Category Archives: General

3 Ways Your Organization May Be Misusing the Word Culture

by Kathryn Jarrell, Vice President of Operations

The definition of organizational culture varies and in some cases the meaning is debatable. Organizational culture is commonly defined as the human behaviors within an organization and the underlying values that keep those behaviors in place.

If you do not clearly define and visualize your organization’s culture, people will define it themselves. This can be a problem because everyone will describe the culture with different language and meanings and, more importantly, they will define or think of culture in different ways.

There are three common mis-uses of the term culture that employees and organizations should watch out for:

  1. The first impression culture fit. Assessing culture fit at first glance is not really possible. It’s easy to be drawn to surface level similarities and demographics, such as age, style, or lifestyle. Although these might be useful for starting a fraternity, they are less effective in creating an organization. The most successful organizations are made up of employees with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise united by a strong foundation of similar values. To effectively evaluate culture you need to explore working styles, communication styles, motivations, and values. In some cases you have to ask a lot of questions to find people who don’t just talk about the right values, but actually live those values. If at first glance someone in your organization says, “I just don’t think they are a culture fit” you may want to ask more questions about how they are defining culture.
  1. After hours culture. If you are in a job interview asking about the organization’s culture and the answer is; “A lot of us go bowling on Wednesday nights.” That might give you a glimpse into a tiny aspect of culture and personality but it does not describe the behaviors and values that influence how work gets done. Some questions that might give you a better view into organizational culture are:

• What are your company’s values?
• What working styles make people a fit vs. not a fit at this company?
• What are the successes that are commonly recognized and celebrated across the

  1. Can we have some more culture please? 


Culture cannot be handed to the organization. Employees often wait for culture to be created rather than stepping up to help build it. For example, one employee-led aspect of our culture is we cheer and clap as people leave on Friday. This may sound silly or frivolous, but it creates a genuine feeling of appreciation and value for the employees and it aligns with the center of our culture map: Support and Collaboration. This small show of support wouldn’t have been effective if leadership or HR had handed it down. In our case it came from the team. If an employee asks for culture, it should inspire a conversation around what organizational culture is and how it can be created, together.

At XPLANE you are a culture fit if you excel in a collaborative team environment, communicate openly and directly, and bring pride and quality to our areas of expertise. This allows us to hire everyone from young designers that love the nightlife, to seasoned consultants that like to be tucked into bed by 9:15. What unites us is our sense of values, purpose, and desire to create a great place to work.

Talk is Expensive. Drawing is Cheap.

By Rich Moore, Senior Designer

Talk is expensive

In an interview at Columbia University, the architect Frank Gehry was asked how he reacted to criticism about his buildings. He said he likes to “try it on” like a jacket. If the criticism “fits,” he “wears it.” If it doesn’t fit, he puts it “back on the hanger.”

I learned the value of “trying on” criticism in architecture school. I felt like I had three options when receiving what I thought was a stupid suggestion: 1) dismiss it, 2) begrudgingly follow it, or 3) try it on and see if it fits. Trying it on, I reserved the right to reject it, but I also took advantage of the opportunity to see something new and challenge my own preconceptions. My approach was always to find a fast way to try it on, while also exploring my own ideas for how to move forward. Sometimes I discovered my professor was right; sometimes l became even more convinced that I was right. The interesting thing was that it never seemed to matter much who was right.

Even when there were serious egos involved, it was easy for us both to forget about petty arguments and engage in finding the best solution. Even if it is purely by distraction, visuals are remarkably effective at clarifying an idea and making apparent what works and what does not

Mark Zuckerberg describes what I believe to be the same principle when he says, “code wins arguments.” His developers could talk back and forth forever, but, by coding something, they can quickly test their ideas.

The problem is that speech is too amorphous, and it is too easy to rationalize our own ideas. I heard a professor interrupt a presentation and say, “You can rationalize anything. We rationalized the holocaust.” He would tell us, if something is designed well, we won’t have to rationalize anything. I agree that too much talk is not conducive to good design, but I think it is also a huge waste of time. We often wind up arguing about “air” as a colleague once described it. Talk is expensive because it can exacerbate arguments when there is often an inexpensive way to test and evaluate results. When the conversation gets heated, remember that testing an idea can be as simple as drawing it — and drawing is cheap.

