Wall of Wonder

November 6, 20083 min

At the SD Best Practices 2008 conference, I attended a tutorial by Ellen Gottendiener where she showed a storyboarding technique she calls the “Wall of Wonder” – it is a way to capture modern day “cave art“ifacts of our discussion.  This facilitation technique is a combination of individual work followed by sharing with the big group.  This technique allows big groups to tackle hard problems while respecting each individual’s thinking style and encourages collaboration.

It is well-known (by people who facilitate a lot) that when you work in large groups that the extraverts are often the loudest and first to speak in group exercises.  Often times it is their ideas that permeate discussions and drive solutions.  However, many times the introverts atre the often the one to have the really profound and insightful comments that move the discussion into a new, exciting and interesting directions.  How do we find a tool that can challenge both the extraverts and introverts?  Let me show you how in the example below.

Here is how the “Wall of Wonder” works; I will be using an example of a software team trying to decide what is in-and-out of scope for the next release.

  1. Gather the group in a large space where there is plenty of room to move around and there a good-sized wall to work on.  Have people arrange\group themselves any way they see fit.  Be sure each person has a marker and plenty of post-it notes\index cards to write on – everyone should have the same color ink and paper in order to foster annoyminity.   Use this opportunity to instruct the participants what and how you want them to write on the post-it notes\index cards – “write big enough to be seen across the room”, “give the headlines”, etc.
  2. Start with an image related to the problem the big group is trying to solve.  Remember, in order to think well as a group, we need to think well alone first – we want each person to think silently about the image that is coming up.  “Imagine you are at a party with our customers after this next release and one of our customers is shaking your hand about what an awesome release we just delivered.  What are they talking about that has them so excited?”
  3. Now give the group the focus question, the question that has brought this group together.  Instruct the participants that once the question is read they are to begin writing ideas on the post-it notes\index cards silently.  “Write down all the features that need to be in the next release.”
  4. After a timeboxed period of time has passed, ask each person to read one example of what they wrote.  When they are complete, ask them to post their item on the wall.  This technique helps focus participation and injects energy into the exercise through movement.  Anyone may ask for clarification.
  5. After five or so items have been placed on the wall, begin to ask the participants if they can sub-group the items into categories.  It is important to stay nuetral during the “Wall of Wonder”, so do not force the issue, eventually the items will coallesce into groupings.
  6. Continue until all non-unique items have been read and placed on the wall by the participants.
  7. If there are no groupings, now ask the participants on how to group the items on the wall.  Once the grouping is finsihed, ask the participants “Is this list complete?”.  If not, return to step #4 and repeat.

Hopefully you can see how this tool works and give it a try next time you need to engage a big group in some creative problem solving.