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Why pictures beat words.

The $50 million problem

Picture this. You have a problem that’s been steadily growing, and now you’re realized it’s creating creating a huge hole in your revenue projections.

How do you address it?

I was recently asked to help out on a $50 million problem. I thought about what I could add – how could I unlock the collective intelligence of the senior team to solve it well?

The three steps

Here’s the approach we took. Let me know what you think, or what you do differently.

First, we gathered all the facts and figures: business data, market data, economic data, customer research.

Second, we got all the stakeholders together to map the problem on a whiteboard. We created a flowchart representing the steps through which customers had to go, and then identified the drivers of success/failure at each step.

Third, we were able to “see” four distinct root causes. From which we could stand up four separate work streams to work in parallel (with good comms between them) to tackle the causes.

Getting the picture

What I realised along the way was the importance of visualising - or mapping - your problem.

This has always been a big part of my problem-solving toolkit. By nature I am a doodler, mapper, and model maker.

But I’m also convinced it’s a fundamentally important approach to complex problems. Why?

Here’s a diagram to suggest three reasons in order of importance, from the bottom up.

Better understanding.

To quote Dan Roam (author of Back of the Napkin),

“The person who sees the problem clearest has the best chance of solving it”.

I often say that “your head is not the best place to solve a problem”. Better to write it down. Better still, draw it.

Mapping the problem allows you to see all the elements of the problem at one time, giving you a much more holistic perspective than if you simply talk about a problem. When we merely use the spoken word, we only can hold one part of the problem in our minds at any one time.

Better collaboration

Drawing out the problem together allows everyone to input as you build a map. This lends itself to unlocking the group’s collective intelligence - and avoiding narrow frames and dominant voices.

Collaborative mapping unlocks the team’s intelligence.

Better solutions

Considering the whole map, you can then identify the root causes, and assess which are most tractable, and in what order.

Treating the root causes is better than treating the symptoms.

My 3 favourite visual tools

Strategy. When I’m helping companies develop strategies, I often use the strategy house (hat tip to Paul Sigaloff, APAC boss of Yahoo for originally introducing me to this). The beauty of the house is that it is easy for everyone to remember, and to see where they fit.

Business Model Analysis. When examining a business model, I love the Business Model Canvas from Strategyzer.

Goal-setting. I use a pyramid to represent who you’re being, what you’re doing and what impact you’re having. This can be used for individuals and organisations or teams.


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