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!
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.