Read an Excerpt
Picture Your Business Strategy
Transform Decisions with the Power of Visuals
By Christine Chopyak
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Christine Chopyak
All rights reserved.
THE POWER OF VISUALS
The sun was coming up over the dusty and hazy skyline of southeastern Beijing when our taxi made a U-turn and came to a stop in front of a large, industrial- looking building. "Is this it?" my fellow traveler, Susan, asked me. "Yeah, according to the map," I replied. The cabdriver hit his hand against the back of the seat to get our attention and pointed to the meter. Oh, yeah, he wanted to be paid, I thought. I dug into my bag, pulled out a handful of yuan, and handed them to him. We left the cab, guidebook in hand, and stood alone somewhere in Beijing on a Saturday morning.
We were in search of a famous antique/flea market that was held in some obscure corner of Beijing on Saturdays, and the map told us that we were close. We were in China for 10 days in 2001, a few short days before the world—business and everything in it—changed on 9/11. We had a short window in which to see Panjiayuan flea market and head back to the hotel to fly on to Xian. Panjiayuan is well known for its size, authentic items, and shrewd negotiating and as an off-the-beaten-path experience for the intrepid traveler. I was pretty sure that no one would speak English.
Regardless of how wonderful the market might be, we had to find it first. We were close, according to the map, but with all the street names in Chinese characters and the industrial look and feel of the area, we were caught off guard. There were no signs indicating where we needed to be. We headed toward a building that had its lights on and was open, and had a look around—antiques. We looked at each other and the guidebook—Panjiayuan was supposed to be outside.
We went to the counter and asked if anyone could speak English; they smiled and shook their heads no. I got out the map and pointed to the place where the flea market "should be"; they smiled, got excited, and started pointing and talking. They were giving us directions, but we could not understand them! I got out a pen, pointed to the map and the location, handed the pen to them, and nodded, my eyebrows raised: draw it! "Show me!"
A woman with kind eyes took the pen and drew a series of arrows: around the building, down a narrow street, right, then left, and then we would be there. She proudly handed the map back to me. "Xiè, xiè" (thank you, thank you), we smiled, repeated, and headed for the door.
After a few twists and turns, we arrived at a huge parking lot, partially draped with long, faded pieces of orange and red fabric to protect merchandise from the sun. Some items were on tables; others were delicately placed on the ground on top of sturdy rugs. The place was buzzing with people setting up and viewing the items that were on display. Almost everyone there had a sturdy, decorative steel thermos from which steaming green tea was poured and shared. There were large pieces of furniture along the edges of the market: wardrobes and intricately decorated chairs that looked as though they were made for royalty, of dark wood with brass fixtures.
Despite the early hour, people were doing a brisk business. Shoppers would point to items and ask how much. I observed them beginning the obligatory bartering negotiation that is part of any Chinese purchase unless you are at Walmart China. We walked the aisles, admiring handcrafted textiles, wooden carvings, brass and crystal glasses, hand-painted porcelain vases, statues of cranes, and classic Chinese drawings with calligraphy, waterfalls, and lovely, demure women.
"What are you looking for?" Susan asked. "What aren't we looking for? The stuff here is amazing—it's beautiful and intricate, even if it isn't 'old,'" I replied. We were beside a section that had a variety of birdcages of all sizes. Some were simple, made of plain pine wood and deep red cherry wood, and all were intricately carved. Beside the birdcages sat a series of locks with combinations, keys, or a series of twists to open them. Most were made of brass, but a few were made of wood and some of ivory.
We browsed the isles with the Chinese salespeople looking at us strangely with big smiles. After a couple of hours, we had to head back. I refused to leave empty-handed. I kept coming back to those neat brass locks I had seen earlier. Where were they? As the parking lot was massive, finding that stall would probably take another hour or so.
I tried to find someone who spoke English—no luck. I wandered up and down trying to retrace my steps, but time was running out. Finally I reached into my bag, took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper, and drew this on the back.
It was a crude drawing, but nonetheless, the vendor watching me started talking rapidly, pointing to an isolated corner of the market. He grabbed my paper and my pen and drew this. I smiled—we had connected! He showed me to the stall, showed the owner my drawing, and we all laughed. I made my purchase, negotiating all the while, and left the market.
