“Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures.”
That’s the subtitle of Dan Roam’s best-selling business book, The Back of the Napkin. Wait, did you say business book? That sounds like a pretty “lite” title for a business book. Well, a book doesn’t have to be ponderous or dense to be useful. In fact, the more accessible, the more likely the ideas will be considered and adopted. Dan’s book is clear and well-organized, teaching how to use visual thinking to analyze business problems and communicate clearly about them.
Political issues rarely get this kind of treatment. Buzz words and emotion rule, with little rational analysis or explanation for the average citizen. Dan and a doctor decided to provide some perspective on the current health care reform debate. He posted a 4-part presentation on his blog, using simple hand drawings, to explain the factors involved, the types of proposals being considered, and how individuals will be affected under each. It was such a breath of fresh air that Fox News had him go through some of it on-air, and Business Week magazine and Slideshare.net named it the best presentation of 2009 in a recent contest.
Another example of the power of a simple drawing is the “rich picture.” I learned about these a few years ago. Last week, Dave Lash turned me on to a useful diagramming tutorial site which is part of a university-level systems thinking curriculum. For 6 different diagram types, self-paced Flash movies explain when each is most useful and how to draw them. Transcripts of the narration are also provided.
A rich picture is a sort of hand-drawn info-graphic, used in the very early stages of an analysis to explore the issue and surface assumptions. This diagram examines a controversial situation in England a few years ago. Here are some comments on the diagram by its creator, from the accompanying transcript (I’ve emphasized some points that make rich pictures so valuable, in my view):
I don’t think rich pictures can be used to depict everything in a problem situation, I think they are devices for some kind of discrimination – you are actually saying what you think are the important issues, and you have to decide on what’s important according to the purpose the rich picture is being constructed for, for a particular problem situation.In this case my purpose was just to try and gain a general understanding about the miners’ situation.It can be used as a personal device, so you can explore your own understanding. When you begin to put symbols down on paper and to draw the rich picture, you begin to question your own understanding and it can throw up questions for yourself about what you understand and what you don’t understand. It begins to put some structure on the problem situation from your own personal perspective.It’s probably got a number of faults in it, and I think that’s one of the strengths of a rich picture. It makes you begin to declare assumptions, and because you are declaring and discussing those assumptions, they can be challenged by other people. So your understanding of the situation can be explored, challenged and modified by the debate that ensues. The power of a rich picture is that it provokes that kind of debate, there’s a bit of visual interest there that can spark off thought, you can visit the rich picture randomly, you can move around on it which is stimulating for debate in itself.
I haven’t had a chance to go through all the diagram tutorials in detail yet, because I’m preparing a presentation for the next Elephant Egg night. (In developing this presentation, I’m experimenting with the methodologies of Cliff Atkinson and Andrew Abela, who have both recently published excellent books aimed at helping people communicate more clearly in presentations.) If you’re on Maui, you might enjoy stopping by Moana Cafe on Thursday, October 22 at 6:30 for an evening of serendipity and new ideas!