VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill

Last week, I wrote about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a process of using art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills.

Typically, used in primary school classrooms, VTS has made its way into the corporate setting, helping individuals and teams to build and strengthen their problem solving and critical thinking skills, ability to communicate and collaborate, and effectiveness in delivering and receiving feedback.

While I did my best to capture the Why, What, and How of VTS in that post, there’s no substitute for learning from an expert.  That’s why I asked Suzi Hamill , former Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity and the woman who introduced me to VTS, to share her experience using the tool.


Hi Suzi.  Thanks for sharing your VTS wisdom and experience today.  I understand you’ve been doing a fair bit of VTS-ing lately.

Suzi: Yes!  Just a few months ago I was at Oxford University coaching 30 Chief Marketing Officers from large global corporations on how to apply Visual Thinking Strategies to their work and their teams.  And just last week, I led a session with a group of women on the West Coast of the US.

That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about VTS.  It was created to help people learn about art and was designed to be used in schools, but it can have such a powerful impact in a wide variety of businesses.

Suzi: Absolutely.  In a business context, there are massive systems and massive problems, and everyone has their own interpretation of what’s going on.  (imagine doctors deliberating over a diagnosis, investment analysts debating a company’s intrinsic value, retailers predicting the next fashion trend…) This creates conflict.  How do you pull together a range of people and ideas to forge the best path forward? VTS is a great, simple but rigorous method to help business groups look at big problems. VTS is a way to have open exploratory conversations with a diverse set of people

This is especially true in organizations that are very execution oriented. Often organizations haven’t developed the time, space or habit to work through ambiguity. VTS opens space for there to be ambiguity and dialogue.  It gives people permission to explore ideas, be wrong, and hear different points of view.

All of those behaviors are essential to making good business decisions.  I wonder, have you found that some people need “permission” more than others?

Suzi: I think everyone can benefit from the VTS experience and there are some circumstances where it can be transformational.

We are often taught not to question authority. But there is a delicate balance between challenging authority and understanding perspectives At Fidelity, our first experiment focused on using it as a way to prompt open conversation when there was a power imbalance in a room.  We rolled VTS out to our Design Team of about 100 people as a way to help junior designers to talk to the CEO or senior executives about their work and not get defensive.  We trained them to ask the VTS questions, especially “What do you see that makes you say that?”  We found that it was a great way for designers to learn how to get feedback on their designs.

Once we started having success with VTS, it was integrated into Fidelity’s 6-month long training program for the top 100 potential leaders.

That’s where we found the next circumstance – using VTS with leadership teams.  We found that VTS acts as a practical way to introduce the idea that you’re not just a do-er now, you’re a thinker and, as a result, you’re going to be faced with ambiguity.  Instead of shying away from it, you need to see that ambiguity is not only ok, but it is also fertile ground for us to grow our business.

That’s great but, as we both know, just because you learn something in training doesn’t mean you actually do it in real life.  Have you seen VTS make that jump?  Get people to move from knowing to doing?

 Suzi: I have.

At Fidelity, we would VTS customer research.  We would use the principle of VTS more than follow the strict methodology. We’d post our research on walls – sticky notes, photos of customers, flowcharts, everything, and we would bring in stakeholders and use the VTS process to tease out insights.  We give people time to LOOK and internalize what they were seeing before we told them what to think. By asking questions, we would discover what they were interpreting, identify unconscious biases, and learn what they already know or want to know about the customer.

At the event in Oxford, we VTS-ed the Business Model Canvas because most of the CMOs weren’t familiar with it.   Just by looking at it, they teased out its purpose, what was important and what wasn’t, what was confusing, and what wouldn’t work.  They walked away with a deeper internalization of its meaning

How is VTS able to do that?  To help people quickly internalize new insights or behaviors?

Suzi: The best way I can explain it is that VTS is like yoga.  When you teach someone yoga, with consistent practice they develop better posture and they walk and move fluidly and with strength.  So, when they’re going through their day, they become more aware of their posture and adjust but they don’t go into a whole vinyasa flow.

