The humble whiteboard. The most basic, and one of the most powerful, collaboration tools. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The most common is like this:
Although modern examples are often more like this:
In this article, I’m going to explore what makes a whiteboard such a fantastic tool and also cover some practices for setting them up to get the most out of them.
A whiteboard embodies an essential principle of effective collaboration:
Separate the people from their ideas
Let me explain.
Imagine two people need to work together to address a shared issue. They have different thoughts about the best way to proceed. Going into the conversation they each believe they’re own ideas are the best ones, and the other person’s ideas are…well…let’s say ‘not as good’.
Without a whiteboard, the only way they can express and critique each other’s ideas is through conversation. Person A offers their opinion, and Person B responds.
When people express their ideas this way, those ideas remain intimately connected to the person expressing the view. They belong to the person. The natural tendency of each person is to defend their ideas. It’s a situation where Person A thinks ‘if only Person B could understand what I was saying they’d see I’m right’.
This isn’t a good way for people to collaborate as making progress needs at least one person to concede. Somebody has to lose.
A whiteboard provides a surface for a person to express their ideas visually and tangibly.
By drawing or writing on a whiteboard, a person gives their idea a physical form. Now the other person can see the idea. Now the other person can grab a marker and build on that original idea. Now the people are working on the idea together. They’re shaping it and making it better. They’re collaborating.
When that happens the idea no longer belongs to Person A. It becomes an idea. An idea that each person can modify, discuss, and improve. Working in this way is the heart of effective collaboration.
Setting up a whiteboard
Setting up a whiteboard might seem like the most obvious thing in the world. Until, of course, you walk around most meeting rooms and see the state of the whiteboards. They’ve got old ideas all over them. They’ve got poorly erased ideas (or ghosts of old ideas). The markers don’t work.
You get the idea.
One of the beautiful things about using a whiteboard is how easy it is to do. There is so little thinking required between ‘I have an idea’ and showing someone what you mean. There is almost no friction.
Of course, without a bit of thinking up front and a bit of occasional maintenance friction – in the forms described above –will creep in.
Here’s how to keep the friction low.
Get some good markers
Make sure every whiteboard has the same set of quality markers. The ones I prefer are the Expo Chisel Tips. They’re available from most office supply stores.
I make sure every whiteboard has these colours:
Does this matter? Maybe not. However, if colour is central to explaining an idea then suddenly it does matter. Perhaps it ends up mattering a lot.
Have a place to put those markers
You can purchase cups with magnetic attachments like this:
Or holders like this:
These are better than the little lip you see on some whiteboards as they communicate intentionality. They demonstrate that for every thing there is a place. A bunch of markers on the lip of the whiteboard communicates ‘you get what you get and you don’t get upset.’
Have something to erase the work
You also need to provide something to erase the work. Avoid the school blackboard style erasers that you can get in most office supply stores. These things:
They do a terrible job of removing whiteboard marker! Instead, get some isopropyl alcohol (aka rubbing alcohol) and mix that in a ratio of one part alcohol to nine parts water and put that into a small spray bottle. Then put that bottle within reach of your whiteboard.
Pair the alcohol spray with a micro-fibre cloth, and now you have the set up for erasing whiteboards. I prefer black micro-fibre cloths as they show less of the marker residue.
If I have multiple whiteboards, I set them (and reset them) to the same set up every time. I arrange the markers, spray bottle and cleaning cloth in the same configuration on each whiteboard.
Why bother? Although this does appeal to my innate sense of the beauty of order there is another, better, reason too.
The beauty of a whiteboard is that it is a frictionless tool for collaboration. Humans have been making marks on walls for a long time, and it is incredibly intuitive.
That said, little bits of friction can creep in and kill the moment. Walking into a meeting room and having to clean off the work of the previous meeting slows us down. Needing a red marker to punctuate an idea, but there isn’t one, or you have to search for it slows us down. Breaking that train of thought, that moment of connection between people means another opportunity to be distracted by something or someone else. It’s a moment to check the phone and potentially get drawn into something else.
Having your whiteboard organised won't solve all of your problems. However, it does signal that you care enough about your participants to work at making their experience as frictionless as possible and that you’re doing everything you can to make sure there as little between their thought and the work as possible.
What about digital whiteboards?
When I started doing facilitation the closest thing to a digital whiteboard was a clunky contraption that had a thin film over a surface and printed a black and white image on thermal paper (yes, like a fax machine)
Fortunately, things have changed a lot since then. There is now a selection of capable electronic whiteboards. These include the Microsoft Surface Hub, the Cisco Webex Board, and the Google Jamboard.
These all offer the ability to ‘draw’ on them using special styluses, and most offer video conferencing. People can also collaborate on the same ‘virtual’ whiteboard space regardless of their location.
These devices have become indispensable in the Remote Collaboration context as they facilitate the same kind of free expression as an ‘analogue’ whiteboard, while also allowing people who aren’t in the same physical space to contribute equally.
At the time of writing (late-2018) they still have some way to go. Drawing on a digital surface feels significantly different from a standard whiteboard. The styluses usually have hard tips, and they can’t simulate the same feel as a felt marker on a smooth surface. They still feel awkward. As they become more commonplace, I’m sure we’ll all adjust.
The time between making the motion on the surface and a mark appearing on screen (i.e. the lag of the device) has improved a lot in recent years. However, it’s still not as immediate as dry erase ink on a whiteboard. This lag can be distracting and create collaborative friction.
My final concern about digital whiteboards is that most of them are brilliant, blindingly white. Being up close to a large (most devices are 50” or larger) device that is bright white is, after a while, incredibly fatiguing on the eyes.
My advice is that these devices are fantastic for Remote Collaboration, but if you’re in the same room, use the analogue device and take a photo.