Posts Tagged ‘mental maps’

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 :

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