VTS is similar because when you use it with people, you’re teaching the mechanics of dialogue, of using evidence to progress, of managing ambiguity and conflict.

It takes time to tease out the power of the process but in the end, I’ve seen it help people realize that you don’t have to agree or disagree right away.  Instead, it gives them space to express an opinion and teaches them to ask questions and to ask for evidence in a way that is psychologically safe.

OK, but is it as simple as asking the 3 VTS questions?

Suzi: I wish.  You need somebody who is a skilled facilitator, who can keep the group moving forward and exploring ideas.

Leaders know they should stimulate conversation… solicit other people’s opinions, but they don’t know how. In meetings leaders will voice their own opinions, rely on the loudest voices, and steer the conversation. People will pick up on these signals. They will stop exploring and focus on giving the right answer.

Often, when people are running meetings they try to participate.  But that’s like trying to breathe underwater.  You can’t facilitate and participate.

What have you learned & applied?

Suzi: If you want to get people to engage in a great dialog, try giving them something to look at first. It can be a metaphor or real reflection. But give them something specific to point to anchor their thoughts.

Give people time to look and think before they speak or act. Silence is Golden. Silence is not the enemy. Give people time to silently observe something. Even 1 min can make a huge difference in how people respond.

You don’t need to compliment people on their thoughts to keep them engaged. Ask them for more… What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? People are not often asked for their opinions. That act alone is incredibly engaging.

As a leader it is just as important to get the obvious out on the table so that you can get to true insight.

How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

“It was quite a sight!  A dozen senior executives from a big, conservative financial services firm, all sitting on the floor in front of a painting, talking about what it could mean and why they think that.”

On a typical dreary November day, and Suzi and I were sitting in the café inside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  She had just left her job as Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity Investments and I was taking a sabbatical before deciding what would be next for my career.  Introduced by a mutual friend, we decided to swap stories over lunch and a walk through one of the museum’s special exhibitions.

She was describing a Visual Thinking (VTS) session she had recently facilitated and the nearly instant impact it had on the way executives expressed themselves and communicated with each other.  She saw them engage in a level of creative problem-solving and critical thinking that they hadn’t in the past.

Intrigued, I set off to learn more.  What I discovered was a powerful, proven, and gasp fun way to help my clients navigate the ambiguous early days of innovation and embrace their inner curiosity and creativity.


Why should you care about VTS?

Imagine someone says to you, “If you and your team spend 1-2 hours with me each month for 9 months, I guarantee an improvement in your abilities to:

  • Quickly gather and synthesize accurate and unique insights by listening deeply and re-phrasing what they heard ensure understanding
  • Think critically and creatively by examining information or an idea from all angles, rethinking it, and deciding whether to keep, revise, or discard it
  • Communicate more clearly, respectfully, and productively with a variety of people inside and outside the organization
  • Work cross-functionally because they can apply critical thinking skills confidently to topics outside of their expertise
  • Innovate and experiment because they have learned how to individually and as a team operate in uncertainty
  • Provide more effective feedback by phrasing criticisms as questions and engaging in collaborative discovery and problem-solving conversations

Would you make the time commitment?

Now, what if they said, “All you have to do each month is sit together in a conference room and take part in a conversation.  No travel.  No additional expenses.  Just turn off your email and your phone for one hour and have a conversation in a room you already pay rent on.”

Would you do it then?

Of course you would.

Because you’ve been to trainings that focus on only one of the items in the list above and those trainings are expensive, time-consuming, and not nearly as effective as they should be.


What is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)?

According to the book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, VTS “uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills – listening an expressing oneself.”

Philip Yenawine was the Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York from 1983 – 1993.  During that time, he noticed that despite the museum’s efforts to organize and craft detailed explanations and interpretations for each piece of art, visitors would still ask lots of “Why?” questions and would remember little, if anything, from their visit.