This story is not unique; many of us have traveled to places where we don't speak the language. We use sign language, gestures, pantomime, and other visual ways to convey emotion, communicate, get what we need, or find help. Ironically, we have been doing this for centuries. The human ability to communicate creatively and understand one another began not with language but with pictures. The artifacts that we see today left on the inside of caves throughout the world are special stories that were passed down to younger generations. Daily stories were probably drawn in the sand with a stick or a rock. In his article "Better Learning and Expressing of Learning Through Visual Literacy," Professor Harry G. Tuttle from Syracuse University shares, "Our cave ancestors were visually literate; their lives depended on how well they could visually read the world around them."
Is our world really any different? No and yes. No, in that we still "read" the world around us using visual communication. Visual cues and communication are important indicators in business, too. There are signs that people are in agreement: customers desire a product, and employees have bought into a concept and a strategy.
Yes, the world is different in the twenty-first century. Access to technology, the rise of more affluent populations across the planet, and globalization have profoundly affected the way we see, read, and deal with the world around us. The number of people who travel and work virtually in multiple geographies and cultures every day has risen at a meteoric rate. The world demands language agility and cultural awareness, given the globalization of the marketplace.
In spite of the best that the technical world can offer, we have not found innovative ways to communicate or eliminate language barriers. However, visual images and pictures help people talk through and agree on strategy and product design. They also help individuals and teams think about, explore, and articulate how to achieve success and what it takes to execute their strategy. While English may be a default language in a global marketplace, pictures can be universally embraced and used by people from the factory floor to the boardroom. Pictures can raise issues that are culturally sensitive, subtle, or controversial. They provide a backdrop and a landscape for addressing barriers to organizational success. At the end of the business day, business quarter, or fiscal year, teams and their leaders can use pictures to have meaningful and relevant conversations about risk, reward, targets, and success.
This book makes an argument for the deliberate use of simple, hand-drawn pictures and images when we develop business strategy in order to transform how we make decisions, how we work together, and how we ultimately achieve results. So, how can better use of visuals help us do this?
Like the map and the travel guide I used to find my way to the antiques flea market, a picture of where the business is going is extremely useful. A city or street map allows us to see where we are and where we want to go. There are usually several ways to get to your destination, and a map can help you select either the most direct or the most scenic route. The same is true when you create a picture of your business strategy.
A picture contains your ideas, describes the tools you will use, and indicates who will do the job. Much like a map that has landmarks, crossroads, and highways, your visual business strategy can help the members of a team see the condition of the business based on the information that they share and what gets drawn. As the team shares information about financial, product, and customer success, rough and even crude stick-figure-type images and metaphors are used to picture these things. As the team members talk about what they want the business to accomplish and how they think they can get there, the whole strategy is pictured, not just a portion of it. By viewing the whole picture, teams can make choices about which direction to take and why—just like choosing the scenic route or the highway on a car trip across a country. Pictures help illuminate what choices you have and help the team determine the best route to take to achieve the desired outcome and results. Because a picture engages the imagination, multiple business scenarios can be created and evaluated quickly and easily with the use of pictures. Different routes produce different results. Together, the team members can assess and evaluate, "If we do this, then what will happen?" The team and the business can pick from a set of pictures that provide the best strategy and images of the path forward to deliver value.
Another way in which pictures can help us achieve great business results is through clarifying issues and identifying the things that are blocking our success. With the advent of GPS and satellite navigation systems, we can plan a route, pinpoint where we are in relation to that route, and identify whether there is road work or a traffic jam that will impede our ability to get to our final destination. With the aid of this visual guide, we can choose another way that will let us avoid the obstacles. We feel more in control of our choices because we can see them.
Pictures of a business process or strategy allow us to see many aspects of the business on one page. They show us the "whole picture" and pinpoint where we are in that picture. These images will also pinpoint where we are in enough detail so that we can see where we took a "wrong turn" or that we have been in a "traffic jam" without even knowing it. Pinpointing issues in a complex multinational business is a challenge. There are so many variables to consider—different regions of the world, different production schedules, different cultures, different people, and myriad ways of reporting. Pictures move above the granular and show the essence, the context, and the relevant content of the business. These pictures are not a list of the good, the bad, or the ugly. Rather, they are a synthesis of a system, with all its parts, pieces, and relationships. This kind of visual synthesis shows the connections among the different pieces in the system, making it much easier for teams to look at a visual and pinpoint success factors, areas of concern, and barriers that are in the way of progress and success.
