A black-and-white portrait of KenKen ZinserMake sense and make better

How to shape conversations

Square, triangle, circle. Some of the most basic shapes there are — and the building blocks of a versatile design thinking tool, a framing device for creative problem-solving conversations.

Hear me out…

A diagram pinned to the wall An early version of the framework

Square is all about where we are now. The current state. Business needs. It’s stuck, static, with sharp edges. Square has corners, and corners are territories for egos to claim. Square is a boxing ring, where personalities duke it out. Square is defined, set in its ways, because its the way we’ve always done things.

Circle is all about where we’re trying to be in the future. Our vision of success. Goals, objectives, outcomes. It’s smooth, dynamic, well-rounded.

Triangle is all about how we get from here to there. Our work. Growth, transformation, change. It’s directional, epic, inherently narrative. Triangle is a hill—or a mountain—a range to pass on the way to the valley. A peak to reach together. Triangle is an arrow, guiding travelers on their journey. Triangle is a compromise between time, scope, and quality.

Now put them together…

  1. Start the conversation with the shape at either end, usually the Square.
  2. Direct the conversation to the shape at the other end, usually the Circle.
  3. End the conversation with the last shape, the Triangle.

You can use it for any kind of conversation, really. Project meetings, stakeholder interviews, strategic planning sessions, discovery workshops. And it can be as visible or as hidden as you’d like. I’ve presented slides where these shapes fill the screen. I’ve created agendas on top of the concept without any reference to shapes. Sometimes I draw the shapes in real time, a visual aid to emphasize the mental model. It’s up to you.

Some of the ideas I have for future development would connect these shapes to other shape-based frameworks (Eisenhower matrix, IBM Enterprise Design Thinking Hills, Basecamp Hill Charts, the project management triangle, etc.). I’m also interested in connecting with storytelling concepts too (beginning–middle–end, conflict–resolution).