get in touch

How Can Leaders Use Visualization to Enroll Followers?


Ron Ivey

Date Published

May 05, 2016
7 minute read

One of the most difficult challenges any leader faces is uniting a group of people to pursue a common objective. Whenever we join an organization or a cause, whenever we sit down in a meeting or dial in to a conference call, we each bring our individual point of view to a conversation. At The Clearing, we call this phenomenon, THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT. Because we are all individuals coming from different reference points, it means that we are primed for misunderstanding: we remember verbal discussions imprecisely; we merely scan important data, or misinterpret the tone of a memo. Leaders often discover that everyone leaves a meeting with different opinions on the discussion, the agreements, and the next steps.

So how does an effective leader cut through the confusion and get a group on board? The answer is simple – by using one of our species’ oldest storytelling techniques: draw a picture. We are hard-wired to understand complex information and abstract ideas through beautiful images. Humans have been using imagery for thousands of years. The art created by Paleolithic man in the Lascaux Cave demonstrates powerfully our innate capacity to describe our experiences and distinguish ideas about reality using visuals.

When tackling difficult problems such as solving a major supply chain issue or turning around a failing organization, begin by establishing a single, shared perspective of the problem or opportunity using visualization. Visualization is the act of conveying a concept through design, and it is a much more powerful leadership tactic than most of us realize.

Below are some best practices for using visuals to solve leadership problems. Before visualizing a problem, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Who do I want to follow me?

As a leader, you need to first reflect on your audience. In this critical step, you identify the fewest, most important people you think have the influence to solve the problem. It can be an external audience like customers, funders, or partners or an internal audience like your leadership team or your employees. Take the time to understand what they care about and listen to their concerns and their interests as it relates to the problem set.

  1. What problem are we trying to solve? What are the fewest, most important pieces of information I want to communicate about this problem?

Edward Tufte, an expert on designing visuals for complex problem solving, stated “Develop and fine-tune a sense of the relevant, both for identifying the key leverage points in any problem and also for examining large amounts of information to find the rare diamonds in the sand.” For our clients, we typically conduct journalistic style research for the most relevant data and conduct interviews of influential stakeholders. We ask questions to understand the technical system or the business process involved in the problem set and what is blocking that system or process from providing the desired result. We are looking for function, causality, connections, controls, and chokepoints. An added benefit of visualizing the system this way is that in difficult stakeholder negotiations and conversations the system becomes the problem to solve together not the other person or group.

  1. How can I engage my audience at the most strategic level of the problem?

Next, we tackle the information complexity by slicing it into layers of narrative, what we call LEVEL OF CONTENT. In the typical workday, your audience will consume high volumes of data from multiple sources of information and have numerous distractions vying for their attention. To break through the clutter, you need to communicate the most relevant information in an interesting way that captures their attention. Think about the most eye-catching magazine covers that you see while standing in the line at the supermarket. They have compelling graphics, pictures, and pithy text. MIT’s neuroscientists found that the human brain is capable of recognizing images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds!1 That’s the goal of the GLANCE/SCAN level content. When creating this type of content, be sure to leave white space in your visuals to emphasize your key message.

  1. What is the easiest, most efficient way to communicate this story to my audience?

Not every situation requires a complex info-graphic or graphically designed model. Sometimes, all you need to do is draw a symbol or a chart on the back of a napkin or on a whiteboard. In other cases, having the visual in a more transferable, permanent format is necessary to brief an executive or an external audience. Whatever the format, be ready to incorporate your audience’s ideas into your model. Do not get attached to your model. Mark it up and change it with your audience. This co-creation with your audience greatly increases your chance of engagement and buy-in.

To ground this in a real-life scenario, the following is a practical example from one of our clients of how you can use visualization to enroll others.

One of the biggest users of our visual approach to complex problem solving is the FedRamp Program. The U.S. Federal Chief Information Officer created the FedRamp Program in 2011 to increase the adoption of secure cloud computing services. In 2015, to meet a rapidly growing demand for these services, the FedRAMP Program needed to innovate their processes, improve interagency communications, and strengthen their value proposition. As part of our consulting support of FedRAMP leadership, The Clearing created two infographics (Part 1 – Dec. 2014 – Jun. 2015; Part 2 – Jun. 2015 – Dec. 2015) to visually communicate the value of their complex but important mission. The FedRAMP Program is using visual tools like this to powerfully navigate this growth period, enroll followers in the necessary changes to Federal IT systems and raise the program to its next level of performance.

To give you a deeper understanding of how to use visualization to solve complex problems, our team at The Clearing developed The PRIMES Leadership Development Tutorials below.

For additional outfitting, here are some excellent resources on visualization as a problem-solving tool:

Finally, let us know through your comments on our LinkedIn or Facebook pages how you are solving these types of problems and what techniques you are using. What are you learning about visualization that you can share with our community of problem solvers?