Interview with Hermen Lutje Berenbroek, New Senior Designer

Tell us briefly about your role at XPLANE:
“As a Senior Designer I use drawing and visual thinking to clarify complexity. I work closely together with consultants and other team members to create solutions with clients, often around the globe on location. By using human-centered design, visual storytelling and information design I create solutions that clarify ideas, engage people and inspire action—in any medium.”

Provide a brief overview of your background and experience:
“I graduated art school with a specialization in interaction design. My graduation projects was an interactive website about screen typography. And as an internship project I created an experimental 30-minute music video for a modern classical music piece. I also experimented a lot with technology, like creating a voice activated website or music video animations on an Amiga 2000 computer. Throughout the rest of my career I tried to combine the love for interaction design, animation and technology. Within these three directions I had jobs at several organizations and agency’s. My last biggest project as an independent designer was creating more then 45 minutes of interactive animated tutorials for an investment bank. This combined animation, interactive design and the use of an innovative interactive video platform. When my projects became more complex and involved more people I noticed that instead of just the end product especially the process of every project became an essential part of it’s success. And to design and control this could add a greater value to the project. This brings me to XPLANE. Working as a contractor for XPLANE gave me so many insights and great experiences that I’m really thrilled to get onboard!”

Spotlight Questions:

Three places you hope to travel to one day?
Japan, New Zealand and Portland Oregon.

Favorite restaurant
Hard to make any choice, I love it all! But if I had to choose it would be between the Thai kitchen and Italian…mmm…. Thai!

What is one random fact about you that most people do not know?
I didn’t even know this myself, but apparently I make a stupid face whenever I dance (something like “the Magnum”). I found out while dancing with my daughters, and they didn’t only dance like I did but also made this weird face. Ooops! (I’m really not a good dancer, but love to do it anyway). Apparently I have the same look on my face when I get kissed.












What is your most embarrassing album you have on your iPod that you listen to?
Can’t explain this… somehow this got stuck in my head. Love how the guy behind the keyboard move his eyebrows (0:34), haha!

If you could be a Superhero, who would you be and why?
Would love to be KingKong! Walking around and accidentally trashing stuff. Sometimes I feel like that already trying not to step on my daughters toys. This illustrates it great:

Do you cook, if so what do you think you cook best and worst?
Chocolate Mousse! I made this once to impress a girl, and it worked! Now we have 2 kids and the third one almost here. I struggle with cooking multiple dishes. It’s hard to get the timing right.

Cats or Dogs? Dogs!
Summer or Winter? I enjoy the change of seasons. No great summer without a winter.
Rain or Snow? Love to run through rain, but love snow more.
Water or snow sports? Ai! Can’t choose! You see a pattern yet?
Coffee or Tea? Coffee!
Would you rather live in the Arctic in an igloo or in a mud hut in the desert? Mud hut.
Are you a morning or evening person? Morning.

What is your favorite blog?
I’m a big fan of Wired. Love the way they create info graphics about everything! And their interactive magazine is really great! Good use of the medium!

Who is your doppelganger?
If I’m wearing my headphones I look like Lobot, from Star Wars.

lobot head HH




















If you could switch lives with anyone in the world today for just one day, who would it be?

Valentino Rossi, he owns his own racetrack!! And after riding with friends, all the Italian food you can eat! It’s located in Italy! Genius!!! And his Italian English accent is way nicer than my Dutch English accent.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments?
Teaching my daughters about visual thinking and drawing.

H Family

Interview with Helena Hong, New Employee Experience Coordinator

XPLANE new hire

Tell us briefly about your role at XPLANE:
“My new role at XPLANE is Employee Experience Coordinator. I describe it to people who ask as office management meets human resources and surprised along the way. But most importantly, I want to make sure everyone at XPLANE are happy campers and their time at work is running smoothly and enjoyable.”