Frustrated but curious, he and his team began studying developmental research and theory and discovered that what MOMA visitors needed wasn’t explanations, details, and facts, it was “permission to be puzzled and to think.  Consent to use their powerful eyes and intelligent minds.  Time to noodle and figure things out.  The go-ahead to use what they already know to reflect on what they don’t; the first steps of learning.”

Philip and his team with MOMA partnered with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen to develop and test a process now known as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

In the 30 years since their initial experiments, Philip and Abigail’s work has been used in 28 countries and 58 museums, over 12,000 students have engaged in VTS discussions and 1,200 people have become trained facilitators.



How to do VTS

The secret to VTS’ effectiveness is in the facilitation so if you’re going to do this, invest in an expert facilitator.  An expert facilitator is the only way to get the results listed above.


Here’s how a VTS session works:

  • Facilitator shares a piece of art specially selected so that “the subjects are familiar… but they also contain elements of mystery.”
  • Attendees take one minute to silently focus on the art
  • Facilitator asks 3 questions over the hour:
    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can you find?
  • As each individual answers a question, the Facilitator:
    • Points at what is being observed
    • Paraphrases what has been said
    • Links what has been said to what others have said
  • Facilitator wraps up the session by thanking everyone and sharing something s/he learned from listening. They do NOT give “the answer” because “this isn’t about right and wrong but about thinking and…that the students singly and together are capable of wonderful, grounded ideas.”

That’s it – 1 piece of art, 3 questions, and at least 5 major benefits if you commit to the process.


Seems like something worth sitting on an art gallery floor for, right?

To learn more, read Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines by Philip Yenawine and visit the website Visual Thinking Strategies

Do More Nothing

Do More Nothing

“What do you plan to do on vacation?” my friend asked.


Long silence

“…And it will be amazing.”

We live in a world that confuses activity with achievement so I should not have been surprised that the idea of deliberately doing nothing stunned my friend into silence.

After all, when people say, “I wish I had nothing to do” they usually mean “I wish I could choose what I do with my time.” And, when they do have the opportunity to choose, very few choose to do nothing.

Why does the idea of doing nothing make us so uncomfortable?

To put it bluntly, busy-ness is a status symbol.

In their paper, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” professors Silvia Bellezza (Columbia Business School), Neeru Paharia (Georgetown University), and Anat Keinan (Harvard University), wrote that people’s desire to be perceived as time-starved is

“driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.”

We didn’t always believe this.

For most of human history, we’ve had a pretty balanced view of the need for both work and leisure. Aristotle argued that virtue was obtainable through contemplation, not through endless activity. Most major religions call for a day of rest and reflection. Even 19th-century moral debates, as recorded by historian EO Thompson, recognized the value of hard work AND the importance of rest.

So what happened?

While it’s easy to say that we have to work more because of the demands of our jobs, the data says otherwise. In fact, according to a working paper by Jonathan Gershuny, a time-expert based on the UK, actual time spent at work has not increased since the 1960s.

The actual reason may be that we want to work more. According to economist Robert Frank, those who identify as workaholics believe that:

“building wealth…is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”

We choose to spend time working because Work — “the job itself, the psychic benefits of accumulating money, the pursuit of status, and the ability to afford the many expensive enrichments of an upper-class lifestyle” according to an article in The Atlantic — is what we find most fulfilling.

It’s not that I like working, I just don’t like wasting time.

We tend to equate doing nothing with laziness, apathy, a poor work ethic, and a host of other personality flaws and social ills. But what if that’s not true.

What if, in the process of doing nothing, we are as productive as when we do something?

Science is increasingly showing this to be the case.

Multiple fMRI studies have revealed the existence of the default mode network (DMN), a large-scale brain network that is most active when we’re day-dreaming. Researchers at the University of Southern California argue that

“downtime is, in fact, essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics — processes that depend on the DMN.”

