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Perspectives Blog

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Good Research Question: Can you draw the process?

If you can draw the process of making toast, you can make complex processes clear.

Introduction: 

At Helpfully, one of our favorite questions to ask when entering an organization or conducting research is: “Can you draw the process?” 

We ask this when we are trying to structure a service design blueprint and internal process steps. People think in processes, with clearly defined steps. Tom Wujec’s TED talk on drawing toast inspired the framing of the question. 

In his talk, Wujec introduces a design exercise involving drawing the process of making toast. Everyone knows how to make toast, don’t they? So this should be so simple. And you might expect a lot of the diagrams individuals produce to look similar. But if you watch, you’ll see dozens of examples and see how different they can be from one another. 

Asking someone to draw a process, step-by-step, shows how they think something is done, how their process differs from someone else, and where issues might arise. Drawing a process diagram for making toast, as fun as that is, can actually be applied to much bigger and more complex problems. 

Helpfully believes that diagrams have the power to break down complex problems.

Step 1: Share mental models (get it out of your head and onto paper) 

To start creating process diagrams, you need to get people to share their mental models. You need to get people to get what’s in their head out and on paper. Start with: “Draw a picture of the company.” Another prompt could be “Draw your job. Draw a diagram of how you work, step-by-step.” This one is great to get into the details and day-to-day responsibilities of a given teammate or department.

We recommend that participants part of the exercise in silence and individually. 

You want to get people to move out of words, and into diagrams. The process takes shape and becomes visible through drawing. If needed, you can allow participants to move the nodes by drawing on Post-its or cards, so people can iterate more quickly. You can start this process asynchronously. Or assign it as pre-work and have participants take a pic of their work and upload/email to us.

Step 2: Notice nodes and links

Notice what details people include in the process and how they connect steps. These are nodes and links. Nodes represent tangible objects or steps in a process. Links symbolize the connections between these nodes. Nodes and links are crucial because they help create a visual representation of complex systems. You’re getting a better picture of someone’s mental model, how they think the process works. The arrangement of nodes and links in drawings allows individuals and groups to understand, analyze, and communicate intricate processes more effectively, providing clarity in problem-solving and facilitating collaboration.

Take note of how many nodes and links a drawing uses. The ideal number of nodes in a drawing is between 5 and 13. Less than 5, the drawing may appear trivial (but will be quick to understand) Over a dozen nodes and the drawing may become overly complex, resulting in "map shock." Someone might get lost as they try to understand the process. As a team, you can work together to simplify what is the right number of nodes and links. This is the collaboration step. 

Step 3: Collaborative mess 

Once everyone has drawn the process diagram, come back together. This is the messy and productive part of the exercise. Organize elements of the drawings into categories. It doesn’t have to be step-by-step. 

The goal is to build a unified systems model. 

What emerges is a cohesive representation that integrates the diverse perspectives of each participant, resulting in drawings that can contain 20 or more nodes without inducing map shock. Wujec explains during his TED talk that research indicates group models surpass individual efforts in both clarity and complexity. With so many unique perspectives of the process, looking at it from their own vantage points, teams can take into account special cases. Include these with branches or parallel patterns in the process. Even if there are 20+ nodes or links, there won’t be “map shock” because everyone had a hand in building it. 

Conclusion / TLDR

Drawing process diagrams extends beyond making toast. Think about how you would draw the process diagram for your organization’s vision, or the entirety of your customer’s experience. 

Drawing a process diagram proves useful because it: 

  1. Makes the invisible visible
  2. Breaks down processes to the appropriate level of sub-processes and steps
  3. Allows teams to zoom in and zoom out as needed
  4. Allows branching can cross and be nuanced 
  5. Highlights break points (where current process problems appear) and moments of truth (moments where customers or other stakeholders see the largest value creators, or the biggest value detractors)

"Though we may not be skilled at drawing, the point is that we intuitively know how to break down complex things into simple things and then bring them back together again."

- Tom Wujec

Additional Resources 

Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast  (2013 TED Talk) 

Process Mining Book -https://fluxicon.com/book/read/

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