Provide a brief overview of your background and experience
“I want to try and not repeat what’s already on my resume, but I can say I learned my writing, interviewing and fact-checking skills from my stints at InStyle and Real Simple; My customer-facing consultations and mastering my paper/letterpress/craft-skills from Paper Source; My “getting the word out for a cause” and asking nicely for donations or things for free from my time at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society; and my “apply-everything-you’ve-learned-up-to-this-point” and then some new skills when I started my own stationery and invitations business, Nice Owl Design Studio. I never thought I’d be a small business owner, but it was exhilarating to challenge myself and see where that road led me.”

XPLANE new hire

Spotlight Questions:

Three places you hope to travel to one day?
Costa Rica, European Road Trip (as many countries possible), Barbados

Favorite Slogan:
Adventure is out there!” – Ellie from UP

What is something interesting that people may not know about you?
I played bass in an international all-girl band, touring US/Canada and Southeast Asia.

XPLANE new hire

What is your most embarrassing album you have on your iPod that you listen to?
Danity Kane.

Dream car you hope to own one day?
Have always dreamt of a clean, fixed up Carmen Ghia I could take on Sunday Drives.

What are your hobbies?
Photography, dancing, calligraphy, cooking, traveling, hiking/nature adventures.

Cats or Dogs?
This is a risky one to answer, but I’ll say dogs!

Current book you are reading and your review of it?
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Read this in high school and remember really enjoying it. So I wanted to reread as an adult to retain and process the content. Only just started a few chapters in, but can say the writing is so descriptive, vivid and deep and I’m realizing some of the subject is very adult.

What TV show can you not go a week without watching?
Game of Thrones. I’d love to watch at my leisure, but with social media in the way I can’t risk getting any plot lines spoiled (Nerd alert!)

If you could switch lives with anyone in the world today for just one day, who would it be? An astronaut stationed out in space at the time of the switch. I’d love to see what it’s like out there, just for a day!

What are three words used most to describe you?  Caring, Bubbly, Honest.


How to Help Create the Company Culture you want

By Kathryn Jarrell, Vice President of Operations

Perhaps when you were a start up, a healthy company culture developed effortlessly. But then the company started to take off and you realized you needed more bodies than you had friends. You needed different roles, talents and personalities and now you are wondering, what happened to the culture?


Or maybe your small firm just merged with another. You knew who you each were, but now you are both trying to figure out who you collectively are. Suddenly, unspoken rules and behaviors are in question – what is the right way to behave?

Or perhaps you’re a new leader at an established organization trying to make big changes. It seems impossible and everyone agrees on only one thing – the problem is the culture.

Can organizational culture be changed? Can it be influenced? Can it be … fixed?

I think it can. Organizational culture is commonly defined as the human behaviors within an organization and the underlying values that keep those behaviors in place. The first step in influencing your organization’s culture is to visualize the behaviors and values you want at the center of the organization. We refer to this artifact as a culture map. A culture map will:

  • Clarify - Creating a picture forces you to show examples of what good looks like. It shows employees where they fit and what they can expect from others.
  • Provide direction - People are faced with decisions that impact the culture everyday. Your map acts like a giant signpost guiding people towards the behaviors that drive the culture.
  • Create an employee filter - Your map should serve as a filter for finding and keeping people that are the right fit and will thrive in your culture. Suddenly when you say, “I don’t think this person is a good culture fit,” it means something.
  • Provide a common language. - Coaching and mentoring conversations can be focused around the behaviors and values on your map and on a common understanding of what the terms mean.
  • Inspire. Your map should give people a sense of belonging, community and common purpose. Even if it starts out as aspirational, the map will let people know that the organization is moving in a positive direction.

