Want to solve problems? Learn to draw it out

By Sean Connolly

July 21, 2020


Drawing, or more precisely creating graphical representation, is not usually associated with the serious work of government. It’s just for fun or for helping children to understand. But if something is seen as fun it means it’s engaging! If children can understand it, it must be highly accessible!

We think in words and pictures not letters and numbers

Traditionally, business communication has relied on the two communication pillars: literacy and numeracy. However, these have only been around for a few millennia and have, as yet, had no effect on the physiology of the brain. Using them takes a lot of bandwidth — if you want to understand what you’re reading, you have to fully focus on it.

However, there are two other pillars of communication — oracy (spoken communication) and graphicacy (visual communication). Their use goes back at least 100,000 years before humans learned how to read and write numbers and letters. In simple terms, we are much better adapted to listening and visualising than we are to reading and calculating. An audience will happily listen to your presentation whilst looking at visuals, but the moment you put up a slide of text they will stop listening to you so that they can read the words. When your audience reads about an issue they’ll try to picture it — help them by giving them the picture ready formed.

The bias for literacy and numeracy is historical

Whilst literacy and numeracy are vital communication components, historical technological restraints have got us in the habit of continuing to use them when oracy and graphicacy are more appropriate. Voice recordings and visuals within printed text were until recently very difficult and expensive and therefore rarely used. Understanding that this bias exists allows us to examine where it makes sense to change or combine our communication methodology.

Where to use visuals to solve problems

Visuals are great at addressing Where (maps), When (timelines), Who and What (relationship maps or org charts), How (flowchart), How much (charts and dashboards) and Why (a combination of the visuals already mentioned).

Visuals have one major advantage over text — they help us see the big picture. An issue that takes four pages of text can be understood more clearly in a well-executed one-page diagram. The viewer can straight away see relationships and context. Perhaps more importantly, they can also see gaps and errors – allowing them to more easily participate in describing and addressing the problem.

Where rough is best

Now, you might be thinking “I already use data visualisation in my work”. These are indeed a great example of graphicacy in action. However, this article is about problem-solving rather than end-stage consumable data.

Problem-solving is messy and iterative. Whether you’re working alone or within a group, information needs to be taken out of brains and put out there into the open where it can be seen, positioned, questioned and refined. The best way to do this is pen, post-its and paper or their digital equivalent. What’s that? You’re not an artist! Good!

Artistry is a big negative in drawing for problem-solving. Artistry takes time. Artistry encourages preservation over iteration. Artistry excludes contribution from the less artistic. What is needed is simple shapes that are enough to represent something.

If you can draw a short line, a rectangle, a triangle, a cloud and something approximating a circle then you already have all the drawing skills needed to visualise a problem. Adopting this level of simplicity is quicker and less sacred. You and others will be much more willing to jump in and change things until everything that needs to be referenced is referenced. Sketching each component on its own post-it note adds the advantage that things can be moved around as understanding and relationships between components develop.

A few years ago, I was approached with a problem. A tax prosecution was so complicated it was believed the jury would not understand the issues. The case would be lost, and the department would suffer reputational damage. With no tax knowledge but working on simple drawings with subject matter experts involved in the case, I was very quickly able to produce a series of charts that showed where the defendants’ actions were in line with normal behaviour and where they diverged. The pattern of behaviour was immediately apparent to the jury and the prosecution was able to use the charts to anchor discussions to the holes in the defendant’s explanations. Being willing to solve a problem by drawing some circles, triangles and straight lines got me a medal — an MBE from Her Majesty. What might it get you?

Sean Connolly works on the Modernisation Programme, HMRC, the UK’s Tax authority.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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