Archive for November, 2010

Visual Thinking: Draw Your Challenge

November 30, 2010

Public education reform, global warming, civic engagement and water quality are all critical and complex problems. They aren’t solved easily, in part, because they represent systems. Each includes many features that interact. These big challenges and others are tough to tackle in long, complex narrative. Simply the time required for an adequate description, let alone new or different concepts, are obstacles.

Visual-thinking guru Dan Roam agrees. He says our culture relies too heavily on words. Roam has gained notoriety for his “napkin pictures” depicting players, benefits and burdens of the US healthcare system.

We know from our own experience that “visual thinking” – essentially, drawing problems can help solve them. It is also an efficient process to create shared understanding.

Drawing Mental Maps
Logic models are just one kind of picture that show a mental map. In these drawings, theories of change which articulate strategies and results are displayed. Imagine a two-part graphic with these words separated by an arrow in a picture: better nutrition, more exercise and frequent meditation on one side (the “do”) and weight loss (the “get”) opposite those words at the end of the arrow. This picture conveys a simple relationship clearly.

In more precise drawings, program logic models use a recipe of elements that can be tested for plausibility, feasibility and strategy. These models are both a tool and a process for “testing” ideas before financial resources, plans, partnerships and other capital are committed.

Last year, Cynthia Phillips and I wrote The Logic Model Guidebook: Better Strategies for Great Results (Sage,2009). It is used by highly effective organizations like the World Bank, Harvard University, Centers for Disease Control and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation which employ logic models as a standard operating process. This book is also used to train undergraduates and graduate students in design, planning, management and evaluation.

Powerful Pictures

Although formal education, politics and text promotes verbal skills, positioning and linear thinking – they may be inadequate for the knotty social, organizational, political and economic challenges we face. Pictures, with and without words, offer a powerful antidote for grasping what’s not easily digested in paragraph after paragraph of copy.

Cartoonists have long known the power of images to convey humor. Architects and builders have used blueprints with great success. Increasingly, new visual formats are options to display problems and create remedies. Wordles, Google Map mashups and online animations are emerging examples of visual thinking.

We listen and talk a lot in our work… Dialogue is critical to understanding and posing improvements. We also draw – nearly every day. When’s the last time you drew a picture at work?

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

Ready, Set, Solve!

November 17, 2010

Henry Ford, of Ford Motor Company fame, was having challenges with a systems problem in his plant. After many efforts at resolution, Ford invited Nikola Tesla, a scientist and inventor, to spend some time reviewing the plant operations and advise him. Tesla visited the plant and was on site 30 minutes. He placed an “X” on a particular boilerplate with chalk and departed. Further examination by Ford engineers showed the boilerplate was faulty. Impressed, Ford told Tesla to send an invoice. The bill arrived for $10,000. Astonished and angry about the cost, Ford demanded a breakdown of the invoice. Tesla sent a second bill which read:

Marking the wall: $1
Knowing where to mark: $9,999

This story underscores several important points for managing and leading work.Foremost, it’s about problem-solving. It’s also about value.

Competency Specification
As the success of our work relies increasingly on the use of information as knowledge, we need to be able to understand how to solve problems. And, we also need to understand what to do with our learning. This means reasoning and knowledge capture are vital competencies for individuals and organizations. An emerging trend in job descriptions is the frequent call for “ability to cope with ambiguity.” This points to an implicit concern, but profiles the context not the requisite competency. The capacity to problem solve is far more accurate.

The Knowledge Economy
Consider how the opening parable applies to your workplace. Is problem-solving essential to generating value ? In a new economy – where knowledge is both a product and a tool – problem-solving and knowledge application are key to your organization’s success. Inquiry, or more simply problem-solving, has high value because it is a vital input for managing towards results. Without it, people and organizations can spend loads of time working on the wrong stuff at the wrong time. Waste is a certainty: both real dollars and opportunity costs. While it doesn’t solve all, the processes of inquiry and application can be critical stepping stones to efficiencies and effectiveness. Paying attention to inquiry and knowledge application can ensure the advantage you seek in a complex or highly competitive environment.

A Learn Fast Workplace
Tesla’s mark on the wall was done quickly. The work he did was less observable. In his mind, Tesla framed an inquiry, generated a hypothesis and tested it. From “cues” and past experience he was able to identify possible origins of the problem. We don’t know the precise sequence of steps, what he struggled with and how exactly he determined the faulty boilerplate. Understanding his thought processes would help us build an explicit map of action steps. In this example, the external advisor helped Ford solve an urgent operations problem. The “know-how” that Tesla had was an important contribution with real value. Ford’s underlying challenge was the one we all share today: building a workforce that’s solves problems, exchanges knowledge and learns fast!

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more information, see:

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