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Working Visually: What to Do When Your Workplace Doesn’t Get It

March 16th, 2017

It’s hard to be a weirdo, a maverick, or an outlier, especially in the workplace. Humans are wired in some pretty ancient ways to find safety and security in the tribe. It explains a lot of the cultural programming out there that teaches us it’s better to “fit in” or not “stand out” in the crowd.

Showing up to a meeting with a blank sketch pad and a pencil case of colored markers might be considered a bit odd in a boardroom used to PowerPoint presentations, notetaking by laptop or ipad, and mobile phones. I’ve been working more deeply inside organizations to help them learn and apply visual thinking tools, like doodling, graphic recording or improving their flip chart and white board skills. It’s become clear that some of the folks trying to embrace visual tools in their work place are swimming against the corporate current at times.

Here are some of the common objections and questions people face, and how I recommend you handle them:

Isn’t using pen and paper a bit “old school”?

Yes! Studies done by Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles show that handwritten notes are more effective in terms of conceptual understanding and retention than using a keyboard. You’re listening, then synthesizing and summarizing what was said. Going “old school” with pen and paper is working the way my brain works best.

Won’t you “miss” a lot of information?

No! The fact is even if you are taking notes on your keyboard verbatim, you’re already “missing” a lot of information because you’re just transcribing content. When you slow down, and make those micro-choices about what to doodle, and how you want to do it, you’re infusing your notes with meaning. This is one reason why adding visuals to notes helps improve recall and retention by as much as 29%.

Isn’t doodling notes a bit “simplistic”?

Yes! Making things simple is the point. Working visually helps you to make sense of a world where complex issues and too much information comes at us at once. As author Dan Roam says, “Drawing isn’t an artistic process; drawing is a thinking process.”

Are you an artist? You must be to even think of drawing your own notes.

No! You can make your notes pretty visual without drawing an object. There are some simple hacks you can use to add drawing to your repertoire if you want.

We have to use PowerPoint to make our presentations. It’s just the way things are done here.

Yes and no! There is a time and a place for PowerPoint for sure! It is great for presenting the clarity, decision, or process you already know (provided you structure your PowerPoint slides in a way that are well-designed and engaging). But it invites a one-way kind of conversation – the slide is already complete. You can’t change your presentation deck if the group discussion uncovers some new issues or solutions.

When you’re at the stage of work where you’re problem solving, brainstorming, or trying to simplify complexity in a way that requires interaction and input from your audience, PowerPoint is limited. Do your group thinking, prioritizing and generating options on paper or white boards instead. Don’t just talk at each other, but grab your sticky notes and involve people in making the discussion visual. You might have an expectation or even visual communication requirements that mean you need to use PowerPoint or a certain kind of font size to be part of your organization’s norms or brand, but that shouldn’t mean you forgo the clarity in thinking that visual tools can provide.

Our company operates in a pretty traditional industry (fill in the blank here – financial, real estate, insurance, health care etc). Isn’t this way of working more for the artistic, creative types?

Not really! One big myth that needs busting is that working visually is about the art. Whether you’re working in a start-up social enterprise, or a top tier bank, every organization needs to be able to think clearly, critically, and concisely about the choices it faces to become a sustainable and resilient company. For the individual contributor, it can be hugely impactful for you to be able to truly understand issues if you can draw them. Dan Roam consults with companies around the world, helping them analyze the complexity and quickly changing competitive environments using simple stick figures and some basic hand-drawn pie charts and graphs.

If you find yourself wanting to incorporate more visual thinking into your workplace, but the culture of the organization isn’t quite there yet, just start with you. As part of your own work habits, make working visually part of how you approach your job. Bring those markers and notebooks into a working session because it’s useful to YOU. Put a whiteboard up in your office to help you brainstorm your ideas. When your colleagues start to notice these shifts, and experience the clarity and conviction you have around the result working visually will create for you, I have no doubt you’ll start having people asking you how they can get started with working visually too!