I love whiteboards. When I worked at EMC, I had four of them up in my cubicle at work, and I carry a small portable one in my computer bag.
I can’t remember ever not liking whiteboards, but I don’t think I began to fall in love with them as a productivity tool until my second freshman year at college (long story – for now let’s just say that freshman year was the longest 18 months of my life).
During that year, my roommate and I both took the “Physics with Theory” courses, “Mechanics” in the Fall, and “Electricity and Magnetism” in the Spring (among the students, the “with Theory” suffix was affectionately replaced with “for Masochists”). We struggled with the weekly problem set at first until we starting using whiteboards.
The problems were difficult. Often, at least half the battle was figuring out how to even begin to solve the problem. So, we’d brainstorm together, and jot down our ideas.
When you free-form brainstorm like this, you often end up with a lot of ideas that, well, let’s not call them bad ideas, necessarily — let’s just say they’re not the ideas we’re looking for. So you dismiss them. If you’re working on paper, the ideas that don’t fit never actually go away. Sure, that one’s got a line through it, and that one has been replaced with an eraser smudge, but they’re still there as reminders of the less-than-perfect thinking and can cloud your thinking.
But, start with a clean whiteboard, write out all your ideas as fast as they come to mind. Find one in need of dismissing? One swipe of the eraser (or your hand, if you’re like me and sometimes too impatient to reach for the eraser), and that dismissed idea is gone, freeing your mind to focus on the remaining ideas.
Whiteboards can be so much more than a tool for productive brainstorming, though. They’re a great communication tool. The spoken word isn’t always the best way to describe spatial ideas or new concepts. Some people are visual thinkers, and some people just need something explained in a new way before they can get it.
I remember a meeting with a customer several years ago. We had a couple of our sales guys along and I was there to speak to the technical solutions. The customer had all their very technical data center guys and their newly-appointed Director of IT. The Director had clearly gotten his position for his managerial skills, not his technical ones. His team respected him and really enjoyed working for him, but they often felt they were spending an awful lot of time explaining things to him.
We were there to go over the details of a proposal for a disaster recovery solution. The customer’s tech guys kept trying to stump me with questions over how much network bandwidth they’d need for various recovery point objectives and I was fielding every one quickly and easily with some back-of-the-envelope math (I’ll post something later on how to quickly and easily do this sort of on-the-fly estimate). The Director kept trying to jump into the discussion with some poorly-formed questions, and I finally realized that we had buy-in from the tech guys on the solution, but if we didn’t get the Director on-board, we were going to lose the deal, and he was just looking lost.
I turned to him and asked if there was something I could explain or expand upon for him. He said, “Well, I know these guys,” he pointed at his staff, “are really good at what they do, but they haven’t been able to explain, what exactly is this for?”
That’s when it hit me. Everyone, myself included, had been so involved in the technical details, we just assumed that everyone already knew the basic concepts, but he didn’t and our assuming that he did wasn’t helping. We were trying to explain fine details of a particular disaster recovery solution to a man who didn’t really know the concept of remote replication.
I jumped up and drew the whiteboard below:
I said, “What we’re proposing is to take the information in your databases at this site”, as I pointed to the left-hand box, “and copy it to your other site,” pointing to the right-hand box. “That way, if anything happens at your main data center, all your customers’ information is still safe at another location.”
The Director’s face lit up and he dove in as a full-on active participant in the remainder of the discussion. At every future meeting with this customer, we started with a whiteboard and never left it.
Whiteboards: clean, easy, clear, functional. The perfect tool for concept translation. This is why I had four of them up in my cubicle at work, and carry a portable one in my computer bag.