02 Feb 2011 by Gene Smith
Running a large business origami exercise





Late last year we organized a large business origami exercise for a client. Business origami is a tool to help people design and describe systems and processes. It’s kind of like low-fidelity prototyping for systems (here’s a quick introduction).

This client has been analyzing their business processes and looking for ways to get their staff involved in generating new process ideas. We chose business origami as the activity since it gave participants a good starting point–paper pieces for the major actors, institutions and tools that would be part of their process.

We ran two one-and-a-half-day workshops with 130 participants. The participants were divided up into 26 teams who used the business origami pieces to design new processes. We created about 5,000 pieces in total for these workshops.

Origami pieces

Some of the origami pieces we used in the workshop.

To simplify the challenge we gave each team a set of six canvases–2′ x 2′ sheets of paper with high-level process phases like “design” and “implementation” printed on them. The canvases were supposed to help the teams break down their work into smaller chunks–give them an easy on-ramp for getting started. Ultimately, we gave the teams the flexibility to create their own phases if they wanted.

This was the largest business origami exercise we’ve ever done, so I thought I’d share some of our lessons learned.

What We Learned

  • Don’t underestimate the challenge. Most of our participants had never designed a process before, and none of them had ever had to do anything like a business origami exercise. That kind of abstract thinking is hard–especially if you don’t do it every day. We had anticipated these challenges, but we still needed to make adjustments during the workshop to keep everyone engaged.
  • Manipulatives work. Workshop activities seem to go so much more smoothly when participants have something to manipulate, and that was certainly true here.
  • Simplify the pieces. Past versions of this method involved pop-up pieces that were easier to identify but required extra cutting. For these workshops, we made all the pieces rectangular and fit six of them to an 8.5″ x 11″ that we could quickly chop with a paper cutter.
  • Tape is important. Once teams had sorted out a process idea they wanted to commit to it by taping or gluing it to the canvas. And by the end of the second day, every piece had been taped down so we could roll up the canvases and take them back for analysis.
  • A blank canvas can intimidating. We knew our participants would generate lots of great ideas once they got started with this technique. Getting them started, however, was a challenge. There are lots of moving parts (literally) to a business origami session. Combine that with the openness of the activity, and you have a situation where people just don’t know where to begin. We used canvases to break things down, and we gave participants a couple of getting-started activities to help them get familiar with the pieces and the exercises. And we had facilitators at every table to help get the groups started. Speaking of that…
  • Active facilitation is required. A facilitator worked with each group throughout the day-and-a-half workshop. Each of these facilitators had completed the exercise once before, so they were familiar with the method and the potential challenges. The main job of these facilitators was to help their groups capture their discussions as business origami pieces on a canvas. In cases where the groups were reluctant to use origami pieces and canvases, the facilitators would force the participants document their ideas. If the group was actively discussing a customer’s experience in a store, for example, the facilitator might hand them a couple of origami pieces and a pen and say “write that down.” This turned out to be an essential component of the workshops. Without a facilitator at every table many of our participants would have spent their time discussing problems instead of generating possible solutions.Including the lead facilitators, we had as many as 15 facilitators helping run these sessions. Most of these people were from inside the client organization, and they did an amazing job keeping their groups on track. They also acted as our eyes and ears with the participants, so we always knew when the groups were doing well or when they felt challenged or frustrated.

Origami canvases

The final canvases, rolled up and ready for analysis.

The feedback from these sessions was mostly positive even though we asked to participants to complete a new and demanding activity. More importantly, these sessions generated hundreds of ideas for process changes and improvements.

We’re in the middle of analyzing those ideas. I’ll post more about how we did that in the next few weeks.


20 Jan 2011 by Gene Smith

Kiiro is now open-source

We’ve decided to open-source Kiiro, the SharePoint-based project management and collaboration application we released in 2009. Here’s a short description of Kiiro from my original post announcing the product: Kiiro is a simple collaboration and project management app for … Read More

18 Feb 2011 by Gene Smith

Our Sketching Table

We spend a lot of time at our computers, but we usually find that sketching and collaborating together is much more productive than sending email or chat. So a couple of months ago we built a sketching table to give … Read More