Visual Thinking Tools
80 percent of people’s brains are dedicated to processing visual information and yet our
workplace experience is heavily verbal and linear – speaking and reading words and
numbers. We can greatly improve people’s thinking process if we make it easy for them
to use all their senses and both the right and left sides of their brains.
Our need to understand complex ideas, mine layers of data, and use sophisticated analytic tools with colleagues around the global table necessitates a major change in the way we communicate. For the most part, however, we still rely almost entirely on verbal communication for making ourselves understood. Visual Thinking Tools offer a means of increasing understanding and building consensus in a complex world.
We are visual people. Most of us spend countless hours a day staring at a visual medium, our computer screen, or television. Our dual-sided brains are wired to integrate all the elements of communication: words, numbers, images, and shapes into a coherent whole. In his book, Visual Language, Robert Horn includes the results of a Wharton study on the benefits of incorporating visual language in presentations. •
Visual language aids decision making.
Visual language makes a better impression.
Visual language shortens meetings.
Visual language promotes group consensus.
Visual language is persuasive.
We can achieve more effective communication by combining the right mix of media, verbal elements, and visual elements in the appropriate opportunity. Whether it's sketching out ideas, problem solving in meetings, documenting data, or projecting results on a screen, we can dramatically improve our ability to understand and be understood using visual aids. This increased understanding is the springboard for creativity, action, and results in the work we do every day.
Anyone can incorporate Visual Thinking tools into their work. The
following scenarios describe a brief selection of Visual Thinking tools you can start using right away.
Paul was excited about his new assignment. Over the years, he had become a bit of a broken record about the problems with new product teams being slow, unimaginative, and frustrating. If the company was going to stay alive and thrive through the next 50 years, he was convinced that the fundamentals of product development had to change and big time. When the company recently acquired a new technology, Paul’s boss gave him the chance he had been asking for.
As a member of an industry sector panel, Paul had previously experienced the power that Visual Thinking tools brought to their work. So simple and so intuitive, and yet so powerful, this way of working had turned around what had been a pretty challenging situation. Conversations typically strayed off topic and meetings went too long producing too little. Nobody seemed to listen to each other and making a decision was a nightmare. Finally, a facilitator came in and quickly taught them the use of a few simple, but effective, techniques. Paul knew exactly how he wanted to start up his new team and used this approach from the start.
Visual Thinking tools used in this situation
Basic Visual Thinking tools
Write information on a white board or sheets of flip chart paper on the wall as the meeting progresses. By keeping it visible throughout, it becomes a public record, and participants can correct it and add to it in real time.
The Parking Lot –to “park” those ideas the group agrees to discuss
Benefit: Stay on the agenda without losing important topics.
The Action Steps – to record decisions, agreements, or next steps that
group members commit to.
Benefit: Clearer agreements, increased accountability, and greater ownership for results.
The Blank Slate – to encourage participants to sketch out their ideas
Benefit: Greater participation for both verbal and non-verbal
participants and greater understanding for all.
Create a “group memory.”
The biggest inhibitor to a productive, focused, creative, efficient conversation is the group’s dependence on the attention and memory
span of each individual. Writing down the group members’ key
thoughts on a white board, computer screen, or big piece of paper
gives the group a “memory.” Thus, all the information is accessible
even as the conversation is unfolding. Latecomers have the
opportunity to catch up, and everyone’s contribution is
acknowledged. Leaders enter the team room and are impressed at
how productive the group has been because they can literally see the
The leaders at Goodwill Industries International were planning a series of events to celebrate their organization’s centenary in 2002. As part of their approach, they decided to talk to major stakeholders in 13 cities across the country to understand how the system was working since welfare reform legislation passed five years ago. The goal was to invite a wide cross-section of participants to dialogue about a complex and controversial topic. How could they achieve their desired result within a four-hour meeting?
With the assistance of a facilitator, they refined the agenda and developed several large displays to help people quickly orient to the big picture of Goodwill’s planning process and the specific tasks they would be asked to complete at their tables. Goodwill leadership used the large map to tell the story of their project. Participants quickly gained an understanding of where they fit in the process. An electronic version was posted on the Goodwill Web site.
Visual Thinking tools used in this situation
Charts and Large Displays
Charts and large displays are created to:
Tell the story of the team’s or the organization’s history (see 75
Years of Management Ideas & Practice: 1922-1997, Harvard
Business Review Reprint 97500). Mergers and acquisitions are
excellent opportunities to utilize this tool.
Share the company vision of its desired future.
Show a complex process or model, as in the Goodwill example.
Materials can be either prepared ahead or in real time as part of a group process.
Individuals can quickly understand a large amount of complex
Colorful graphic displays inspire, delight, educate, and stimulate the
Creating the display helps people appreciate their shared history or
Geoff Ball (a major contributor to the field of graphic facilitation) described his experience in a master plan development process for the redesign of San Francisco International Airport. Noise and traffic issues were the subject of conflict between the airport and its neighbors. At one point in the process, the planners created a list using “plannerese” jargon of 36 different mitigations. For the public workshop, however, they converted the “plannerese” into 36 icons and placed them on a neighborhood map. During this meeting they used the icons to explain the mitigations and facilitate discussion about them. They found that people stored a great deal of information “under” the graphic icons, that the graphics triggered memories of what the planners had said about the mitigations. As a result, participants did not get hung up on the technical terms and were able to use icons to indicate their priorities and make suggestions for other mitigations.
Visual Thinking tools used in this situation
This form of Visual Thinking tool is much like a game board. Once everyone understands the concept -- a model of an airport, for
example -- a group can get to work. Templates have long been used in the workplace but rarely are they made large enough that everyone can participate as a group. Any topic or process can be converted to a template.
Send templates out in advance to stimulate thinking and to allow
participants to prepare for the workshop.
Use icons or metaphors to pull out the deeper meaning. For example,
images that describe what airport noise looks and feels like or how
is an airport like my neighborhood?
Use table-sized templates for small group work instead of flip charts. •
Use Post-it? Notes to move information around to different categories
on a template.
Templates provide an explicit structure for thinking together. •
The group is more analytical because all of the data is available all
the time, rather than slides whizzing by.
Multiple perspectives can be displayed and linked.
The complexity of the problem or vision is illuminated rather than
Colorful templates are memorable. The brain retains the images for
long periods of time.
Group members participate because visual medium stimulates the
imagination and holds their attention.
Groups can work faster if a task has been structured in advance and
displayed in template form.
Visual Thinking tools are finding greater acceptance than ever before. Charting Your Company’s Future by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne was featured on the cover of the June 2002 Harvard Business Review describing “The Art of Strategy.” “Most strategic
planning involves preparing dense documents filled with numbers and jargon. But building the process around a picture yields much better results.” The next time you encounter a complex communication problem, try applying some of the Visual Thinking tools discussed here to help your group work together more effectively.
About the Author
Joan McIntosh coaches individuals and teams to become the architects of their future and the designers of their dreams. She is an expert in the design and use of graphic tools and processes to support her consulting and coaching clients worldwide. She has taught graphic facilitation and strategic visioning workshops for The Grove Consultants International since 1990.
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