Monday, June 5, 2017

In Praise of the Whiteboard

Modeling tools are great, but early stage modeling activities are best conducted on a whiteboard. It is better for collaborative development, and handles rapid change more effectively. And there are inexpensive solutions if one is not readily available.

When I lead seminars that cover modeling techniques, this question always comes up: “What’s the best modeling tool?” 

My answer: Start modeling activities on a whiteboard. Break out the software later, one the model has stabilized.

Using a whiteboard, you will get to a better solution, faster. 

I find this to be true across the spectrum of BI project types and modeling techniques. Examples  include:
  • Dimensional models (OLAP projects)
  • Strategy maps (Performance Management projects)
  • Influence Diagrams (Business Analytics projects)
  • Causal loop diagrams (Business Analytics projects)
There are two reasons a whiteboard works best for this kind of work: it supports collaboration, and it is better suited to the rapid changes common in early stage modeling. In short, a whiteboard is inherently agile.


The best models are produced by small groups, not individuals. Collaboration generates useful and creative ideas which reach beyond what a seasoned modeler can do alone. 

Each of the techniques listed above requires collaboration between business and technical personnel. And within either of these realms, a diversity of perspectives always produces better results. Brainstorming is the name of the game.

Use of a modeling tool quashes the creativity and spontaneity of brainstorming sessions. You may have experienced this yourself.

Imagine five people in a room, one person’s laptop connected to a projector. Four people call out ideas, but the facilitator with the laptop can only respond to one at a time. The session becomes frustrating to all participants, no matter how good the facilitator is. The team loses ideas, and participants lose enthusiasm.

Now imagine the same five people in front of a whiteboard, each holding a pen. Everyone is able to get their ideas onto the board. While this may seem like anarchy, it helps ensure that no ideas are lost and it keeps everyone engaged. The result is always a better model, developed faster.

Rapid change

The other reason to start on a white board is practical: it is easy to erase, change, redraw. And you will be doing a lot of these things if you are collaborating.

Imagine a group is sketching out a model, and decides to make a major change. Perhaps one fact table is to be split into two. Or a single input parameter is to be decomposed into four. If a modeling tool is in use, making the change will will require deletion of elements, addition of new elements, and perhaps a few dialog boxes, check boxes, and warning messages.  The tool gets in the way of the creative process.

Now imagine a whiteboard is in use. A couple of boxes are drawn, some lines erased, some new lines added. The free flow of ideas continues, uninterrupted. Once again, this is what you want.

Unimpeded collaboration produces better results, faster.

No white board? No problem.

Don’t let the lack of a whiteboard in your cube or project room stop you.

There are many brands of inexpensive whiteboard sheets that cling to the wall. These have the additional benefit of being easy to relocate if you are forced to move to another room.  Here is one example, available on

There are also several kinds of whiteboard-style notebooks. These are useful if you are working alone or in a group of two. They provide the same benefit of being able to collaborate and quickly change your minds, but in a smaller format.  The one that I carry is called Wipebook:

I learned about these and similar solutions from clients and students in my seminars.

…and then the tool

All this is not to say that modeling tools are bad. To the contrary, they are essential. Once the ideas have been firmed up, a modeling tool is the next step.

Modeling tools allow you to gets ideas into a form that can be reviewed and revised. They support division of labor for doing required “grunt work” — such as filling in business definitions, technical characteristics, and other metadata. And they produce useful documentation for developers, maintainers, and consumers of your solutions.

But when you’re getting started, use a whiteboard!