A map by itself won’t change your culture. Organizational culture is intricate and often deep-rooted, requiring a systems approach to impact. For lasting results, you’ll need these essential ingredients:

  • Invite employees to help build - The culture map sets the direction but it’s up to the employees to help make it real and authentic at the individual level. Include them in developing the map and invest the time to make sure they understand it.
  • Model it at the top. Once the organization sees leadership not only supporting but also modeling the behaviors that support the organizational culture, they know it’s real.
  • Make it prominent. XPLANE hangs our map in our front entrance way. Put it on the homepage of your intranet or on the largest wall in your break room but be sure to give it top tier real estate. It will not influence in your handbook alone.
  • Refer to it often. Your cultural values should be weaved into the operational fabric of your organization. They should influence recruiting and hiring, performance management, internal communications, and how employees act day-to-day.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. XPLANE founders created our first culture map ten years ago. Parts of it were aspirational and it took a few years before it was fully part of our DNA.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 10.23.29 AM

Original XPLANE Culture Map

Two years ago, we revisited the map as a company and evolved it together based on who we’ve become and where we’re headed. It remains a cornerstone to how we get work done, run our business,and treat each other.

Company Culture Map

Current XPLANE Culture Map

Does your organization visualize its culture? I’d love to see and hear about other examples where this is being done well.

Tips for Live Sketching in Virtual Meetings

By Marc Hewitt, Marvin Gaviola, Tim May

We love technology. It enables us to connect with people all over the globe without even changing out of our pajamas (which is nice when you are on a 6am client call)! And while we can’t control how awake everyone is on the call, we can help make the calls more engaging by using something core to XPLANE: visuals.

In a virtual meeting, live sketching helps people follow the conversation and makes things clear to everyone. Visuals help the client know that we understand and that we are listening and hearing what they say.

It actually has become an unwritten rule here that a designer always has a tablet ready to take sketch notes for external or internal meetings.

To make that process easier for designers, our design team came up with “Sketch Notes 101” training to walk designers through that live capture process. We use WebEx, but most of these tips and tricks could be used on other online meeting networks. Here are some of the ideas considered most valuable by designers who’ve been through the training:

1.  Come in with something before you start

  • Create assets before the call. If the client is a helicopter company, draw a helicopter before the meeting.
  • Build your own asset library. If you like an icon you did for a milestone? Throw it in a library for easy access so you don’t start from scratch every time.
  • Open at least 6 different 11×17 artboards in Illustrator. This enables you to have areas for different topics or ideas. This also enables you to easily save them out in a print friendly format to provide to team and/or client.


2. Remember, you are on stage

  • If you can, only share Illustrator. That way your incoming email and other alerts don’t show. Otherwise, close any other apps that can be distracting.
  • If you want a very fancy presentation, hide your AI tools (although some clients like seeing “under the hood”.
  • Use varied brush strokes to provide emphasis and create clearer sketches
    • Create a few brush strokes that have pressure sensitive line widths
    • Save brushes to brush library:
      • Brush menu
      • Save Brush Library
      • Name Brush Library
  • Set the new brushes as a default by creating a new Workspace


3. Use quick keys so you can work fast

It can be hard to keep up with a conversation. Quick keys enable you to move much faster. Here are some of the essentials:

  • T: Text tool
  • Esc: Brings you out of the Text Tool
  • B: Brush Tool
  • V: Selection Tool
  • A: Direct Selection Tool
  • M: Rectangle
  • Command-Space: Zoom In
  • Option-Command-Space: Zoom Out
  • Shift-O (letter O): Artboard Tool
  • Tab: Hide Tools
  • F: Change Screen Mode
  • Option-drag: Duplicate selection
  • Views: Command-0
    • Fit in Window, Command-1
    • Actual Size
    • Option-Command-0: Fit all Artboards in Window


Finally, have fun. People love to watch what they say come to life. Getting a chuckle or two out of the client is always nice.

Have any awesome live sketching tips? Please share them here.

Card Decks: Tactile Tools for Pattern-Finders, Integrative-Thinkers and Inspiration-Seekers

By Stephanie Gioia

What do the Table of Elements, the first IBM computer, and the novel Lolita have in common? Before they were icons of human achievement, they were card decks.


