How to Supercharge Problem Solving With Visual Thinking

Dan Roam believes we are all capable of using visual thinking to solve complex problems. His first book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures, helped ignite a movement of visual innovators and problem solvers. Since then, Dan has written four more books about visual thinking and even launched an online “napkin academy” to help unlock all of our potential to give visual form to ideas.

We spoke with Dan about why visual thinking is such a powerful and underutilized practice for strategy and innovation.

Lisa Kay Solomon: A lot of people confuse visual thinking with drawing. Can you tell us what you mean by visual thinking?

Dan Roam: Visual thinking is intentionally using our visual system—our eyes, our optic nerve, our mind’s eye, our visual neocortex, this incredible machine that we have in our heads—to help us discover ideas that would’ve been invisible if we were just talking about them.

We can also use that system to help us draw out very simple little shapes that help us understand and clarify what we’re seeing in our mind.

And then the beauty of it is, after we’ve discovered these new ideas and drawn pictures of them, we can show the pictures to someone else and, essentially, guarantee they’re seeing the same thing we are. It’s phenomenal.

LKS: Why is visual thinking so important for problem solving and strategy?

DR: These days everything is complicated. Visual thinking allows us to break complex challenges apart into smaller pictures until we see the problem. Looking at the underlying shapes and pieces that make up really complex problems, we find things are not as scary and complicated as they first seemed. Visual thinking helps you get to the essence of a problem.

We’re not going to make complicated things simple, but we can make complicated things clear. And when they’re clear, we can solve them.

LKS: Why is it so important for leaders and innovators to use visual thinking?

DR: Today, the battle is for attention. We’re all so overwhelmed, whether it’s online, in a meeting room, or making a pitch.

The person who draws the picture will get more influence.

There are few things that give you more authority today than being the person who goes up to the whiteboard or flip chart with pen in hand and says, “Wait a minute. We know we’ve got this challenge. Let me draw out what the elements of it are.” Magic is going to happen.

You will find you’ve got the people in the room’s attention now. It’s a form of ‘cognitive ownership’…If I am the person who has the pen, and I’m drawing, I own your attention, pretty much until the moment I stop.

LKS: I went to business school many years ago and spent a lot of time studying numbers and spreadsheets. I did not spend any time learning how to draw out my ideas. Why isn’t this being taught more?

DR: There are many reasons why visual thinking isn’t taught more. Although most of us drew all the time when we were children, we pretty much had it beaten out of us by second grade because someone said, “That’s a terrible drawing. Dogs don’t look anything like that. I hate that. That’s ugly. You’re a terrible drawer.” At which point, we never drew again. Or someone would say, “You’re so good at that. You should go into art.”

No one ever says, “You’re so good at drawing. You should go into business.”

So, we get off the path.

As we grow up, somehow we get the idea there’s something patronizing or childish about the visual side of something. So, going into a business meeting as a leader, we would never want to do any of that childish stuff.

That is hogwash. Not only is it hogwash, it’s crazy thinking!

Some of my favorite business leaders and remarkable innovators are prolific visual thinkers. People like Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab, Marc Benioff, and Angela Ahrendts. These are business leaders. They drew all of the time.

LKS: What advice would you give to leaders who are eager to make their teams more innovative using visual thinking?

DR: Often when I work with business people they say, “Dan, I really love working visually. But in reality, I do most of my thinking typing emails to my team.” Now, typing an email is fine. It’s a good thinking process, but the trouble is, on the other side, it’s unlikely anybody’s going to really read it.

And then they say to me, “So, I would love to use visuals but they take too long to put together.” And I say, “Well, it’s really simple. How valuable is your idea? Isn’t it worth a little more time to figure out a visual way to work on it, knowing the value on the other side is ten times what you put in?”

You can write all the emails you want and send them out. But it’s going to be a battle of inches, trying to move people ahead.

If you take a little more time and give people the support and incentive to get comfortable with and master visual tools—the result will be magnificent.People will be drawn into problem solving and innovation will happen.

Stock media provided by Sean Prior / Pond5

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Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa Kay Solomon
Lisa Kay Solomon is a well-known thought leader in design innovation with a focus on helping leaders learn how to be more creative, flexible and resilient in the face of constant change. Lisa is the Chair of Transformational Practices and Leadership at Singularity University a global community of smart, passionate, action-oriented leaders who want to use exponential technologies to positively impact the world. She coauthored the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change, and more recently, Design a Better Business: New Tools, Skills and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation. Lisa is a frequent keynote speaker on innovation, design thinking and leadership at global conferences and business schools. A passionate educator, Lisa has taught at the revolutionary Design MBA program at California College of the Arts and has developed and led popular classes for Stanford d. School such as Networking By Design and Design With the Brain in Mind. She is also the Executive Producer of the annual Inspired4Schools conference, a design leadership program for educators, and is on the leadership committee for The Nueva School’s Innovative Learning Conference, a biennial gathering for trends related to the future of education.
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