Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible is about revealing to each other the thinking behind our decisions and actions as we work toward that aim, so that, together, we can develop, test, and refine our thinking about how to achieve it.

It is about expressing both the “what” and the “why” of an idea and the reasoning behind it (“If/Then” Hypotheses). It helps people walk around in each other’s thinking, ask questions, and engage in a conversation to better understand it. It helps colleagues add to good ideas, offer interesting alternatives, or resolve perceived disagreements. It sets the stage for experimentation by expressing expected results — what would it take to test this out?

Icon for making thinking visible

What is the connection between the Making Thinking Visible and Line of Sight principles?

Making Thinking Visible and Line of Sight are deeply related. While Making Thinking Visible is about revealing to each other the thinking behind our decisions and actions as we work toward a goal, Line of Sight is about discovering a shared goal that is compelling enough to generate the energy it takes to do high-quality action and learning.

infographic showing how making thinking visible informs building and maintaining line of sight, which in turn influences making thinking visible

What does this principle look like in practice?

The presence or absence of making thinking visible in an initiative or project can manifest itself in a number of ways. Here is what we have observed:

  • If it’s present: Groups cultivate a culture that encourages people to ask respectful questions and to answer them in the spirit of greater understanding. When people advocate for different approaches, they are recognized as hypotheses and talked about in that spirit. Because people begin to understand each other’s thinking, they are more likely to see interconnections and ask questions that support productive learning across their work.
  • If it’s missing: Teams jump to solutions without examining underlying assumptions. People are afraid to ask clarifying questions, perhaps fueled by a culture of power inequality and distrust. There is a fear that, if a person shares too much of their thinking, they will get shot down. Or … in an effort to promote an inclusive culture, goals are purposely left vague and efforts to tease them apart are discouraged, so that no one feels left out — a great intention, but with important implications for learning!

How Emergent Learning practices support this principle

The practices of Emergent Learning work together to support making thinking visible:

  • Emergent Learning Questions (What will that help us accomplish? What will it take to do that?) help us explore our thinking and make it visible in conversations.
  • “If/Then” Hypotheses help us make the cause/effect thinking behind our decisions explicit and connect planned actions to a larger goal.
  • Emergent Learning Tables help slow down and make visible our thinking process so that we don’t jump to problem-solving. They give room for everyone to contribute their own experience, insights, and hypotheses.
  • Before and After Action Reviews insert steps into preparing for and debriefing an action that make thinking visible by focusing on thinking about what might be challenging and what to do about it; and what contributed to results and what to learn from it.

Elements of each of these practices can be used informally in conversation to help make thinking visible. We have often observed that the right question, asked at just the right time, creates a breakthrough for a team.

How can we help create a culture that supports making thinking visible?

Cultures can either encourage or discourage inquiry and understanding. A question can either be seen as a challenge or coming from genuine curiosity. Leaders — either positional or informal — can make a difference by making learning a priority; by modeling curiosity by asking questions in that spirit, or by listening to and answering questions in the spirit of growing understanding.

We can help make thinking visible in very simple ways: It may be as simple as asking a question during a strategy or planning discussion to tease out a hypothesis: “Help me understand what that would help us accomplish” or “What do we think it would take to do that?” Or better understanding the connections in a Theory of Change by surfacing the most important hypotheses hidden in the “little arrows” between activities and outcomes. The “then” in a hypothesis can help develop indicators that matter, and the “if” can point to who the agents of action are and where they need to focus their learning.

Together, a strong shared Line of Sight, and a culture that encourages us to Make Thinking Visible, can set the stage for powerful learning that leads to visibly improved outcomes.