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Problem Solving: Using Visualization

Some people say we cannot manage what we cannot measure. I say we cannot solve what we cannot see, or at least visualize somehow.

Projects are problem-solving exercises. The entire project is one big problem. We might be building a new product; that's a problem to solve. Or we might be trying to create something well understood but within a challenging amount of time, to a tight budget, and demanding specification. Or we could be moving our organization forward through a change initiative. These are familiar project environments that are puzzles or problems to solve.

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Then within this large problem environments, we have hundreds of everyday challenges to answer, too. "How are we going to manage without the installer today?" or "The pilot group has requested 400 changes, now what do we do?"

Once we see projects as puzzles with more puzzles within them, we realize the importance of practical problem-solving.

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Rarely do project managers have all the answers or the best answers. So we need to share the problem and collaborate on developing a solution. This is why being able to visualize problems is so important.

Visualizing a problem helps us understand it ourselves and then gain consensus with others on it. It also allows us to determine if we are all seeing it in the same way. Drawing something also lays it out spatially, allowing people to see relations, sequence and connections, or whatever we want to depict.

Here is the structure of this article as a list of bullet points:

  • Introduction
  • Why visualizing is helpful
  • An example from a real project
  • Ways in which we can visualize
  • Wrap up and recommendations

Here is the same information as an image:

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Research into visual thinking by David Hyerle, creator of Thinking Maps methodology, reports that 90% of the information entering the brain is visual.

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Also, 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are for the retina, and a full 20% of the entire cerebral cortex is for vision, so let's use it.

Creating a visual helps us to tackle a problem in steps. Having a spatial reference allows us to park some elements until later. We can say: "Yes we still need to solve the atmosphere re-entry problem, that's shown over here; but right now we are tackling the launch problem." Separating components in this way allows us to focus on one element at a time.

A Real-Life Example

I once took over a struggling project that was using a complex combination of proprietary hardware, software and vendor products. It mixed in-house developed software and cloud-based services—and was difficult for me to comprehend. I went through all the documentation but struggled to see how the elements worked together. To get up to speed, I knew I had to draw it all out to understand it.

I met with stakeholders, asked about how their part worked and drew it out with them. They provided lots of corrections and additions. I then showed the whole thing to the team, and they found even more omissions, which I filled in. I felt like they were humoring me, helping me get my little project manager brain around the complex system they had spent years developing. However, then they announced they had never seen it all mapped out in a single (very large) image before.

We ended up using the diagram repeatedly going forward within the team to discuss issues and to onboard new members. I also used simplified versions and zoomed-in portions for explaining elements of the project to the steering committee.

If you are missing a big picture view of your domain, you probably need to make one. It is a great way to surface misunderstandings and gain alignment on thinking.

Luckily, we do not need to be artists—or even competent at drawing. Stick figures, boxes and lines are all we need. Yes, it is pleasing to have a well-drawn vision of strategy poster, but for most instances, basic drawings are just fine. If we need a professional looking image, there are always graphic artists we can engage. Here is how I show some of the roles of a PM:

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The images are not well-formed or accurate, but convey more meaning than words would alone.

Books such as Visual Collaboration walk readers through the drawing process. They show how to create simple but powerful graphics to help direct meetings, ask powerful questions, and create clear strategies.

Using images sounds like a luxury, right? "I do not have time for that!" Maybe, but are your messages getting through?

Using images helps people retain information. Most people only remember 10% of what they heard three days ago. Add an image to the message, and this figure jumps to 65%.

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So, if we are going to the trouble of interrupting people from their work, we owe it to everyone to make it worth their time. Better to spend the extra time and create a visual than disrupt them six times with the same message to achieve similar retention.

In a team setting, we can use images when capturing opportunities and threats. The sailboat exercise allows people to record and place threats, opportunities and issues on an image with sticky notes:

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We use anchors for threats that could impede progress and depict opportunities as the wind in the sails to propel us forward. Cheesy? Yes, but providing spatial separation and getting people up on their feet, contributing and generating an image they are more likely to remember is worth the cheesiness.

Finally, hand-drawn and group-generated images are more personal, more human and more uniting. They are ours; we created them, and we are more invested in achieving their goals than outcomes shown with generic Gantt charts or schedules. Involvement increases commitment, and human is more approachable than automated.

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Final Recommendations
Here are some tips for problem-solving with visuals:

  • Find ways to visualize the overall project problem; this allows people to see the big picture.
  • Break down the interim puzzle pieces to show relationships, sequence and solution alternatives. Use these visuals to encourage collaboration and build support for group-generated solutions.
  • Don't be shy about your amateur art. Your chicken-scratch stick people demonstrate a vulnerability that increases empathy and encourages others to have a go. Starting with a fancy image may inhibit people from contributing as they do not want to spoil your picture.

While rough-and-ready visuals are suitable for working sessions, there are times when you will want to invest more time and effort. Externally facing artifacts such as plans, roadmaps and product visions will benefit from the best images you can create.

I sometimes create project milestone posters for stakeholders to recognize their contributions and the obstacles we have overcome together. These work well for thank-you cards and foam-board plaques. Here are a couple of examples:

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I like to embed insider jokes and references to some of the issues we faced.

Projects are adventurous journeys we share with our stakeholders. Just as we would use maps and take photos on physical trips, we can do the same for our project endeavors to recognize and remember the venture. So be brave and get visual!

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]

Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.






Great article particularly with the visual examples. I couldn't agree more being able to represent a problem visually is usually the best way to solve it. I do the same thing on my own projects which not only helps me better understand the problem we are trying to solve but also to align the team and leadership. It's a great way to get feedback too. I just wish I had the same artistry skills that you have!

Mike Griffiths

Hi Bryan, Thanks for your comment. I need to draw stuff out to understand it too. It took me a while to realize my drawings could help others or facilitate a better discussion of ideas. Fortunately, this is gaining acceptance and approaches like Lean that tells us to visualize the process and show work in progress are helping the cause.

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