The results of harnessing the power of your DMN are immense:

More creativity. The research discussed in Scientific American suggests that DMN is more active in creative people. For example, according to Psychology Today:

  • The most recorded song of all time, “Yesterday” by The Beatles, was ‘heard’ by Paul McCartney as he was waking up one morning. The melody was fully formed in his mind, and he went straight to the piano in his bedroom to find the chords to go with it, and later found words to fit the melody.
  • Mozart described how his musical ideas ‘flow best and most abundantly.’ when he was alone ‘traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep… Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them.’
  • Tchaikovsky described how the idea for a composition usually came ‘suddenly and unexpectedly… It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.’

More productivity. According to an essay in The New York Times, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Less burnout. Regardless of how many hours you work, consider this: researchers have found that it takes 25 minutes to recover from a phone call or an e-mail. On average, we are interrupted every 11 minutes which means that we can never catch up, we’re always behind.

That feeling of always being behind leads to burn-out which the World Health Organization officially recognized as a medical condition defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and manifests with the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Doing nothing, quieting our minds and not focusing on any particular task, can actually help reset our bodies systems, quieting the release of stress chemicals, slowing our heart rates, and improving our mental and physical energy

Better health. Multiple studies indicate that idleness “produces many health benefits including, but not limited to, reduced heart rate, better digestion, improvements in mood, and a boost in overall emotional well-being — which, of course, affects everything on a biochemical and physiological level, thereby serving as a major deciding factor on whether or not we fall ill, and/or remain ill. Mental downtime also replenishes glucose and oxygen levels in the brain, and allows our brains to process and file things, which leaves us feeling more rested and clear-headed, promotes a stronger sense of self-confidence, and…more willing to we trust change.”

Fine, you convinced me. How can I do nothing?

There are the usual suspects — vacations, meditation, and physical exercise — but, if you’re anything like me, the thought of even finding 5 minutes to listen to a meditation app is so overwhelming that I never even start.

An easier place to start, in my experience, is in intentionally working nothing into the moments that are already “free.” Here are three of my favorite ways to work a bit of nothing into my day.

Make the Snooze button work for you. When my alarm goes off, I instinctively hit the Snooze button because, I claim, it is my first and possibly only victory of the day. It’s also a great way to get 9 minutes of thoughtful quiet nothingness in which I can take a few deep breaths, scan my body for any aches and pains, and make sure that I’m calm and my mind is quiet when I get out of bed.

Stare out the window. I always place my computer next to a window so that I can stare out the window for a few minutes throughout the day and people think I’m thinking deep thoughts. Which I am. Subconsciously. Lest anyone accuse me of being lazy or unproductive while I watch the clouds roll by, I simply point them to research that shows “that individuals who took five to ten minute breaks from work to do nothing a few times a day displayed an approximately 50% increase in their ability to think clearly and creatively, thus rendering their work far more productive.

Bring the beach to you. Research from a variety of places, from the UK Census to The Journal of Coastal Zone Management, indicate that our brains and bodies benefit from time at the beach. But, if you can’t go to the beach, there are lots of ways to bring the beach to you. Perhaps the simplest is to bring more blue into your environment. Most people associate blue with feelings of calm and peace and a study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that the color blue can boost creativity. Even putting a picture of a beach (or your own personal happy place) on your desk or computer screen can trigger your brain to slow down, relax, and possibly trigger your DMN.

With so many benefits, isn’t it time you started doing more nothing?

What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

What Explaining the Poop Emoji to a 5-year old Taught Me About Innovation

A few weeks ago, my 5-year old niece and I spent the afternoon together at a paint-your-own-pottery place. My niece was adamant that she wanted to paint something for her dad and immediately zoned in on a piece — a 3D poop emoji.

Remembering my sister’s parenting advice, I started with a question, “Why do you want to paint that for Daddy?”

Her response was simple enough, “Because it’s chocolate.”

I could have easily left it at that.

But I didn’t.

“Ok….why don’t you paint the pegasus for Daddy instead?”

She looked up at me with her big brown eyes, “Why?”

“Ummm, well, I just think it’s better.”

She scrunched her nose as she usually does when she doesn’t understand something, looked back at the poop emoji, and then silently picked up the Pegasus and took it over to our table.

