For people the world over, the Gordian Knot represents the difficult, the intractable and often the insolvable problem. Today’s systemic business problems are the modern-day equivalent of this seemingly impossible challenge, and visual thinking is the powerful sword that we can use to cut through complexity and develop innovative solutions to them.
According to Greek mythology, the huge, ball-like Turkish knot with no ends exposed was impossible to untie. An oracle had predicted that the first person to do so would become the ruler of all Asia. Thousands of people had tried, without success, to unlock its complex riddles. Alexander of Macedonia, son of King Philip II of Macedon, solved this puzzle simply and very creatively – by cutting it in half with his sword, exposing its ends and making it possible to untie. Alexander the Great went on to conquer all of Asia, just as the oracle predicted.
According to David Sibbett, author of Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity, many businesses today face challenges of Gordian proportions:
“Responding to the complexity and scale of changes in the economy and the environment is starting to outstrip our capabilities. Running our organizations lean, with slim or no travel budgets, and less and less time for real dialogue and engagement is challenging the quality of communications.”
I have believed for some time, based upon my extensive reading and business experience, that many businesses have solved most of the simple problems – in effect, the low-hanging fruit. What’s left are the complex, systemic challenges, which are even harder to solve because of the downsized, time- and resource-starved environments in which we work today.
Confusion in groups is caused by inadequate and conflicting mental models, Sibbett explains. In other words, people can’t even agree on what the problem is. This is a major problem, because these models govern how work gets done, how teams collaborate, how to make decisions, how to organize and how to learn.
In addition, we tend to fall into the habit of rutted thinking, which limits what we’re able to see and interpret. We tend to look at information the same way all the time. To make matters worse, we bring deeply embedded points of view to our work that we may not even be aware of, which act like blinders on a horse – limiting our view to what’s right in front of us.
“The way you view something directly impacts how much insight and information you obtain and how smart you can be,” Sibbett explains.
Making the case for visual thinking in groups
Visual thinking in groups exposes these differing mental models, helps them to reach consensus, to see the underlying patterns in the information they’re working with and to generate new insights and solutions faster. Examples of visual thinking tools include process diagrams, roadmaps, journey charts, graphic recording, mind mapping 4-quadrant grids, visual collages, affinity charts, fishbone diagrams and much more.
“Without these tools, groups are very handicapped in thinking about anything that is very complex… I am convinced from my own experience that it is impossible to do what is called ‘systems thinking’ without visualization… If you want to think about how things connect and are related you will have to make some sort of display.”
Like Alexander the Great, we have the opportunity to use these tools to think about problems more creatively, build consensus and understanding, restore vision at a time when it is sorely lacking and leverage new opportunities for innovation and future growth. Visual Meetings is a practical field guide to this Brave New World of knot-busting tools. David Sibbett’s book is highly recommended!