Words are poor conveyers of meaning. Pictures can be one of the most versatile tools in any leader’s toolbox. Michelangelo started the David in 1501 at the age of 26 and famously said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” He was intensely focused on freeing the slumbering figures in the stone.
Similarly, Picasso was able to visualize and capture realism in his painting from a young age, and evolved so immensely throughout his career eventually co-founded the cubist movement.
For many of us, our best “artistic” moments happen on a napkin sketch at the kitchen table or at a bar. We use images, lines, stars, circles and arrows to first capture an idea. Then share it with someone else. That person’s perspective and questions are what encourage us to revise the sketch and improve its clarity and meaning.
The conversation around our napkin art is what drives the a-ha moment, the excitement. You, as a leader, can use visualization and visual iteration to free the figures (or your people) slumbering within your organization, and drive innumerable a-ha moments.
Here are three ways to do just that:
1. Use visualization to create clear meaning
Even the most common terms in strategic plans (words like operational excellence, customer centric, innovation, accountability, high performance, collaboration, vision) suffer from lack of meaning. Instead, define meaning with a picture. Have each member of your team draw a picture of what a high performance team looks like to them.
Compare the pictures. Then create a single image made up of the strongest elements of each person’s initial drawing. As a team, tell one story (accompanied by the picture) of what a high performance team means. Pictures drive common understanding in a way that words often cannot.
2. Use visualization to think in systems
Many of the most complex issues we face are systems issues. It is hard to understand a system unless we can see it. Consider systems such as how we make money, or how to execute our business model. It’s tough to imagine without a diagram.
One well-known manufacturer found itself with hundreds of millions of dollars painfully tied up in working capital. The company tried unsuccessfully to reduce this amount for two years.
Finally it used imagery, pictures and metaphors to illustrate where the money came from, where it went, and how much is left afterwards. The business engaged all of its people to better understand how its economic system worked. Within six months, the company had freed up $300 million of working capital. Pictures make invisible systems tangible.
3. Use visualization to frame a process
Customer acquisition, supply chain, and new product/ process development are just three examples of key business processes. Many process errors occur at the handoff points where clarity of workflow between departments and people is not always clear and co-owned.
Instead, visualize or blueprint a major process step by step and highlight the key handoffs that often become the “process busters” for the most important processes in your organization.
If Aristotle was right when he said the soul never thinks without a picture, and if everyone is right when they say a picture is worth a thousand words, then a grand visual metaphor for achieving organizational goals can be priceless.
When a picture is clear in our mind’s eye, we can make sense of it. When it is not clear, it is nearly impossible to take action on it. So, it doesn’t have to be the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but every extraordinary leader must know how to paint a picture for their people of where they are and where they want to go.