Lisa Frey Brings Ideas to Life Through Sketchnoting

In her daily standups with team members at Toyota Connected North America (TCNA), Agile Services Manager Lisa Frey learns what teams are working on, their milestones (expressed as KPIs and OKRs), as well as the challenges and opportunities the teams have in order to aim to constantly improve products and services in the market.

She absorbs it all because she has to. And then, as an agile services manager, she whips all the information she gets into a cauldron, adds a sprinkle of magic and helps the technical teams identify and execute a plan to help achieve what can seem like monumental goals into manageable, bite-sized tasks.

Maybe it’s not real magic that Frey uses, but it sure does seem like it. One of the tools she uses is sketchnoting, a powerful blend of sketches…and notes. And it works exactly how you might think.

A Quick Note on Software Engineering

Software engineering is complicated. A team can hop onto a project with an idea of what they’d like their finished product to look like and then have to work out the plan to achieve that goal. That’s what Agile Services supports – organizational structures and accountability in complex teams whose members have all different skill sets and milestones. It’s not surprising when the outcomes from objectives and key results (OKRs) end up looking completely different from the start of the project compared to the end result. Frey and her team anticipate for those and shift accordingly.

The Superpower of Sketchnoting

In elementary school when we learned to read, there would be 26 letters above the chalkboard or whiteboard, uppercase and lowercase, plus accompanying pictures. Why? Because word association matters and helps develop comprehension and contextual learning.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been so keen to abandon that after our formative years.

When Frey learned about sketchnoting in 2016, she says she “didn’t realize how powerful it really was.”

Frey had always been creative, from drawing to playing the oboe in high school, college and in her community orchestras.

“Like sketchnoting, what I've learned about music has changed how I listen,” Frey said. “In an orchestra, you have to be able to watch people's body language to be able to all play at the same time. While we do watch the conductor, we still watch the concertmaster and their down bow and we all breathe with them.”

She added, “You have to lean into the fear of presenting or performing on stage. All of those things have changed how I am today.”

Her passions for the arts and for teaching, plus software engineering, converged when she became a scrum master – leading left-brained engineers in some right-brained outside-the-box thinking.

When sharing sketchnoting with a DevOps team – a team that licenses software and stores institutional knowledge to help others break down technical barriers – she built the courage to teach a session on it.

Frey said she was “totally shocked” by the positive reception she received. She wasn’t expecting analytical engineers to get into doodling stick figures and workflows.

“It challenged their brains in a totally different way,” she said. “It took fear out of drawing, and people started to share their sketches instead of being afraid to share them. It brought this energy to people in a different way, which is super awesome in the technical world.

“People think that engineers are not creative, but I think they’re wicked creative, especially when you're in an operation state. When you have to improve something that's already in production, that takes incredible innovation and incredible creativity.”

She continued, “I realized it helped people retain both visual knowledge and written words. It’s helped connect dots between technical topics and more practical consumer needs in a way that everyone can understand it. In that way, sketchnoting is my superpower.”

Supercharging the Superpower

Novel, yes. Fun, absolutely.

Crucial – now it is.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a hard rethink when it came to working with teams. For many, it shoved work and personal lives in a blender and brought our collective concentration levels down to something approaching zero.

Turns out, Frey’s calling to sketchnoting became something of an antidote during the toughest times.

“It wasn't until COVID that I actually realized I could use sketchnoting day to day,” she said. “Once we all went virtual, we had to use virtual whiteboards. We had to innovate, discuss and collaborate over video. That changed everything.”

Frey accelerated her use of online mapping platforms software engineers use to chart their programs and progress. It helped improve engineers’ active listening. Black boxes with a name in a corner all of a sudden became real people again, showing up on camera and participating in meetings. The spirit of innovation triumphed over work-from-home malaise. TCNA continued speeding up efforts to digitize Toyota’s various enterprises.

“It worked so freaking well!” Frey said, elatedly.

She began teaching Agility 101 courses to help engineers and project managers the benefits of visualizing work. She has led several workshops on sketchnoting, including most recently at the Women in Tech Summit Midwest this past spring, teaching others to be better listeners through illustrations.

All the while, she’s helping teams look at how to prototype ideas faster, what the consumer actually wants and how to keep everyone engaged.

“I feel like sketchnoting helps give teams energy,” she said. “When you add a picture to something, it changes the game. People smile. They laugh. Even if it's a stick person, it makes it more fun.

“One of Toyota Connected’s core values is ‘Love what you do.’ It’s refreshing to work for a company that gives me the runway to hone my craft, explore my passions and have fun with our teams using sketchnotes and other visuals. It is fun and it brings energy and focus to the teams bringing value to Toyota customers!”

Want a few tips on bringing sketchoting to your personal and professional work? Here are some helpful hints:

· Choose your method – paper and pen? Do you like lined, graph or plain paper? Or, do you want to go paperless? Experiment with digital and analog sketchnoting to use what suits you best.

  • Practice to build your anchor doodles (your easily recalled list of images you can draw quickly). Think of this like a workout.
  • Warm up – draw anything to get the mind focused.
  • Practice – a core skill (e.g., drawing a specific item or practicing a specific lettering technique). Do this over and over!
  • Apply what you just practiced to your next sketch.
  • Reflect on what you did, how it went and what you want to change for next time.
  • Find a presentation and practice! Research the speaker ahead of time to get an idea of their style. Create the title before the presentation begins. You will save so much time and stress by getting that ready before the first word!
  • Remember, drawing isn't the only positive outcome from practicing sketchnoting. How can you listen for main ideas and themes in meetings? What can you adjust on a virtual whiteboard in a meeting to provide more white space for a visual "breather" or provide a more organized canvas for better group collaboration?

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