Telling stories together while practicing critical thinking with VTS

Fern Cats

We use our story telling and critical thinking skills constantly as we test and develop software. How often do we practice those skills on something other than features we are going to release to production? Musicians practice their craft. Even coders can practice their craft with katas and code retreats. How can we practice telling stories and thinking critically? Another concern for software delivery teams are unconscious cognitive biases, which get in the way of critical thinking. How do we fight something that we’re not even conscious of? Enter VTS, Visual Thinking Strategies.

Work out your story telling and critical thinking muscles

When I participated in Alex West’s Visual Thinking Strategies workshop at Agile 2017, I experienced a huge aha moment. Here, finally, is a way we can practice telling stories together, practice thinking critically, and possibly expose and work around our unconscious biases. To quote Alex:

    Visual Thinking Strategies , or VTS, is a cross-disciplinary technique applicable to anyone working in a collaborative setting where observation is key. VTS develops critical thinking skills by viewing and discussing works of art in a group.

Experiencing the creativity and insights resulting from a group of mostly strangers carefully observing artworks was a huge aha moment. What a powerful way to collaborate, benefit from many diverse perspectives, and succeed in spite of our biases!

Fern Cats
Fern Cats

What’s going on in the picture at left? What do you see that makes you say that? What else do you see? Simple questions like these from a VTS workshop facilitator get fascinating responses. What story can we tell based on the picture? Each person in the room sees different details, and as they share what they see, it inspires everyone else to see the picture from a brand new perspective.

A team VTS workshop – remotely!

Some of my teammates, including developers, testers, a product manager, a designer and a customer support representative, and I were fortunate to participate in a remote VTS workshop facilitated by Alex. The process worked as well in a Zoom meeting as it did in a room with co-located people at Agile 2017. Alex made us all feel at ease. Everyone contributed.

Alex showed us a painting and asked us what we saw. As each person shared an observation, Alex asked them to explain what prompted their observation or opinion. When I saw the fern cats, all I saw at first was how amazingly they were made of ferns. Then a teammate noted that the water was falling in only a small area in the picture. Where did it come from? Was it watering the cat for nourishment? Was the cat annoying the tree by scratching it and making it pour out water in self-defense? I didn’t notice the stormy-looking sky until another teammate pointed it out. Are the cats happy, agitated, what is their mood? Why are some of the trees and vegetation brown?

Generating ideas and stories

No knowledge of art is needed in a VTS workshop. There are no correct answers, and no attempt to get consensus. The facilitator is open, accepting, and helps the group link observations together. That’s probably why this doesn’t devolve into group think.

It’s such a collaborative experience – each person’s observations cause others in the group to see the painting in a new light. Diversity for the win! One picture we looked at appeared to be a kitchen – at least, there was a fridge. I assumed the object next to the fridge was a cabinet, until a teammate observed that it must be a window. Hmm, yes, that did look like a window! And truly, nothing else in the room was very kitchen-y. Were we really looking at a kitchen? I was able to let go of my assumptions much more easily when I could hear what others see.

At the very least, VTS is a fun team building exercise. We look at an interesting, puzzling picture and start making up a story about it. But it is so much more. It lets your team talk about something completely new and unfamiliar in a safe environment. You can’t fail because there are no right answers. You really can practice so many skills together: critical thinking, story telling, brainstorming, observing.

How does it apply to software delivery, especially testing?

VTS is used by medical schools to help doctors become better diagnosticians. Apparently the CIA has a big art collection for training its spies. It seems to me there is huge potential for software delivery teams who practice it. 30 minutes of VTS could be a great warmup to a product brainstorming session or a retro. I hypothesize that if I participate in more VTS sessions with my team, I will be better at finding issues with our product, better at asking questions, a better team member, less susceptible to confirmational bias. I’m going to test out this hypothesis!

If you do a workshop with an experienced facilitator like Alex, you can also learn how to facilitate a session yourself. I am keen to facilitate more sessions with my own teammates and practice critical thinking together.

Check out Alex’s recent post about VTS for more information. I highly recommend contacting Alex and setting up a workshop for your team.

8 comments on “Telling stories together while practicing critical thinking with VTS

  1. Thanks for such a great recap Lisa! As you know this was a first – facilitating a VTS session remotely. I was really pleased with how well it worked and your team was great!

  2. This is such a cool concept! Good testing really does take a rare combination of practical and abstract thinking. I’m interesting in promoting this type of thinking in my organization. I fear that many people would be hesitant about this, though. How do you rally people to try something like a VTS session?

  3. Yeah, I pondered for several months after participating in Alex’s VTS workshop at Agile 2017 how to get the team to try it. My test team was perfectly willing but there are only 3 of us. I figured I could get the support folks to try it. What made the difference was having Alex do it, since she is a recognized expert. I offered it to the whole team and several other people wanted to join in.

    I met with the folks who participated a couple days ago to discuss how we might apply VTS. One of the other testers has his product team on board with trying it as a warm-up to one of their meetings, as an experiment. I plan to offer it as a lunchtime tech talk for the office – those happen every Wednesday with a catered lunch so there’s a ready audience. But first I want to practice facilitating it with a smaller group, I have to figure out how to do that. IME, devs tend to run the other way when they perceive something related to so-called “soft skills”, even though everyone pretty much agrees those are the most important skills to have.

  4. Hi Lisa,
    I am from Mumbai, India. I am thinking to conducting small VTS workshop for my team. Can you please guide me that how can I conduct? What should be format?

  5. Hi Mayuresh,
    I’d recommend participating in a workshop facilitated by someone who is already experienced, such as Alex West, see the links in my post. I wouldn’t have tried myself without having been in two sessions that Alex facilitated. There’s an art to the facilitation.

    You can also find YouTube videos of her sessions, for example at Agile 2017 India, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiVxduk5IzaAhXDg1QKHecHBGsQtwIILjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D68Koe4TzK0g&usg=AOvVaw3LEklcpv7dTVpM06MT-XKg, and her slides from Agile 2017: https://agile2017.sched.com/event/ATaG/art-for-agilists-a-visual-thinking-warmup-alexandra-west?iframe=no&w=100%&sidebar=yes&bg=no

  6. […] Since they are unconscious biases, it’s pretty tough! Knowing we have them is the first step. In our workshop, Stephanie Desby and I will guide participants through some fun exercises to reveal some common biases. I think the key to working around these biases is to have a diverse team. Hopefully we each have a different set of biases, so as a team, someone is going to spot the pattern that the rest of us miss. I’ve found techniques such as Visual Thinking Strategy are a great way to exercise our critical thinking and observational muscles and work together well, I wrote about that: https://lisacrispin.mystagingwebsite.com/2018/01/24/telling-stories-together-practicing-critical-thinking-vts/ […]

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