If you had to guess what sort of notes are featured on the whiteboards and flip charts of our Executive Education classrooms, you might propose charts, matrices, or mathematical equations. You probably wouldn’t guess art. But if Kelvy Bird happens to be in your next program, you will see creative, colorful, real-time artwork take shape on the classroom walls.
Kelvy Bird literally turns the collective intelligence of a room into something everyone can see.
Bird is a graphic facilitator specializing in systemic mapping of content within collaborative environments. Her talent for scribing—visually representing ideas while people talk—takes her all around the world, from global, multi-stakeholder meetings to NGO conferences to institutes for higher learning. Over the years, she has become a fixture at MIT and initiatives spawned from it, including the Presencing Institute, MITx u.lab, and, of course, MIT Sloan Executive Education, including our custom programs for organizations.
An artist at heart and by training (she studied abstract painting and art history at Cornell University), Bird is masterful at capturing the essence of a conversation through a combination of words, images, and directional gestures. She is particularly skilled at making sense of complexity.
“Having someone map these conversations in real time can really amplify a particular moment in time for people. It can also be very useful for those who have a hard time remembering, for non-audio learners, or for participants whose native language may not be English,” says Bird. “A small picture might help explain what a particular term or acronym means, and it helps them stay on track with what’s being presented. The drawing … is essentially a language that weaves words and pictures to facilitate group learning and cultural memory.”
"Kelvy captures the essence of learning in the classroom," says Kristin Viera Zecca, a Director of Executive Programs at MIT Sloan. "She creates visual snapshot of the frameworks and their application, helping to solidify the experience for the students. The result is a treasure trove of ideas for participants to revisit at the end of each day."
The process of graphic facilitation in the classroom
As she works, Bird takes a systems approach to creating something that is relevant in the moment as she absorbs new content and integrates it with her “felt sense,” careful to loosely hold onto what she already knows about the material in order to work fresh each time. We asked her how she is able to keep up with someone like Bill Aulet in the classroom. (Aulet leads the fast-paced Entrepreneurship Development Program.)
“It’s a combination of deep listening, sensemaking, and then a rapid process of deciding what to let go of and what to keep,” she said. “Externally I’m drawing, internally there is a dual process of staying as open as possible to what I’m hearing while sifting what is essential from what is interesting.”
"Technically, I’m pacing myself on the wall,” she adds. “If I have a sense of how everything will unfold, I start on the left. If it’s a random progression, I might start on the right. I try to spread out and work the entire board, at times jumping from one area of the surface to a new area and trusting the two or more sections will relate."
“At the end, the room is filled with color and is alive with what people have heard and said. I can’t help but think this enhances the way people are existing and learning in the room.”
From the Entrepreneurship Development Program
Generative scribing: An art form of this century
"Scribing is really a particular art form of this century,” says Bird. “Scribes are creative people who are bridging something between the rational and the more organic way of understanding things. The art’s true potential is just starting to be known and understood as a profession."
Bird has brought her insights and more than 30 years of experience to bear in her new book, Generative Scribing: A Social Art of the 21st Century. According to Bird, a “generative scribe” calls particular attention to an emerging reality that is brought to life by, and for, the social field in which it’s created. This book frames the key concepts that inform and cultivate a scribe’s inner capacities of being, joining, perceiving, knowing, and drawing.
You can learn more about generative scribing and Bird’s visual practice in this recent Zoom session, hosted by MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer.