Dan Roam is the founder and president of Digital Roam Inc., a management consulting firm that helps business executives solve complex problems through visual thinking. He has brought his unique approach to clients such as General Electric, Wal*Mart, Wells Fargo Bank, the U.S. Navy, HBO, News Corporation, and Sun Microsystems, among many others. He lectures around the country for clients and at business conferences. His book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, is out today!
[Bio is from 800-CEO-READ.—CM]
tompeters.com asks …
What’s the big message here, Dan?
DR: The big message is that the best way to solve business problems is to take advantage of our innate visual thinking skills. “Visual thinking” is a current buzz phrase. Visual thinking is not the same as drawing. Drawing is a big part of visual thinking, but visual thinking takes advantage of all our innate abilities to see. We see with our eyes as well as our mind’s eye. We use our visual thinking skills to communicate to others as well as to help ourselves understand things or come up with ideas.
Visual thinking is particularly effective whenever you’re stuck with a problem, whenever you face a fuzzy situation. You know that there’s a way out of it, and you start by asking yourself, “Where have I ever seen something like this before?” You then take advantage of your seeing skills, your imagining skills—all your skills that are visual in nature—and use them as a way to approach a problem, or see opportunities or ideas surrounding that problem that would have been invisible otherwise. Next you develop those ideas through sketching. And finally, you share the ideas with other people.
When I started to read your book, I thought it was going to be about drawing. But it’s much deeper than that. Is that the biggest hurdle to overcome when consulting?
DR: Absolutely. In fact, every time I walk into a room, whether it’s to do a conference, workshop, or consulting session, someone in the room says, “Solving problems with pictures sounds good, Dan. But I’m not a visual person; this doesn’t work for me.” Guaranteed, there’s always someone in the room who says it. What I have found in my highly unscientific study of this is that that’s what about a quarter to a third of the people in a typical business session are thinking.
My response to them is, “I understand you might not consider yourself a visual person. Let’s recognize we all think in different ways; some of us are auditory, some of us are kinesthetic. But here’s the deal. If you’re visual enough to walk into this room and find a seat without falling down, you’re visual enough to understand everything we’re going to talk about. And I guarantee you’ll get some powerful tools from it.”
In any business setting, there is a spectrum of people. I refer to them as the black pen people, the yellow pen people, and the red pen people. The black pen people are the ones who cannot wait to pick up the pen and run to the white board; the most confident visual thinkers. They represent—again, highly unscientifically—about a quarter of the people in the room.
At the other end you have the quarter who say, “Oh gosh, this is silly. I can’t do this; I’m not a visual person.” I call them the red pen people. They want you to prove to them that there’s value in what you’re suggesting or offering.
Half the people, fitting between those two quarters, are what I call the yellow pen people. They’re named after highlighters. They begin every comment with, “I can’t draw, but—” and then they’ll go add to the white board on which someone else has already drawn. They see in someone else’s work the connections that are really interesting and the ideas that are worth pursuing. I call them the highlighters because they indicate what the rest of us should be paying attention to in someone else’s work.
They are the classic business analytic types?
DR: The hard-core, left-brain, business analytic type is a red pen. Imagine this scene. The black pen person runs to the board and draws something out. The yellow pen person says, “I can’t draw, but—” and then comes to the white board and draws a couple of nice things that connect some of the stuff that’s already there. The red pen person, through all of this, is sitting back, getting increasingly pissed off because what—let’s say it’s a he—he sees is so superficial. Eventually, the red pen person will get so mad that he will finally stand up, take the red pen, and either erase or write over half of what else is there. He will say, “No, no, this is the way it really is.” And then he will draw the picture that more often than not is probably the most analytically, factually accurate. The beauty of it is that he’s still drawing a picture. You have to piss him off enough to get him to do it, but you release his inner napkin sketcher.
Some people have to be conked over the head once to do it. But it’s often those red pen people who make the drawing that most effectively summarizes the real situation. They’re working from the material that was put there by the black pen people, highly clarified by the yellow pen people, and then they’re bringing their level of analytical insight. It takes all three.
And that alone, Erik, is the reason why I intentionally did not want the book to be focused on drawing. If someone wants to improve their drawing skills, there are fantastic books out there (the best one is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards). I wanted to complement them.
Most of us believe that good drawing means we’re good at showing what we see out there in the world. Good drawing means I can effectively, in a life-like way, represent what you’re doing—like sitting in a chair—on a piece of paper.
The pictures that I want people to make, that we all know how to make, are not pictures of what’s out there; they’re pictures of what’s in here. How do I see the idea structured in my mind? It’s not a matter of being really good at drawing the flower, or the car. It’s a matter of making simple circles and arrows, and thereby putting into pictures the most basic phrases that people speak when they start to describe their view of an idea.
I’m a word guy, though I’ve always been interested in the arts. My wife is an artist. So I feel that I have some strong visual underpinning. I may be fooling myself.
DR: No, you’re not fooling yourself.
I’ve noticed that if you’re in a business meeting and someone hands you a document or shows PowerPoint slides full of words, you ingest that information differently than if it’s presented more visually. It seems easier to understand or make connections between various parts if the information is presented visually.
DR: Yes. When you physically put something in somebody’s hand, they will automatically feel ownership of it and will remember more about it than if you don’t. If you want to push that further, give them a picture.
Neurobiology shows us that when someone is reacting to a picture, essentially more lights are flashing in their brain than when they’re simply reacting to words. The whole left brain/right brain thing isn’t the point. The fact is, most verbal processing occupies very specific parts of our brain and visual processing is much more dispersed. The most magical combination is when you have a simple, compelling picture that contains simple, compelling words.
Whoever coined the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” did everybody in visual thinking, strangely enough, an enormous disservice. People then think that every picture should be word-free. If a picture is worth a thousand words, my goodness, how terrible a picture must be if you have to describe it. That is the wrong way to think about it. Here’s the right way: A good picture substitutes for the thousand words that are the least necessary. The thousand words you use are the ones that are inspired by what’s already on the page.
I often think about this when I’m reading an article. I love the New Yorker, but they are the worst at this, period. I recently read an article, “Twilight of the Books,” that just pissed me off. It’s essentially an endless recitation of statistics about how nobody reads anymore. You know that there’s a story being told, but the four pages of statistics are overwhelming. Those numbers should have been put in a chart! Leave the thousand words of the story to explain what it means. We cannot cognitively process a long list of numbers; it doesn’t work. The words in the article should have said, “This is a problem,” or, “Here’s what we do to solve it.” Do you understand?
Absolutely. I totally grok that, as they say. Have you ever sent a letter to anybody at the New Yorker telling them they’re way too focused on words?
DR: I’m not just going to write the author a letter. I’m going to—and I do this from time to time—redo the article as a picture. Again, I love the magazine; I always get great ideas out of the New Yorker. I’ll send him the picture and show him that you could, with a higher likelihood of information being conveyed, take at least five of the seven pages and put them into two very simple charts.
I love that idea, sending them the solution as you see it. Did you ever think about not using words and just using pictures in the book? Or is that too crazy?
DR: No. You could. What you’d eventually end up with would be a comic book. Are you familiar with the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud?
Oh yeah, huge fan of that.
DR: I love it. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is probably word heavy. Understanding Comics explains visual thinking strictly as a comic book. I thought what we needed is a middle ground and here’s why.
Two weeks ago, I was at a large pharmaceutical company, whose name I can’t mention, doing two full-day workshops back to back. Day number one was a workshop for all of the strategy people, the big thinkers. Day number two was a similar workshop modified for 100 project managers.
These folks have very different approaches to their work. The strategy people, by definition, are intended to be visionary. Their goal is to come up with a vision. Where are we going? Fine. How are we going to get there? Not my problem; talk to the project managers tomorrow. Day one was about vision, day two was about execution.
If I had started out my talk on day two using comics, I would have been thrown out of the room. It would not work for that audience because they would think that I was belittling the importance and rigor of project management by trying to address their challenges through comics. You have to couch your message in the context in which it is mostly likely to be perceived well by your audience. That’s not to say that the story changes, Zelig-like, depending on who you’re talking to. The story remains the same; the initial presentation of the story changes.
I’m sure people challenge you all the time about the importance of visual thinking.
DR: They do. And from the big picture perspective, when I take a step back and look at why any of this matters, I am convinced that, although it’s an over-used term, we’re approaching a perfect storm of information complexity. The only possible way to deal with it is for us to become much more visual in the way we do business.
Here’s what I mean. Due to globalization, it’s becoming increasingly likely that an entire project team won’t speak the same language. That’s storm number one. Storm number two is information overload. If, 50 or 100 years ago, the greatest decision-making challenge someone faced was not having enough good intelligence, the problem today is the opposite; we have too much information. That’s only going to continue to get worse. Storm number three is more complicated communication, due to global supply chains and true global integration of business processes: more channels, more people, more participants, more formats.
Combining those three storms—globalization, information overload, and increasing communication complexity—makes getting even the simplest message across to someone very difficult. The good news is that visual thinking presents a way to address each one of these issues. Visuals are independent of language.
My book, I’m happy to say, has done really well with international markets. I can understand why. If you’re in—insert the name of a large growing Asian country here—and you see a book that talks about developing successful American business practices, explained in pictures, who wouldn’t want that?
DR: On the information complexity side, visual thinking provides us an incredibly powerful set of tools for looking at complex sets of data. My goodness, just try to imagine what’s going on with the sub-prime market meltdown. Look at the data that’s being churned out by Wall Street. How can anybody make sense of what’s going on?
Well, if we use some of the basic tenets of visual thinking, suddenly we find ways to visually triage our way through too much information. Patterns start to come out and we get better at intuitive pattern recognition so that we can more effectively interpret the data.
If you go back to these really simple pictures—the back of the napkin sketches—you have an incredibly powerful way to communicate what your idea is. So visual thinking is the universal problem-solving tool kit. If we had a napkin between us, I’d draw what the tool kit looks like. There you have it; I’ll jump off my soapbox now.
Hurrah! How long have you been consulting?
DR: The first time I did something that smacked of consulting would have been around 1989 when, through a weird twist of events, I found myself running an advertising agency in the Soviet Union. I was a graphic designer. Through, of course, my girlfriend at the time, I had an opportunity to go to Moscow in 1989. While I was there, I met some people from the large Dutch publishing company, VNU. Nobody in the United States has ever heard of them, but in Europe they’re known far and wide. They’re a huge company and publish dozens if not hundreds of periodicals around the world.
Those were the days of perestroika and glasnost. There were very smart people running VNU who said, “Look, if the Soviet Union is going to open up to this huge influx of western business people, we need to create a city magazine for them.” In Moscow, you couldn’t even find a phone book. There were no taxis. And you couldn’t very well just step into the Soviet Union and start a magazine. Keep in mind that in 1989 it was illegal to make a profit. It’s easy these days to forget that. That was a capital offense.
So how does a magazine that is advertising-supported go about doing business in that environment? They formed an alliance with the Union of Soviet Journalists, got all kinds of approvals and blessings from the government, and set it up. I joined them as a designer. Within a week of being there, all the heads of station—the local expat representatives of all the big companies that would be the first to go into a brand new market like AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Phillip Morris, Pepsi—came by our magazine. None of these expats spoke Russian, so when they arrived they’d be completely lost. They’d find a copy of Moscow Magazine, they’d show up at our office, and they’d say, “Gosh, I’m the head of station for IBM.”
A more interesting example is the guy from Intel. He said, “I’m supposed to set up a business. I don’t have any material in Russian. I have no marketing collateral whatsoever. Can you help me?” We had the very first Macintosh computers legally imported into the Soviet Union. We had pretty sophisticated desktop publishing right there in the heart of Moscow and we had access to extraordinary printing in Holland through VNU. It was a miracle for these people. The publisher of the magazine looked at me and said, “Dan, do you want to run a company that meets the needs of all these people that are coming in?” And I said, “Yes.” So to answer your question, Erik, that’s when I started consulting.
I stayed for seven years. When I arrived I didn’t speak a word of Russian. I became fluent, but in the early days when I was sitting across the table from, typically, a couple of Russian people, someone from Spain, France, and Holland, half those people spoke English or Russian reasonably well, and half did not. Out would come the notebook and we would draw a picture of whatever we were talking about. Guess what? It didn’t matter what language you were speaking.
DR: So the pictures would come together and we’d figure things out. I remember a fascinating session explaining, on the back of a napkin, how capitalism works, to a student at Moscow State University. Anyway, my consulting practice has morphed from there to where I am today.
Microsoft and Infosys are clients, so you’re dealing with some big name folks.
DR: Yes. I also work with eBay, Wells Fargo Bank, Peet’s Coffee, and Walmart. I use back of the napkin sketches to solve business problems for my clients. I have to thank four of my biggest clients for letting these pictures be shown publicly. They’re going to appear in Fast Company in the April issue.
When you go into these companies, how do you help them? Do you give workshops teaching them how to solve problems with visual thinking or do you lead a team to actually solve the problems?
DR: The answer is yes. The way I describe it is that—here’s my little elevator pitch—I do three things. I give them the fish, I teach them to fish, and sometimes we just sit back and talk about the ocean.
DR: In the case of Walmart, they asked me to come in and help them clarify how their environmental sustainability initiatives could be described to the public at large. The potential impacts of the decisions that Wal*Mart is making around becoming more environmentally sustainable in its practices are so enormous and so complex. How could we come up with a simple, but not over-simplified, view of what they’re doing? In that case, I made the pictures. They gave me the data, I worked with the people there, and in the end I drew the pictures.
At the other extreme is my work at eBay. I’ve had an opportunity to teach the entire creative staff at eBay my universal problem solving, visual thinking tool kit. The creative team at eBay has really begun to believe in this as a powerful communications and problem-solving tool.
When I teach, I’ve found that it’s most effective to give some sign posting up front. It’s fine if I say, “By the time the day is over, we will all be good visual thinkers.” But if I start out by saying, “I am going to show you the four steps, the five questions, and the six ways,” then people ready their minds. I’ve intentionally structured the book that way. There are these bite-sized sets of regulated ways of thinking about this. Because let’s face it, if you’re really a creative and super-visual person to begin with, the best you can get from me is simply validation and inspiration. Go ahead and do what you already do. And do it for the CEO. Even though you’ve always been afraid, go ahead.
You make a critical point in the book about focusing on the audience and stepping outside your own needs for a picture; thinking about what really is going to make sense to who’s looking at it.
DR: I’d like to share a breakthrough moment with you. You know, when you’re a consultant, the scariest person to present to is a McKinsey consultant.
DR: I didn’t work for McKinsey. I worked for an internet consulting company, Razorfish [Now Avenue A | Razorfish]. It’s was as loosey-goosey as you could get. We had an opportunity to present a project to C-level executives at McKinsey. I was terrified.
We were going to talk about building a knowledge management system. A few years ago, the term that everyone was throwing about was portal. If you remember the days of portals, everything was going to be a portal, and nobody knew what a portal was. So I knew we’d have to spend some time doing level setting on what a portal is. As I thought of how to describe it, I knew I could do it best with Lego blocks.
But then I thought, “What would happen if we went into McKinsey and I said, ‘We’re going to build a portal and here’s what we mean,’ and I pull out some Lego blocks? Could I do that? No, they will think that I’m belittling them.” And then I said, “Screw it, we’ll use Legos, because they make what we’re trying to do so clear.”
So we did it. And it went over like gangbusters. They said, “You know, in 30 seconds you summarized what so many companies have been in here stumbling with for 15 minutes trying to explain. We see it, we get it. Thank you. We agree. Let’s move on.”
DR: I thought, “Wow, Lego blocks work at McKinsey. I guess maybe there is something to this.” That was the moment I wasn’t afraid anymore. That was the worst case scenario. If that worked, then anything else was going to fly.
“Let’s move on” seems to be a signature phrase for this. They come into the room, see the visuals, and bingo, you’ve just eliminated the need for the first half hour of chit-chat, trying to get everybody to speak the same language. That’s the power of this.
DR: I think you summarized it better than I could.
Yes, I’m feeling brilliant today. I really enjoyed talking with you. I hope you’ve had a good time.
DR: I thoroughly have.
Email: dan (at) – danroam.com