If you find your company faced with a fiendish problem, Tom Wujec from Autodesk, a software design company for engineers, can show you how to solve it. And it all starts with toast.
This sounds absurd, like the answer to the universe in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being 42. How on earth can knowing how to make toast solve complex business problems like growth, organisational vision, competitive strategy, customer experience, and long-term sustainability in a fast-changing world?
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Tom Wujec is an advocate of using design and technology to help companies solve their problems using the people they already have. Some years ago he formulated a simple design exercise that revolutionises how to approach majorly complex problems and reveals unexpected truths about how we make sense of things. This exercise is visualising and documenting how to make toast.
How making toast solves your problems
“The exercise has three parts and begins with something we all know how to do,” Wujec explains. “You start with a clean sheet of paper, a marker, and without using any words start drawing how to make toast.” This reveals a lot about people’s thinking, here are some examples.
Typically, people will draw a step-by-step series showing a loaf of bread, putting it in the toaster, some time passes , the toast pops up, and voila! Toast, butter, jam and happiness.
“But over the years I’ve collected hundreds of drawings of toast. Some are great and clearly illustrate the process, while others… really suck,” says Wujec. It’s not that individuals can’t draw, it’s that you don’t know what they’re trying to say.
Some make it all about the toast and the final product, while others get too tied up in the actual mechanics of the toaster, engineers love to do this.
Others are more people focused, making it all about visualising the experience of making and enjoying toast.
Some take a high level view of the whole supply chain of making toast, going right back to the field, growing wheat, making bread, buying it from the store, and so on.
And this one goes all the way back to the big bang.
“But what strikes me, is that even though these drawings are wildly different, they share a common quality,” says Wujec. “It’s the principle of nodes and links.”
Understanding nodes and links in problem solving
According to Wujec, nodes represent tangible objects like the toaster, bread and people, and the links represent the connections between the nodes.
“It’s the combination of links and nodes that produces a full systems model and reveals our private mental models of how we think something works. And that’s the real value of this exercise. For example, Americans make toast with a toaster, while Europeans make it in a frying pan. MBA students tend to make toast with a fire – I don’t know why they do this…”
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According to Wujec, you can measure the complexity of a system by counting the number of nodes and links. For an average drawing there are eight – less than five the drawing doesn’t really make sense, more than 13 and you become overwhelmed by the over complexity. So the sweet spot is between five and 13.
Part two of toast-making
Through the exercise of part one, a group of people is able to show that they intuitively know how to break down a complex system into simpler parts, and then bring it back together again.
“Now the second part of the exercise is to make toast, but this time using sticky notes or cards. What’s the difference? When using this method, people tend to draw clearer, more detailed and more logical nodes and you can see step-by-step analysis taking place as they build their models and move things around.”
The rapid iteration process is the essence of the design process and very important to gaining clarity. “Sticky notes are not only more fluid, they generally produce more nodes than static drawings, the drawings are richer, and according to systems theorists, the ease at which we’re able to change a representation correlates to our willingness to improve the model,” says Wujec.
Step three in making toast (remember this is about solving problems)
“The third element of the exercise is to do it in a group. It generally starts out messy, then it gets even worse, but as people refine their models, the best nodes become more prominent with each iteration, the model becomes clearer because people build on each other’s ideas, and what emerges is a unified systems model that integrates the diversity of everyone’s point of view. That’s really different to what usually happens in meetings!”
“The exciting and interesting part is that these drawings can contain 20 or more nodes but participants don’t feel overwhelmed because they’re participating in the building of the model themselves. They also add in additional layers of organisation to it to deal with contradictions, for example, by adding branching patters and parallel patterns.”
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The key lessons in the toast exercise
- Drawing helps us understand situations as systems with nodes, and the relationship between those nodes.
- Movable cards produce better systems models because we can iterate more easily and fluidly.
- Group work produces the most comprehensive models because it integrates several points of view.
- This is an ideal exercise to run and then repeat to address an organisational problem you’re experiencing – organisations that see their world as movable nodes and links have an edge.
- Start with a question, collect nodes, refine the nodes, keep iterating until a pattern emerges and the group gets clarity and you answer the question.
A case in point (if you still need convincing)
“This practice of visualising and refining systems produces remarkable outcomes for organisations,” says Wujec. “One example is a large publishing company in the US called Rodale. They lost so much money in one year and were downgraded to a D rating by their customers – bad news for business. In a three-day visualised exercise, that spanned the entire business, they managed to reclaim $50 million and be upgraded to an A rating by customers. All because there was alignment from the executive team on how to drive the company forward.”
To try your own toast exercise, visit drawtoast.com. You can also view Tom Wujec’s whole talk here.
[Images in this article are taken from Wujec’s presentation on Ted.com]