Sketching to solve problems

March 19th 2019

Applying sketching to problem solving to support effective innovation

As children, visual language is one of the first ways we express our thoughts. Yet by the time we reach adulthood we have lost the simplicity of drawing to solve problems, and instead resort to producing elaborate decks and lengthy presentations to get our point of view across. As busy executives, we are perpetually short on time. Passively wading through large presentations saps our energy, especially if we feel like the presenter isn’t getting to the point.

Sketching is a fast and powerful approach that’s used by managers, strategists and design thinkers around the world to solve problems and help them innovate. It supports dialogue and captures the essence of interactions, increase vividness and memorability. By showing where the group converges and diverges, it supports faster and more authentic conversations and creates ready-made captures, saving lengthy follow-up documentation.

At two recent Gartner events Lisa Hagan, Principal Strategist and Dreu Harrison, Director of Strategic Innovation both from Pivot, presented with Ben Crothers, Principal Design Strategist at Atlassian. The team demonstrated how easy and effective visual problem solving can be. If you can draw a circle, line, rectangle and a triangle, then you are able to visually communicate ideas. 

At Pivot, we use sketching to create cohesion and alignment in senior executive teams. At every stage of the process, whether it is to clarify problem spaces, design innovative solutions or new business models or capture road maps. It’s an effective way of getting problems out of peoples’ heads and onto a whiteboard where we can make sense of things. Clients also find that it’s a refreshing way to get groups engaged by make ideas visible, tangible and consequential. Recent examples where we have applied sketching to solving problems at a complex system level include:

— Helping redesign the salary system for a large city council with multiple stakeholders in a way that everyone could buy into

— Refining the out-of-home-care process for children at risk, improving their outcomes and providing a safe and nurturing home

— Working with the UTS School of Business and Entrepreneurship to create a mental model of the ecosystem so that they could clarify where they “play” so that they could focus their programs and partnerships.

To get attendees into the right space, we presented two problem framing activities. The Problem Framing Pyramid is a useful activity that helps get fresh perspectives on the problem to be solved and describes where a group plays and how they will win. It is a logical process that starts with identifying the problem to be solved. Next, we identify five different types of people most affected by the problem, the impact of the problem on each stakeholder and why it’s a problem for them. The Problem Framing Pyramid is then used to narrow in on an area of focus.

Another quick and effective activity to do either individually or as a team, is the Super Hero Booth which visualises your super powers and your kryptonite. This is a great activity to discuss as a group how you can support each other and clarify your goal, the ways to get there and what might sap your strength and stop you in your tracks. By visualising the challenge in a more create way it helps teams work better together and clearly identify potential pitfalls.   

Judging by everyone’s reaction at the two Gartner events, the group found the process to be simple and engaging. The key will be finding ways both big and small to bring these ideas back into everyday meetings. Having simple skills and ideas, leaders can find ways to start to experiment with bringing greater clarity and alignment to their teams. 

If you are interested in finding out more about how to bring a fresh new approach into your team or organization that will help to quickly align them and problem solve, get in touch with us at Pivot on (02) 8318 9800 or send an email to

Thank you to all who attended the Gartner events in Melbourne and Sydney and to Vanessa Ronan Pearce and Neal Woolrich at Gartner for hosting the event and to Ben Crothers and Pivot’s Director of Strategic Innovation, Dreu Harrison for a brilliant presentation.