[Updated: January 29, 2018]
By IMRAN HASHIM
Corporations are constantly looking at the big picture when it comes to aligning their strategies, where one segment of a business influences the other. This is where visual thinking becomes an important tool, as it enables tacit assumptions to be turned into explicit information, allowing for clearer insight. Mastering the art of visual thinking is crucial when it comes to designing viable new business models or ideas. It becomes a powerful tool that can exponentially increase the success of any forward planning by simply allowing for a better, clearer and more easily comprehended view of the thinking process.
The value of visual thinking
A lot of businesses are already familiar with the use of visual techniques (diagrams and charts). It helps in communicating and clarifying messages within reports and presentations. Strangely, visual techniques are the less popular medium used to discuss, explore and define business issues. It is not common to sit in meetings with executives drawing on a white board. Visual thinking can add tremendous value in the strategic process. It enhances strategic inquiries by making the abstract concrete, by illuminating relationships between elements and by simplifying complex ideas. We will explore the four elements of effective visual thinking that will guide you throughout the process of defining, discussing, and refining business models.
1. Understand the essence
Capturing the big picture
For some, the big picture may not be clear until you actually put it in drawing. A simple sketch outlining all the business elements can immediately enable viewers to see the big picture. It should be balanced – providing just the right amount of information for quick and easy comprehension; nothing too distracting. A complex enterprise model – processes, systems, structures – can be simplified with the use of visuals. Take the example of Rolls-Royce where jet engine units are leased by the hour rather than sold; it is the big picture, rather than the individual pieces, that is compelling.
Understanding a business model requires a combination of knowledge of the individual elements and familiarity with the interdependencies between elements. While this is relatively complex, it is easier to grasp the concept when expressed visually; especially when it involves a web of elements and interconnections. In the example of low-cost airlines, drawings can effectively show why a homogenous fleet of airplanes is crucial to keeping maintenance and training costs low.
2. Enhance dialogue
Collective reference point
Using visuals is a powerful way to improve dialogue. It offers some sort of a tangible and persistent object, and provides a reference point. Our human mind can hold only a limited number of ideas in short-term memory thus leveraging on visuals is essential for effective discussion with quality results.
Visuals also carry a universal vocabulary and grammar that improves the understanding process. With one common familiarity amongst various parties, it becomes a powerful enabler of focused discussion about business elements and how they fit together. In an organisation with levels of reporting structures and functional areas, a shared visual language is critical in generating powerful idea exchange and enhances team cohesiveness.
In an organisation with various departments, it is not uncommon to find a silo approach –people from different parts have strong understanding of their part, but not necessarily a solid grasp of the whole business. Visualising business models as a group is the most effective way to achieve shared understanding where everybody involved can have a better view of the different components and develop a collective understanding across the company.
3. Explore ideas
A visual business model provides the rare opportunity for a strategic playtime. With all the elements visibly outlined, you can create multiple possible scenarios from a combination of situations. For example, what would happen to your business if you eliminated the least profitable customer segment? Would eliminating unprofitable customers enable you to reduce resources and costs and improve services to profitable customers? A visual model helps you think through the systemic impact of modifying one element or another.
4. Improve communication
Create company-wide understanding
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is particularly true in communicating a business strategy in order to get everybody to understand its business model and this is crucial because everybody can potentially contribute to its improvement and align with the strategic direction. It will also encourage shared understanding.
Selling internally and externally
A story can be presented in visuals – it adds powerful reinforcement to the pitch. This increases your prospect of gaining support from others, especially if they can personally identify with the visuals. Good visuals may not be the deciding factor but it can improve chances of success in getting the message across.
Seeing the big picture
Traditionally, visual thinking is linked to the arts discipline only. This has changed radically. Today we are seeing an explosion of new, creative business ideas that appeal to all. Visual thinking is no longer the exclusive territory of the creative types. Businesses, regardless of the industry they are in, may learn new strategies by adopting visual thinking in developing new ideas for the business.