Pictures are also a catalyst for team engagement and commitment. Think about what happens when you return from a vacation and you share your pictures with other people online through a file-sharing service or on Facebook. People ask questions about where you went, how long you stayed, and where you stayed. They comment on places they have visited or always wanted to. They want to know "how hard was it to get around?" and "what did you eat?" The viewers see the people you met and those you traveled with. Stories of the trip emerge as different images trigger different memories. Viewers get involved in your pictures of the trip almost as if they were there themselves. They put themselves in your shoes and see what you saw; they share what you experienced. These photos inspire and engage the viewers—they are a break from the "real world."
Consider what could happen if you shared a picture of a business strategy with the members of your team or with everyone in your company in the same way that you share photos of your travels. People like this form of visual/story engagement, particularly if they were there when the "pictures" were created. A visual business strategy that was designed and built by everyone on the team is exciting. The pictures, colors, and metaphors work the same way travel photos work—the team members recall what they discussed, how the work they do needs to change, and what actions are needed along the way. They point out places where people "signed up" for different parts of the plan. They can tell who is accountable for what and what commitments were made. They also share what got them excited and "what's next" for them. The picture of the business strategy engages, motivates, and aligns people on a team and in a business when they have helped create the visual that shows where they are going, what the outcomes will be, and how to get there.
Ultimately, picturing your business strategy can streamline communication. We can simplify and clarify key actions and activities while creating new efficiencies. With the right information and team participation, the pictures reveal opportunities and transform the quality and the results of your decisions. Making this a reality is not as difficult as you might think. We need to tap into our ability to think in pictures. We had that ability and confidence in it when we were children. As we got older, we swapped our visual language for characters that form our oral and written traditions.
In the Beginning, There Were Pictures ...
Young children think and cognitively process in pictures before they speak because language, in the brain, is a higher cognitive function. The full set of senses plays a complete role in a child's abilities to process and "read" the world around him. With heightened senses, smells, tastes, colors, and sounds become associated with shapes and colors. We connect these images to the sensory input and eventually, with repetition over time, children and adults connect them to words.
Think about the picture books that you had as a child or that you use with your children. They exist for a reason—to connect images, textures, feelings, colors, and shapes to words. Picture books like this for young children are global in their application. Walk into any bookstore or library in any city in any country and you will find these simple picture books. They are colorful, with simple images, and they connect these images to language and to culture. Images (icons) that are connected to words through repetition become familiar to a child. As the brain continues to develop our language abilities, which are found in what is called Broca's area, we continue to connect images to words, and eventually to sentences and whole paragraphs, and language is born.
As we mature, written and oral language take over, and the "picture books" of our youth give way to dense 200- to 800-page texts, most of them devoid of images or pictures. Ironically, "Today our students are visually literate within their world of 'electronic images' such as TV, videogames, and the Web; they want to be visually literate in their school which is often devoid of visuals," Professor Harry Tuttle laments. Our desire to continue to use images along with words has contributed to the rise in popularity of graphic novels. While images and icons help us "read" the adult world, pictures, as one of the learning styles—visual, kinesthetic, and auditory—get sidelined in favor of written texts or lecture-style delivery in classrooms, office meetings, and boardrooms. Words dominate our lives, while pictures provide supplemental and background information.
And yet, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), "educational researchers suggest that approximately 83% of human learning occurs visually, and the remaining 17% through the other senses—11% through hearing, 3.5% through smell, 1% through taste, and 1.5% through touch." The study goes on to "suggest that three days after an event, people retain 10% of what they heard from an oral presentation, 35% from a visual presentation, and 65% from a (combined) visual and oral presentation." The majority of the population learns using pictures and images. Why don't we operate in more visual ways inside the businesses where we work? Why don't we use pictures to close the gap between employee engagement and business performance? Can we use pictures to do that?
Where Have All The Images Gone?
Good question. We are bombarded by marketing and media messages and visuals every day, so it is not as if we are devoid of any kind of visual communication (thankfully). These visuals are delivered to us in HD or high resolution, at angles, blurred, and in Technicolor. We consume these images, and our brain takes them all in, processes the interesting bits, determines some meaning, discards most of the material, and holds on to the things that are pleasing and relevant to us personally. For most marketing departments and agencies, repeating these visual messages is the standard—the more we see and hear a message, the more we will want the product or service. This is the external/consumer and commercial use of pictures. It seems that the "consumer" approach to using visuals as a means of selling something might make the same sense when used inside organizations. We could use pictures to sell, explain, and outline strategy.
Excerpted from Picture Your Business Strategy by Christine Chopyak. Copyright © 2013 by Christine Chopyak. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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