How meaningful is your management model diagram?

One of our ambitions is to find a way of evaluating the “meaning quotient” of diagrams, that is, how much information the diagram conveys that you wouldn’t get from just reading the text.  You would get it by measuring the % of non-verbal information conveyed proportional to the volume of visual language employed.  Even without the rigorous measurement system though it’s still a useful concept to play with.  Let’s try it out …

Here’s the famous McKinsey 7S model of organisational design.  It’s a brilliant example of how little a diagram can add to the concepts it’s intended to illustrate.

The first time I saw it I remember thinking “that’s not a model, that’s a list!”  And of course, if you look at the text of the many management books in which it’s cited, it is indeed accompanied by a list that describes each element in turn:

  • Hard elements:
    • Strategy
    • Structure
    • Systems
  • Soft elements:
    • Staff
    • Skills
    • Style
  • Central element:
    • Shared values

Now, this list of words is clearly meaningful (and presumably helpful, given how frequently it crops up).  But what meaning does the visual language of the diagram add?

The colours merely represent the categorical hierarchy already explicit in the hierarchy of the list.  The lines connect everything to everything, so don’t say anything beyond the rather obvious “these concepts are interconnected”.

In fact, the only meaning the diagram conveys significantly better than the list, is the fact that Shared Values are central.  You can’t show a spatial concept like “central” in a linear form like a bullet list.  But otherwise, it’s just a list.  You could rotate the outer balls around however you want and no meaning would be created or destroyed.

This isn’t to say the diagram isn’t useful.  The 7S framework is extremely useful, and having a recognisable visualisation makes it, well, recognisable.  But what the lack of specifically visual meaning says to me is that the 7S framework is more of a list than a model.

Google around and it’s easy to find even more extreme examples.  Check out this HR diagram, which I found on Pinterest:

hrms-diagram

At least the 7S framework has some implicit categorisation.  Here there’s nothing, it is literally a list.  If you think of my rough definition of a meaning quotient as the amount of conceptual information that the visual language conveys over and above what is conveyed by the words alone, then in this diagram the quotient would be approaching zero.

In fact, the visual language here actually gets in the way of meaning.  Is there a reason why the shapes are circles?  No.  Do the colours mean anything?  No.  Does the particular arrangement of the circles mean anything?  No.  The only visual meaning I can pick up is that the concept of a Human Resource Management System is in some way superordinate to the other concepts.  But that’s because it’s the title of the list:

Human Resource Management System

  • HR Management
  • Payroll Management
  • Recruitment Management
  • Training Management

Why do we end up with diagrams like this?  It happens because most models in business start out as a series of bullet points on a flipchart during a brainstorm.

management-bullets

If you want to publish it internally or externally it has to look decent, so it goes to a designer.  The designer doesn’t understand the meaning of the content because they weren’t in the session, but they do know how to make it look nice.  You end up with an aesthetically pleasing list, but a list nonetheless.

Here’s another famous model – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It’s usually drawn something like this:

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Now this is not just a list.   The verticality of the diagram represents levels of dependency in a hierarchy – the upper blocks would not be there without the lower ones to rest on.  This is not the same as a list – if you switched the order here, it would mean something different.  The closest you can get in text is an ordered list:

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety needs
  3. Love and belonging needs
  4. Self-esteem needs
  5. Self-actualization needs

But of course the point of the model is not that the elements are discrete, but that they form a chain of dependency – you can’t meet one level of need without satisfying all the needs below it.  Saying that they’re ordinal and putting them into a chronological list ends up visually inverting the order of the pyramid.

The point is, the visual language is instantly conveying meaning to the viewer on an instinctive level that would take a paragraph to explain verbally.

The reason the pyramid works instinctively is because the visual structure matches the concepts in a way that agrees with our experience of the world.  In the world, the downward force of gravity means support always comes from underneath, because objects fall downwards:

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You sometimes see progressive leadership teams inverting their organisational structure diagrams, because they see themselves (or want to be seen by others) as supporting the organisation, not the other way round:

blog-piramid-2-01

The support metaphor still works because of the implicit force of gravity working downwards.  I’ve always found these diagrams unlikely, not just because gravity makes it look like the organisation is going to fall over, but because another basic meaning of verticality is that power comes from above.

But this is a problem with the concepts, not the visual language.  Whether the pyramid is upside down or the right way up, the visual elements have meaning that’s not conveyed by the text.

So, visual language can convey things that are very hard to illustrate using text alone.  A simple example is the 2×2 matrix, which adds a huge amount of meaning over the corresponding words.  Try explaining a Prisoner’s Dilemma using text alone, and see how much longer it takes:

prisoners-dilemma

Any management consultant worth his or her salt will struggle to get through a day without spotting a 2×2 matrix somewhere.

And this I suppose is the difficulty of mastering visual language:  It’s not enough just to be well versed in design principles.  You need to understand the conceptual structure of the content to be able to match it to the appropriate elements of visual language.  And a really good test of this is to ask yourself strictly, how much meaning do these visual elements add?  If they don’t add very much, then what you’ve really got is an aesthetically pleasing list.

Now let’s finish by looking at some really effective visual language, in one of the most popular business diagrams of the last five years:

business-model-generation-canvas

This is XPlane’s visualisation of Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas.  If you reduce it to just a list of words like this …

Business model canvas

  • Key Activities
  • Value Proposition
  • Customer Relationships

… look how much meaning is lost!  It’s clear that the visual language is conveying meaning over and above the list of words, for example:

  • The distinction between vertical and horizontal blocks has meaning: Vertical blocks represent delivery elements, whereas horizontal blocks represent financial elements
  • Size of gaps between blocks has meaning: The gap that the arrows fit in represents an organisational separation between producer and consumer
  • Interconnections have meaning: Notice the tabs on the left, which represent collaboration
  • The icons have meaning, acting as a mental shortcut to the concepts they represent.
  • And so on …

So, the Meaning Quotient.  Maybe some day we’ll be able to measure it.  In the meantime, why don’t we ask ourselves the next time we visualise a management model, how much meaning is the visual language actually adding here?  And if it’s not adding anything, was it really a model to begin with, or just a list?

Visualising the journey of transformation

Here’s a great visual tool we made this summer for anyone who wants to get people talking about organisational change.  Just click on the link and use the interface to pan and zoom in like you would with Google Maps:

The Transformation Journey interactive rich picture

We’d like to develop this tool further, so do please give us your feedback on what you’d like to see in future versions.

Everything is a thing

If there’s one thing that will transform your ability to make intuitive conceptual visualisations, it’s to start thinking of abstract concepts as physical things.

There was a great episode of The West Wing once in which all the characters periodically told each other over the phone “sorry, can’t talk right now, we’ve got a ‘thing’”. The idea of a “thing” as “a complex situation that would take too long to explain” became a thing in itself.

We use the word “thing” to describe anything and everything – objects, events, ideas, emotions, perceptions, illusions, relationships, events, you name it. But no matter how abstract whatever you’re describing, your brain is always thinking of it in terms of things, and the archetypal thing is a physical object.

Understanding that all things are modelled by your brain on physical objects is immensely powerful, because it means the question “what does that look like?” always makes sense, even when the thing is an abstract concept.

image007

Most of our work involves mapping operating models, so we’re typically depicting things like departments, processes, teams, IT systems, meetings, reporting lines and so on. These are all abstract concepts to some degree. But thinking about them like physical objects begs questions like “Does it have a size or a shape?”, “Does it have hard edges?”, “Does it have a weight?”, “What other things does it look like?” and so on.

As a really simple example, take the evolution of a typical Powerpoint slide. You make a slide and create a bullet list of the things you want to talk about. In a business context these will almost invariably be abstract concepts. For example:

image009

A week before your presentation, you send the slide to the graphics team, who apply a corporate template, the right branding colours and some whizzy lines:

image011

Or, more likely, you do it yourself, applying random text box styles so that at least it’s not a set of bullet points:

image013

Now, blur your eyes slightly and see what the brain sees in the first millisecond of viewing these slides, before it has time to read the text. What it sees is five things. It can tell they’re things, because they have size, shape, edge, position, just like real physical things in everyday life. But apart from the fact there’s five of them, the visual language gives you no assistance whatsoever in intuiting what they are, or how they’re related to each other.

Now, looking at what these terms mean, it’s very clear that they’re not at all the same kind of thing. But having five boxes, especially when they’re the same colour as in the branded version, tells your brain that they are. So it’s not just that the visual meaning of the slide is limited, it’s actually tricking you.

The first thing to do in this situation is to analyse the concepts and categorise them properly, so that you know which concepts are conceptually similar and should therefore look similar. In this example, service levels and efficiency rates are both measures of team performance, whereas staffing levels and staff satisfaction are aspects of the team itself. Recruitment is an activity, not a measure. So if we just make similar objects look similar, you end up with something like this:

image015

If the brain treats abstract concepts the same way it treats physical objects, then similar things should look similar and dissimilar things should look dissimilar, because that’s the way we experience things in the physical world.

This is just one application of the principle that everything is a thing; you can ask yourself anything about concepts that you can ask about physical objects. How hard edged is this thing? Is it solid or fluid? Does it have a length? Is it bright or dark, clear or opaque? Where is it in relation to other things?

Thinking in this way, the shapes, locations and flow of objects can start to tell a story. In the following version, you can tell a lot of what the slide is saying before you’ve even read it:

image017

So, in conclusion, there’s no big divide between the world of physical objects and the world of conceptual things. In our mental models of the world, everything is a thing.

In our experience, this is not so much a rule as a state of mind. Once you start seeing everything as a thing, figuring out how best to represent abstract ideas becomes a whole lot easier. Try it!

Making the world a more meaningful place

I like to talk about “meaning”.  A lot.  I believe that a more meaningful world is a better world, and I want you to believe that too.  And I want you to realise that making the world a more meaningful place is not some arcane mystical notion, but a practical skill that you can learn and put into practice every day.

Now, first up, meaning has two related senses, the first to do with significance (“that was a very meaningful experience”) and the second to do with things making sense (“I know what that means”).  Interesting as deep and meaningfuls can be, I am not going to talk about the first sense, only the second i.e. what is happening when you look at something and know what it means.

Imagine this situation.  You’re driving home from work and you
unexpectedly find your normal route is shut – for roadworks say.  So you take a diversion down some roads you’ve never used before.  At some point, the new roads reconnect with the old roads you knew before, and you probably say something like “Oh, I never knew that’s where that road went”.

diversion

In other words, your mental model has just been updated and now better reflects your experience of the world – a bit like adding an extra bit of map to a SatNav.  “Meaning” may sound a fancy word, but this is all it is – it’s the feeling that your mental model of the world (and the symbols you use to represent that mental model) corresponds to your experience of how the world actually is.

And boy does it feel good!  Every time you learn something in this way, your brain releases a shot of dopamine.  Sometimes this is dramatic (like when you smile because the film’s twist ending puts everything in place) and sometimes it’s subtle (“ah that’s where that road goes”).  Sometimes it’s conflicted (like when you get a terrible diagnosis, but it at least lets you make sense of six months of baffling symptoms).  But it’s always there.  And if you identify with this, then it’s not a huge leap to realise that a more meaningful world is also a happier world.

So how do you use this to make the world a more meaningful place?  Well, very simple.  When a diversion forces you offtrack, the meaning comes when your new route (of which you have had no experience) connects with your old route (of which you have).

In the same way, you make meaning for your audience when you connect with their experience.  It really is as simple as that.  Everything else on this blog elaborates this central principle.  So use examples that will have experience.  Use the language that they have experience using.  Use pictures of things they have seen before.  And (most importantly), structure your content in the same way your brain structures experience.  But that’s a subject for another day

What is “Visual Meaning”?

Visual Meaning is not just the name of our company, but the name of our discipline, which is understanding the way people make sense of the things they see.

By “visual” we mean everything people see – words, diagrams, symbols – not just pictures.  By “meaning” we mean the connection between our experience of being in the world and the things we use to describe that experience.  This connection is something you feel – a sense of resonance when you see things that makes sense to you … a kind of feedback loop, like this:

three-kittens

The reason our company exists is because there are too many things in the world – often really important things – that should be meaningful but just aren’t.  We use too many abstract words, pictures and diagrams that don’t connect to experiences in a way that people can relate to.  Where there is no connection between our experiences of the world and the way we are representing those experiences, meaning breaks down.  In business this happens over and over and over and over and over again:

things-we-use-to-describe

Our mission is to rebuild these connections and make the world a more meaningful place.  This requires us to be able to do two things:

  • Firstly, master visual language, understanding how people make sense of what they see, so that the visual models we make are read in the way we expect them to be read
  • Secondly, master the analytical skills that allow us to fully understand the content we are trying to depict, so that our visual models match the mental models of the viewer

When visual models connect with mental models, meaning is made.  Visual Meaning as a business is about doing this for clients.  Visual Meaning as a discipline is about understanding how those connections are made.