AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Sustainability Planning + Visual Facilitation


Published May, 2013

How to get better participation, better ideas, and better execution


By Claire Bronson and Darcy Hitchcock

ABSTRACT: Visual facilitation is a helpful tool when developing sustainability plans. It can increase participation and elicit better ideas. Through collaboration with Claire Bronson, we are developing tools and processes to improve our SPaRK™ sustainability planning process and are seeking beta test sites to help us refine the process.


Planning is an important part of achieving your sustainable future. Unfortunately, it’s not always done in an effective or meaningful way. Have you ever sat in a sustainability planning process that was tedious and boring? Or worked on a plan just to have it gather dust on a shelf? Or struggled with how to engage your internal stakeholders after the plan was created?

SPaRK_logoWhen AXIS Performance Advisors created SPaRK™ (Sustainability Planning and Reporting Kit) we tried to make the process easier. We created a set of easy-to-do steps along with an Excel template for gathering all the information you might need for a sustainability plan and monitoring your results. But some of the steps were hard to facilitate: they were either kind of boring or taxed people’s brains. We needed a way to expand the conversation, tap into people’s passions, and integrate multiple pieces of information. SPaRK worked pretty well but it lacked some pizzazz.

Steps in the SPaRK process

With the help of Claire Bronson, we have been marrying the SPaRK process with visual facilitation techniques to create an even stronger process, dubbing it ViZ*SPaRK™.  We are excited about these visual methods for making the conversations more fun and meaningful. Since the result is a visually appealing and symbolic representation of the steps in the planning process, you get wonderful tools for communicating what you are doing and why.

We wanted to share with you what we are learning about integrating visual facilitation into our sustainability planning process and also invite you to help refine our process.

Visual-SPaRK Overview

Visual SPaRK overview

Visual SPaRK overview



Perhaps you have been at a meeting or conference where a visual facilitator was recording the main ideas on a giant strip of white paper on a wall. Visual elements like large arrows or symbolic images of a trail to the top of a mountain make the image both more appealing and also easier to interpret. Graphic recording is one aspect of visual facilitation.

Working visually is nothing new. It’s a field of practice that’s evolved since the 70’s with the desire to improve the way we meet and collaborate. Visual thinking is pervades all human activity. Anytime you follow a map, make order out of the disarray on your desk or conduct brain surgery, you are working visually. Why not apply the power of visual thinking to enhance planning?

“Powerful as words are, we fool ourselves when we think our words alone can detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today. They can’t – and that’s bad, because words have become our default thinking tool.”

Dan Roam, author Blah, Blah, Blah, what to do when words don’t work and Back of the Napkin

Working visually simply uses more of the brain. According to Dr. John Medina in Brain Rules, hear a piece of information and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you will remember 65%.  This is thanks to the large portion of our brain taken up by visual processing. It’s evolution, early in our history; if we couldn’t see a predator we became its lunch. Memory is a product of engagement and engagement fosters commitment: engagement and commitment are elements you need for integrating sustainability into your organization.

In his book Visual Meetings, visual pioneer David Sibbet presents three phenomena he’s witnessed when using large format visuals with:

  • Participation: Engagement explodes in meetings when people are listened to and acknowledge by having what they say recorded in an interactive, graphic way.
  • Big Picture Thinking: Groups get much smarter when they think in big picture formats that allow for comparisons, pattern finding, and idea mapping.
  • Group Memory: Creating memorable media greatly increases group memory and follow through­–a key to group productivity.

This large format visual mapping allows your sustainability team to see the parts and the whole at the same time and notice the relationship between them. This big picture thinking is key to understanding and finding solutions the complex, interconnected challenges we face in sustainability.

Why create a visual sustainability plan?

Darcy and Maria

Darcy (right) with her awesome Russian interpreter, Maria Samsonova.

Employing visual facilitation with the sustainability process has a number of benefits that we are already seeing. When Darcy was in Russia, she piloted our new process for the business case for sustainability and visioning steps. Here is what she experienced.

  • Better heart-felt participation, better ideas: In a training setting, people at different tables used the Viz*SPaRK process to identify why their fictional perogie-making company should pursue sustainability. One group decided they couldn’t see much benefit. Another group thought they could employ more college age kids because they would be cheap labor. (Sigh.) But the third group saw this as an opportunity to celebrate the many cultures and cuisines of Russia. Suddenly they were all talking about being a vehicle for building understanding across cultures. World peace! The room was abuzz with ideas including having different franchises selling different cuisines, of being a community gathering place. Even the first group started to see opportunities they were blind to at first.
  • AwardWinningimageonlyMore fun for the participants: Next we needed to flesh out this vision. So we asked each table to take on the role of a stakeholder group and prepare a toast at the sustainability award ceremony five years in the future as if their company had won the award. After giving them time to prepare their talking points, we hosted the ‘banquet’ and let each group give a toast. It was compelling to hear how the organization had helped each stakeholder group. Despite the absence of real vodka, the participants really got into the act, spontaneously jumping up to add another toast, building on another group’s ideas.

ViZ*SPaRK Template for Visioning

  • Better integration of elements of your plan: In SPaRK, there are few steps which are really tough brain-teasers. For example, when you want to choose your sustainability metrics, you have to think about your sustainability framework, business case, biggest impacts, etc. It’s hard for people to hold all these things in their head. But with the visual ‘memory’ on the wall, it’s easier for the team to tie everything together.
  • A vehicle for communication: Imagine the benefit of having a series of images that capture the most important aspects of the conversation, in effect a storyboard of the conversation. You could post these in the lobby and use them to educate people who did not participate in the planning process. Perhaps some images could even be used in your sustainability report.

How is visual facilitation changing SPaRK?

Claire, in collaboration with AXIS Performance Advisors, has developed a set of templates and associated facilitation notes to guide you through the six sustainability planning steps of SPaRK. We believe this is a significant improvement to the SPaRK tool and approach.

The templates are large format 4’ X 8’ sheets of paper that allow this type of big picture, group memory imagery to take shape as the conversations unfold. Each template has a visual metaphor printed on it. The drawing is the container for the work that is generated through conversation. The group can see their work at the end of the session and easily share it with others. Claire is also experimenting with using these templates in virtual meetings!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: