Express Yourself in Images of the Future

The most fearless facilitation move in my repertoire may be asking association and nonprofit boards to create visual images of their future.

It’s a proven method in design thinking, but I have learned to expect some suspicion when I lay out my arts and crafts supplies and explain the exercise.  I get wry comments like “so this is what the board does” from a special invited guest, or quiet mutters of “I hate this stuff”, or taunts like “I can’t wait to see what [president or chairman] does with this.”  

Then the magic happens.  People turn their nervous energy into positive creativity. They talk about what they’ve learned about their future, what’s critical, what’s possible and what they most want to see happen.  Fortunately someone in each team really does enjoy creative expression and starts organizing the ideas and materials into conceptual images.

I was lucky the first time I experimented with design thinking. The leaders of the National Art Education Association loved it. They helped me appreciate the power of visual expression. Since then I have asked other groups to step well outside their comfort zone and try thinking in a new way.  

It’s the patterns across those images that tell the story of the future everyone needs to see and hear.    Often I see people far more willing to illustrate whatever brokenness they need to overcome with an alternate design. This is worth all the construction paper, pipe cleaners, various shapes and stickers, and modeling clay I keep bringing to these board planning sessions.

They name their fears, design to overcome them and see how they can move on into the future. In a recent facilitation, a dominant vision of connectedness drew the disparate parts of the organization into one powerful platform for clients. Another time I watched a team fill a wall with all its special interest member groups swimming in one unified stream toward a shared vision for the profession.

The images are conceptual and express the essence of what should be different in the future. They have to be translated into more familiar modes of action like strategies, strategic plans and innovative structures or programs and services. 

What persists once we turn to plans and action steps is a powerful awareness of what the change will mean when it is achieved.  The board created that image together.