CEO Adviser: Picture This


With summer upon us, most Seattle businesses and nonprofits have done their initial goal setting—identifying strategy, measuring against last year’s success or challenges and dreaming that vision of success. Some companies are taking to heart the new neuroscience discoveries, which indicate that when you marry ideas, strategies and vision with a visual picture, you have a better chance of that strategy being remembered by your team. That’s not recent news. In 1970, Scientific American published Ralph Haber’s research showing that individuals have the ability to remember previously seen images at an accuracy rate between 85 and 95 percent.

What do we mean by visual picture and how can you create one? We’re talking about a literal illustration of what your team is discussing. A simple way to create one is to ask one of your employees who has good handwriting or a panache for art to go up to that underused whiteboard and literally draw out your meeting notes. Visuals have long been a facilitator’s secret weapon—they activate both sides of the brain, driving up the group’s thinking. Those pictures don’t even have to be pretty; any picture instantaneously helps your team visually process discussions and increases their recall later.

At Microsoft, I was asked by an HR manager to help her Emerging Leaders Program participants learn the value of using a visual to set their goals. I set up an interactive experience using Daniel Pink’s book Whole New Mind as a framework for learning. In one of the interactive breakout sessions, I introduced my “Snapshot of the Big Picture” process. This simple, visual gap analysis tool has been a favorite among blue chip Seattle clients as well as individuals who have drawn their own pictures of the future and set goals and action plans to realize them.

Here’s how it works: Gather your team around the whiteboard and ask the members to describe what the state of the business or a particular business is currently. Have your “illustrator” capture on the left side of the whiteboard where you are right now, scattering the words and adding images to that area. Then, leaving a blank space in between, go to the right side of the whiteboard and ask the team to “imagine” the best case scenario, one year from today. What are the customers saying? What are sales like? What is the work environment and any other aspects you want the group to discuss.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s the tool I’m talking about.

Then ask everyone to look at the gap and come up with the three bold steps they believe the team needs to take to get from here to there. To help, ask them to look at both sides—where you are and where you want to be one year from today—and to close their eyes for a second. This pause allows the brain to restructure what it sees and mash up what one sees with what one knows or has read about or even dreamed. Next, ask them to brainstorm all the boldest things they can do to get there. Choose the top three ideas and write them on three arrows in the center of the picture. Now you have your road map for change.

You’ll find, like the emerging leaders at Microsoft did, that no matter what your native language is, this picture, when it includes both words and images, will help everyone get on the same page, ready to build out their action plan to support those three bold steps.

If you don’t have an artist in your midst, you can also hire a graphic facilitator or strategic illustrator. When someone illustrates your discussions, participants stay alert and engaged. Even when they seem to be “drifting away” as the illustrator colors in a section of the “map,” this “active resting” allows the brain to restructure what it sees, mix it with what it already knows and come up with new ideas. An illustrator literally helps to evolve your group’s thinking.

The image sends a not-so-subtle message to the brain. And our brains, which are bombarded with a billion bits of data every moment, need that picture to help stay focused. And focus equals results.


PATTI DOBROWOLSKI is founder of the Seattle consulting firm Up Your Creative Genius, a frequent keynote speaker, and the author of Drawing Solutions: How Visual Goal Setting Will Change Your Life.

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