What gives card decks this unique power to create new meaning in the world? The basis of visual thinking is the analysis (i.e. disaggregation) of a complex idea into “nodes”, followed by the synthesis (i.e. reintegration) of those “nodes” through “links” into a new meaningful whole. At the most basic level, cards are “nodes” in search of “links”. Card decks as a problem-solving tool are powerful because we often know the parts of a problem or solution, but we don’t yet know how they fit together in an insightful way.

061914_2Dmitri Mendeleev was the first scientist to order the elements by atomic mass, resulting in what is now the periodic table. Mendeleev carried a deck of cards – each with an element and some of its known properties – using time on train rides to play “chemical solitaire” and look for patterns.

Visual Thinking Tip: When looking for a pattern or structure to bring meaning to complex information, break information into movable nodes and seek multiple possible configurations until the relationships within the system comes into focus.

061914_3Herman Hollerith developed a machine that could tabulate statistics by reading information encoded on physical cards through the placement of holes in a grid. Hollerith’s invention revolutionized the field of data statistics and marked the beginning of the computing age. His Tabulating Machine Company later became IBM.

Visual Thinking Tip: “Code” your individual cards in as many ways as possible, using symbols and colors to categorize information. Structure may later emerge from this metadata.

0619154_4Vladimir Nabokov, author of many novels including Lolita, composed his work using an index card-based method, assembling stories in fragments. In an interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov described his card method: “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”

Visual Thinking Tip: Save your thoughts in fragments – a memorable quote, a midnight brainstorm, a crucial statistic, a sketch – to maintain a pool of content that can be assembled or reassembled for multiple possible uses. Communicating your ideas to audiences that vary in their perspectives and needs is much easier when you can rapidly pull the most relevant content or storytelling approach for each audience.

Learn more about how to make and use card decks at

Gamestorming Workshop at Nike

pano_750wideWe had the great honor of being invited to deliver a workshop for Nike’s Transition Management community as a part of their “Meet a SME (subject matter expert)” series. On May 21, a small team of XPLANErs spent 90 minutes with over 25 members of the Nike team introducing XPLANE methods with an overarching goal of providing participants with tools they could apply immediately.

The workshop began with XPLANE sharing five core visual frameworks that we use on almost every client engagement. We then spent the majority of the time walking through hands-on exercises to teach three Gamestorming frameworks which could be applied within Nike’s own internal transition management process.

Many of the Nike participants used their various current initiatives as subjects for the learning exercises, giving them first-hand experience in the value of the frameworks as they help teams and individuals sort through complex information and reach clarity and alignment.

Thank you to Jenny Esparza of Nike’s Transition Management Center of Excellence for the invitation and coordination.

Why Visual Thinking Trumps Documents and Spreadsheets

By Cynthia Owens, Senior Consultant

“We need this.”

“This” is visual thinking and the “we” are professors from the top MBA programs around the world at the annual meeting for the Production and Operations Management Society earlier this month.

Tucked into the challenging post-lunch slot, after papers on supply chain and before presentations on sustainability, XPLANE stepped in to demonstrate the value of visual thinking.

XPLANE was asked to present because several of the professors said they are under pressure to make courses more interesting and interactive and to give students tools they can use once they go back to the business world.

Working every day with designers it’s easy to forget that some people, like the professors in front of me, were doing math problems when they were five instead of drawing pictures, so what struck me was how quickly this group of people began to draw.

And, however rudimentary, their drawings immediately connected with their colleagues demonstrating the key benefits of visual thinking.


The point isn’t great art it’s clarity
Some of the professors drew buildings, trucks, and boats and some drew boxes connected by arrows. It actually didn’t matter, because everyone could see clearly the steps in the process they had created.

One professor drew circles and arrows and then used triangles to indicate areas where the process could be improved. He represented the improvements with dollar signs if there was a cost saving, with a clock face if there was a time saving, and a lightning bolt where there were energy savings. The point he was trying to convey was immediately clear.

In nearly every session we facilitate at XPLANE, people tell us: “I can’t draw.” But in every session everyone draws. Stick figures, shapes, and arrows are some of the most valuable tools of visual thinking.

