The Power of Visuals to Solve Story Problems

on November 9, 2011

Power of VisualsThe other night, I was helping my 10-year-old son with his math homework. He loves math, but was confused about how to solve these problems. I like math too, but workplace math isn’t 5th grade math. To help him meant I had to communicate on his level – to somehow discuss the problems from his point of view. Now, these weren’t just good old math problems. They were story problems. I’m guessing that most of you just said, “Ugh” either out loud or in your head. Most people don’t have happy memories of them. Story problems are tricky. There are multiple elements: lots of words with lots of numbers and often more than one question to solve for.

As I read a problem, I made notes. I also drew shapes because numbers like 1/3 or 1/2 and 2/7 were part of the equation. After about 20 minutes, I asked, “Aren’t there any instructions?” And what do you know – there were a few pages that provided help! As I read the sample problem and hints, it was obvious how we would solve some of them. We needed to draw graphs, charts, and other things to visualize what the numbers represented. In that moment, I realized there was something similar between an organization implementing a strategy and those story problems.

A strategic plan is made up of words wrapped around math (metrics, KPIs) and it’s sent to employees to “solve the equation to deliver the results.” Now, I don’t mean to imply employees are like 5th graders, but they look at strategy as something new and full of words they’ve heard and numbers they’ve seen before, but it comes to them in a way that it reads like a story problem. It’s just words and figures on paper. It’s hard to see them come to life – to become something meaningful that they can relate to. But typically, employees don’t know how to draw the graphs or shapes to break down the components that make the equation easier to solve.

That’s the power of the visual metaphor! That’s the value of using a visual to anchor the math and metrics and data that support the strategy. Leaders have all the data and info, and they typically spend a year or two writing the story problem. And then, they expect employees to immediately grasp it! Employees need those pictures to help them solve it and relate their role to it. Too often, they don’t get a picture. They get memos, PowerPoints, meetings, and discussions that lead to more questions than answers.

I’ve heard from clients many times that “our employees are too smart for visuals,” that they’re “analytical and data-driven.” But we tend to overlook the fact that those same analytical, scientific people are constantly using images or visuals to solve their own problems! I was at a client’s office a couple weeks ago, and they had a lot of smart people working there – scientists, engineers, PhDs, etc. Pictures of molecular structures were posted in the corridor connecting the business building with the lab. With the naked eye, you can’t see the molecular structure of a vaccine you’re working on. But you can diagram it to show to another scientist, and when you both have a common understanding, you can work toward innovating a better vaccine. They had just proven my point! Everyone needs visuals to solve problems, from 5th graders to scientists to every employee in your company. What is your organization using as the common visual that will help employees make sense of your strategy?

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