With a sigh of relief — I knew my sister would be none to happy with me explaining the poop emoji — I thought the issue was resolved. I was wrong.

An hour later, as we stood hand-in-hand on the sidewalk waiting for her dad to come pick us up, my niece asked, “Aunt Robyn, why didn’t you want me to paint the chocolate for Daddy?”

Crap (pun somewhat intended). I have to do this. I have to be honest and explain this, and I am going to be in SO much trouble when we get home.

“Well, darling, that’s not chocolate. It’s poop.”

She scrunched up her nose, pursed her lips, gave a quick nod, and continued staring out into the parking lot.

Later that night, I confessed the moment to her parents. They burst out laughing.

“That would have been hilarious!” my brother-in-law proclaimed.

“Why didn’t you just let her paint it? It’s not poop to her” my sister sighed.

That thought literally never occurred to me. It never crossed my mind that letting her paint what she thought was chocolate would result in a heart-felt (and amusing) gift to her dad of a rainbow (her favorite color at the moment and thus what everything gets painted) poop emoji to display in his office.

Instead, I thought I was saving her from embarrassment by correcting how she saw something so that her understanding was in-line with the status quo.

I’ve felt horrible about this since it happened but the experience, the ease with which it happened and the smug self-righteousness I felt about “saving” her, taught me a very important lesson about why creativity and innovation are so often killed in organizations.

For the first time, I could understand and empathize with every Dr. No I’ve ever encountered. You know who I’m writing about, the person in your organization who, whenever a new idea pops up, says, “No, we can’t do that because…

  • …that’s not how it’s done in our company/industry”
  • …we tried that back in 19XX and it didn’t work.”
  • …the bosses will never approve it.”
  • …now is not the right time.”
  • …it’s took risky/expensive.”
  • …you’ll get fired if it doesn’t work and I don’t want that to happen to you.”

My whole career, I’ve hated Dr. No and used him/her as motivation to innovate. I would focus all my energy on finding a way to prove them wrong by doing something new AND making sure that new thing was wildly successful.

What I thought I was saving everyone from

But, in that pottery shop, I was Dr. No and I didn’t realize it. In fact, I felt proud of myself.

I felt proud because I was acting out of love. I wanted to protect someone who is innocent and precious. I wanted to spare her the embarrassment and shame that I thought would surely result from giving her dad a rainbow-colored piece of poop pottery.

And maybe that is where other Dr. No’s are coming from. Maybe the are saying “No” as a way to protect you and/or the company. Maybe they tried to do what you’re suggesting and they are still smarting from the pain of it not working out. Maybe they are trying to spare you the embarrassment and shame of pursuing the proverbial corporate rainbow-colored poop pottery.

And no matter how often you try to explain that the new idea is chocolate and not poop, they won’t hear you. Because they are anchored in a status quo reality that demands things be seen in one, and only one, way.

And in that moment you, the innovator, has a choice. You can scrunch your nose and move on to something safer or you can defiantly insist on painting that poop, confident that it will become a rainbow work of art that is treasured by the people that matter the most.

And, hopefully, you can have a bit of compassion for Dr. No who is simply trying to help you because she loves you.


A few weeks after the poop pottery incident, my sister told me that my niece asked to send a text message to her dad. My niece’s text messages are entirely comprised of emojis and after a few seconds of tapping out flowers and suns and rainbows, my niece’s finger stopped, hovering briefly over the screen.

“What’s wrong, honey?” my sister asked

“Do you know what this is?” my niece responded, pointing to the poop emoji

“What do you think it is?”

“Aunt Robyn said it’s poop…”

“Well, a lot of people think that’s what it is. but your Daddy told me that he read an article that it was originally designed to be chocolate ice cream on top of an ice cream cone. So you can think of it that way too.” (my sister swears this is a true story).

“Ok. Then it’s chocolate ice cream!” my niece exclaimed before adding at least a dozen chocolate ice creams to her text

Well done, little one. Well done.