first, but under deeper inspection it turns out that drawing toast reveals unexpected truths about the way we collaborate and make sense of things.

The exercise has three parts and begins with something that we all know how to do – make toast. 

“It begins with a clean sheet of paper, a felt marker, and without using any words, you begin to draw how to make toast,” Wujec explained. “Most people draw a sliced piece of bread, which is then put into a toaster. The toast is then deposited for some time. It pops up, and then voila! After two minutes, yet get toast and happiness.

“Now, over the years, I’ve collected many hundreds of drawings of toast, and some of them are very good, because they really illustrate the toast-making process quite clearly. And then there are some that are, well, not so good. They really suck, actually, because you don’t know what they’re trying to say. Under close inspection, some reveal some aspects of toast-making while hiding others.”

He claimed that some were all about the toast, and all about the transformation of toast, while others focused on the toaster and its mechanics. Some drawings were also all about people and the experience they have. 

“And then there are others that are about the supply chain of making toast that goes all the way back to the store,” he said. “It goes through the supply chain networks of teleportation and all the way back to the field and wheat, and one actually goes all the way back to the Big Bang. So it’s crazy stuff. But I think it’s obvious that even though these drawings are really wildly different, they share a common quality.”

Most drawings, he claimed, have nodes and links. Nodes represent the tangible objects like the toaster and people, and links represent the connections between the nodes. And it’s the combination of links and nodes that produces a full systems model, which presents how we think something works. What’s interesting about these systems models is how they reveal our various points of view. 

For example, Americans make toast with a toaster, whereas many Europeans make toast with a frying pan.

“Of course, many students make toast with a fire,” he said. “I don’t really understand this. A lot of MBA students do this.”

You can measure the complexity by counting the number of nodes, and the average illustration has between four and eight nodes. Though we may not all be skilled at drawing, the point is that we intuitively know how to break down complex things into simple things.

“This brings us to our second part of the exercise, which is how to make toast, but now with sticky notes or with cards,” he said. “With cards, most people tend to draw clear, more detailed, and more logical nodes. You can see the step by step analysis that takes place, and as they build up their model, they move their nodes around, rearranging them like Lego blocks. Now, though this might seem trivial, it’s actually really important. This rapid iteration of expressing and then reflecting and analysing is really the only way in which we get clarity. 

“It’s the essence of the design process. And systems theorists do tell us that the ease with which we can change a representation correlates to our willingness to improve the model. So sticky note systems are not only more fluid, they generally produce way more nodes than static drawings. This brings us to the third part of the exercise, which is to draw how to make toast, but this time in a group.”

According to Wujec, it normally starts out messy, and then it gets really messy, and then it gets messier – but as people refine the models, the best nodes become more prominent, and with each iteration, the model becomes clearer because people build on top of each other’s ideas. What emerges is a unified model that integrates the diversity of everyone’s individual points of view. 

“These drawings can contain 20 or more nodes, but participants don’t feel map shock because they participate in the building of their models themselves,” he said. “Now, what’s also really interesting is that the groups spontaneously mix and add additional layers of organisation to it. To deal with contradictions, for example, they add branching patterns and parallel patterns. Oh, and by the way, if they do it in complete silence, they do it much better and much more quickly. Really interesting – talking gets in the way.”

At the centre of the toast experience, is the recognition that drawing helps us understand the situations better. Movable cards produce better systems models, because we iterate much more fluidly. And then the group notes produce the most comprehensive models because we synthesise several points of view. 

Now imagine if you were to draw something more relevant or pressing, like your organisational vision, or customer experience, or long-term sustainability? There’s a visual revolution that’s taking place as more organisations are addressing their wicked problems by collaboratively drawing them out. Clearly, those who see their world as movable nodes and links really have an edge.

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