Pictures help people see where they might agree or disagree
At one table, a group of the professors were trying to visualize a concept. As they each attempted to draw it, they realized they see it and teach it slightly differently.

This commonly happens in our work with organizations.  A team will start talking about a proposal but it’s only when they draw it that they understand where their concepts differ.

We worked with one organization where the team was split and three groups said they wanted to go in very different directions. But when we had each of the team members draw their vision of the future, we discovered that they were much more closely aligned in their vision than they expected. As soon as they saw that the area where they disagreed was actually fairly small, the tension in the room evaporated and they focused on finding a solution.

Drawing teaches
At the end of the session, the teams of professors shared their best ideas for using visual thinking in academia. The idea with the broadest appeal: getting students or teams of students to draw processes and systems in class so they learn and remember more.

It’s true, we do grasp things more quickly and remember them more clearly when they are visual.  Nearly 75 percent of our brain’s sensory neurons are dedicated to visual processing which helps us retrieve pictures far more easily than written words. When we see a picture we are more likely to remember and be able to explain the idea to others.

And at the conference we had immediate proof that the principles of visual thinking were at work. At the presentation just after XPLANE’s session, a few of the professors were spied sketching alongside their notes.

25 Ideas for Visual Parenting

By Stephanie Gioia, Director of Consulting

Visual tools are amazing for communicating and collaborating with kids. Studies show that visuals help children across a range of factors, including reading comprehension, student achievement, thinking and learning skills, and retention of information. XPLANE parents also have lots of anecdotal evidence that visual thinking is very effective in solving behavioral and social challenges at home.

We wanted to explore how people who excel at visual thinking in the work environment bring that mindset to the home front. On May 1 we explored this topic with the community at our public Visual Thinking School. One of the most fun exercises of the day was learning how we each use visual thinking with our kids, and mapping those tools to different developmental stages. Here are 25 ideas we thought were pretty cool, arranged roughly by appropriateness for the youngest up to the oldest kids.


  1. Sign language for pre-linguistic children
  2. Photo array of friends and relatives frequently mentioned but not frequently seen
  3. Visual routine guides for morning and nighttime
  4. Visual cues to show instead of tell. For example, if “bribing” a child with a reward like playing with their soccer ball, show them the ball instead of verbally referencing it
  5. Visual labels on bins and drawers
  6. Card deck of common and special activities to collaboratively puzzle together an agenda for the day or week
  7. Visual chore chart or, especially for younger children, physical blocks that can be moved when the task is complete
  8. Neighborhood map that shows home, daycare, restaurant, supermarket, etc.
  9. Drawing fears and emotions. If angry, draw how it feels. If afraid of the monster under the bed, draw what it looks like.
  10. Visual packing list, showing how many of each item is needed
  11. Visual diary of a family holiday, drawn each evening as an opportunity for all to reflect on the day’s adventures
  12. Whiteboard in the bedroom to encourage kids to explain ideas visually
  13. When gathered for a holiday, make a holiday hat containing cards on which each kid may draw an activity they would like to do. Draw cards one at a time as needed to keep the holidays flowing.
  14. Idea boards, such as each family member drawing an idea for vacation destination
  15. Play visual games like Memory, Battleship, Pictionary, Cranium, etc.
  16. Family calendar with icons and sketches for activities
  17. Family vision map to instill a sense of common purpose
  18. Keep plenty of supplies around to encourage creative expression
  19. Draw vacation routes or destinations right on a map
  20. Clear containers dividing money to teach savings habits and visually see progress toward goals
  21. Post-ups for challenging family discussions to make sure all voices are heard
  22. After a sports game or other activity, encourage constructive feedback through a Plus/Delta poster
  23. Visual proposals, such as a diagram of desired bedroom changes, help teach older children to negotiate successfully for their ideas
  24. Future state drawing for a high school student overwhelmed by college decision. Encourage her to worked backward from where she would like to be in 10 years.
  25. Break down college selection by attributes and criteria

What parenting techniques do you use that harness the power of visuals?