How to use the 'virtual whiteboard effect' - THINKERS Notebook

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How to use the 'virtual whiteboard effect'

One of the biggest work-related challenges that many people have faced over the last few months is the difficultly (or dearth) of collaborating virtually.

Sure, tools like email, Slack, Zoom, and many others make virtual collaboration possible, but they are imperfect replacements for an important function. 

The whiteboard effect


I'm reading Cal Newport's book Deep Work in preparation for our August meetup of the THINKERS Workshop Book Club, and he has a section about how to balance periods of focused work with open collaboration. 

He tells the story of two researchers in different fields, experimentalist Walter Brattain and and quantum theorist John Bardeen, who honed their particular areas of expertise separately but then worked together in 1947 to create the first working solid-state transistor. 

Their breakthroughs would not have been possible without the deep, focused work they did on their own and the collaborative time they shared together, during which their ideas built off each others' to create something revolutionary.

Here is how Newport describes their breakthrough:


"This back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work (common in academic circles) that leverages what I call the whiteboard effect. For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight -- be it someone physically in the same room of collaboration with you virtually -- can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth."

This makes sense. 

You've probably participated in an in-person collaborative session in front of a whiteboard in which ideas are flowing, notes and diagrams are being drawn, and energy is palpable, even exciting. Sometimes nothing tangible comes from the interaction; other times, major breakthroughs can occur.

The question for our current times is: has anyone created a way to replicate this experience virtually?

In a word, no. 

We'll never be able to recreate the unique energy and interaction of an in-person "whiteboard effect" experience until virtual reality takes many more steps forward in terms of immersion of widespread adoption -- and maybe not even then.

There remains something special about humans in a room together.

Still, there are ways to recreate some small portion of it. In fact, our team here at THINKERS did so last week.

Introducing: the virtual whiteboard effect

We're in the process of getting the next generation of the THINKERS App ready for release, which involves many in-depth discussions and decisions as a team.

We do our best to hash these out on Zoom, but what happens after that?

Last week, we decided to take one particular question -- pricing -- and go off on our own to do research and come up with individual recommendations for prices and payment terms.

The mandate was to write/sketch ideas in our THINKERS Notebook and then share the page with each team member via the THINKERS App.

The rest of the team was then able to view each person's recommendations -- in their own handwriting and own visual style -- and provide comments and questions using the web-commenting feature of the app (which still blows me away with its simplicity and ease of us).

This exercise gave us the best of both worlds:

  • Time away from the chaos of a Zoom call to focus deeply on an important question like pricing.
  • The ability to collaborate virtually in a way that made feedback and discussion easy, and that also made communication more energized with our personal styles than bland text in an email. (Seeing someone's handwriting and how they organize information spatially adds an extra layer of depth to the communication.)

Ultimately, this exercise helped us to crystallize the best pricing structure for when we release the new version of the app -- sometime in September, most likely.

And since it came on the heels of me reading the aforementioned section in Cal Newport's book, an easy term hit me: the virtual whiteboard effect.

How the virtual whiteboard effect works

In general, here are the steps to properly execute the virtual whiteboard effect:

  • Begin with an audio/video meeting like Zoom, where everyone can see each other's faces, hear each other's voices, and feel at least some shared energy. 
  • Talk through some of the big-picture questions and issues at hand to make everyone is on the same page with the problem that needs solving. 
  • End the call with a specific, shared directive that everyone will work on by themselves -- preferably using pen and paper, to facilitate deep, focused work.
  • Share the actual pages created with the rest of the team, and then comment on and discuss each person's ideas.

After that, the direction can move in some different ways. Perhaps another call is needed to make a final decision, or maybe it's time for the leader of the project to decide.

Either way, what matters is using this process, or one like it, to infuse a virtual activity with the greatest possible combination of deep thinking and personal interaction. 

This Week in the THINKERS Workshop

This week, I want to invite you to participate in our weekly poll question: What advice would you give to a young person about to start college on how to make the most of the experience?  

And I also want to reiterate the three events coming up that we hope you'll attend with us:

Even if you can't attend the live Zoom sessions, you can get on-demand access to the replays (and all past replays) inside of the THINKERS Workshop.

The THINKERS Workshop costs $99.99 per year (or $9.99 per month) to be a member. If you own a THINKERS Notebook, then you get in free. If you haven't activated your free account, just reply to this email and let me know so I can send you the special link.


Now on to this week's links ...

Have a smart process for preventing "social loafing"



Studies show when people problem solve in larger groups they put in less effort, than when they work individually. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as social loafing.

So, instead of a traditional brainstorm session, consider putting together a blog post or even a Trello board outlining the problem and ask individuals to contribute thoughts.

Consider putting a deadline on feedback – “Please review this draft by Tuesday at 3 p.m.” This helps folks prioritize your request and allows them to work on it when they feel most inspired and fresh. Collaborating in an asynchronous manner enables people to build their own daily agendas, avoids disrupting creative workflows, counters social loafing, and helps introverts feel more comfortable sharing ideas.

Read: Virtual collaboration: not just for remote teams anymore (Atlassian)

Be smart about the tools you use to avoid distractions



Progress with technology is the entire reason this conversation about distributed work is even possible. Teammates can be anywhere in the world and can speak face to face in real-time.

You just have to be careful your reliance on technology doesn’t become a distraction of its own. As technology has developed, so too has the number of systems being used to run a business, volume of information and speed at which it is all moving. The average business is now using a staggering 129 apps—an increase of 68% over the last four years.

Read: Collaboration best practices for remote teams (Karbon)

Lean into the strengths of remote collaboration



Remote meetings aren’t the same as in-person meetings, and that’s ok. Some things just won’t be as good, but some things can actually be better. In an in-person meeting you can’t have more than one person talking at once. However, in a remote meeting, if you’re collaborating in the same digital space then multiple people can be “talking” at once (drawing or typing, for example).

Once the virtual room gets into a rhythm you’ll be amazed at how engaging and efficient it can be.

This can be difficult to get used to at first, but once the virtual room gets into a rhythm you’ll be amazed at how engaging and efficient it can be. You may need to give people explicit permission to do this — consider time-boxing simultaneity and making the time explicit. You can use music as a cue for the time box, which has the added benefit of reducing awkward silence in the meeting.

Read: Six best practices for remote meetings (Cooper Professional Education)