We all talk about ‘the bigger picture’, but how do we communicate it? How do we make sure everyone shares that vision and knows what needs to be done to achieve it? Scriberia's Head of Creative Collaboration, Sophie Smiles, goes in search of some answers.
‘Unless you’re able to engage people in the bigger picture, it’s very difficult to drive change,’ says Peter Evans, LEGO Continuous Improvement Director, a long-time advocate for visual communication.
When I first worked with Peter, he was Director of Quality at Virgin Media. I saw him give a presentation that he called ‘From Swamp to Summit’, describing the organisation’s Journey to Operational Excellence and it made a big impression. So much so, I’ve thought of it often since stepping into the world of Scriberia at the end of last year.
The presentation was built around a simple picture of a mountain – there was a swamp below the foothills, basecamp some way up the ridge, and high above that, beyond some pretty treacherous looking terrain, the summit.
His goal was to shift focus away from the summit, and to create a shared understanding of the steps they would have to undertake, as a team, to reach it. Concentrating, initially, on emerging from the swamp, and setting their sights on base camp.
The picture gave Peter’s vision a powerful narrative (backed up by data) which drew in his audience; and in doing so, he created the momentum and understanding needed to mobilise resources and make change happen.
A smart move, I thought – back then, I hadn’t heard of visual thinking or hardworking pictures. Today, I can see Peter’s mountain as a great example of both visual thinking and a hardworking picture – and it was still working hard for Virgin long after Peter’s departure.
It’s clear that visual thinking comes naturally to Peter, but he knows he’s not alone. ‘Most people don’t do their thinking in terms of numbers. They think in terms of stories, situations and how it feels to them,’ he says. ‘So when you draw a picture, either literally or metaphorically, it’s easier to articulate what it means to them, and help them connect with why we’re bothering to do this.'
"Visual thinking is integral; it’s our habit – it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do everything."
Sophie Smiles, Scriberia
Peter’s belief in the power of visual communication at work came about as a result of ‘classic stakeholder analysis’, and he describes it as ‘a much more humble approach’ to getting your point across.
‘You have to know your audience, your constituents, and find ways to communicate with them that they CAN grasp easily.
‘For some reason, when we speak to kids, we know, quite naturally, that we should modify the way we communicate – from the words we choose to our tone of voice, we do everything we can to get the message across.
‘Yet, for some reason, when we come into the workplace, we forget how important it is to know our audience and be understood by them. We think it’s enough to communicate in fluent ‘business speak’, and give no thought to who actually understands what we’re saying.
‘In that context, if people don’t understand you, they often wont admit it. And, crucially, they just won’t engage as you want them to.’
Research by John Kotter, author of Leading Change, shows that organisations need more than 50 percent of their employees to be engaged and energised around the need for change, before change can happen. It’s more about the story of change, than the tools required to achieve it.
Peter says: ‘For a lot of people in Virgin Media, the visual of the mountain anchored the story in a way that gave a mental model they could work with to know where they were and where they had to get to.’
At Scriberia, our challenges, as an organisation are on a somewhat different scale. But what’s striking to me, as a new-ish addition to the team, is how lucky we are to have no need for the kind of change plan that so many of my clients, over the years, have grappled with.
If you ever visit our studios, you’ll notice the buzz. Its not coming from the surrounding building sites of Kings Cross. It’s the people, the atmosphere, the space. And when I’m in it, I can’t help but see the world from a new perspective.
In truth, we enjoy the sort of healthy, unified culture that is the holy grail in large organisations. In part, of course, it’s because we are a small enough to be intrinsically connected and aligned. But organisations as small as ours are by no means immune to ‘big picture myopia’.
Scriberia itself owes much to the hardworking picture. Collectively, our team has spent thousands of hours at the scribing coal-face, creating hardworking pictures for our clients. And, the walls of our own meeting spaces are covered in them. Visual thinking is integral; it’s our habit – it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do everything.
As visual thinkers for hire, we often act as cartographers, setting a course towards previously uncharted territory, and an uncertain future. A Hardworking picture makes vision (and its value) visible, its purpose clear and alignment behind it easy. Making visual thinking part of the way you work, as it is for us here in the studio, and enables teams to gain alignment, to explore sometimes complex dynamics and come to a shared understanding.
"We all need to know a few things before we set off. 'Where are we starting from?', 'Where are we going?', 'What hazards await us ?', 'What tools, skills, capabilities will we need?', 'What will we do when we arrive?'. You can’t expect people to follow you blindly."
Peter Evans, LEGO
For Peter it was obvious that Virgin’s change programme was a journey of sorts. And, he says: ‘For any journey, we all need to know a few things before we set off. “Where are we starting from?”, “Where are we going to go?”, “What hazards await us on the way?”, “What tools, skills, capabilities will we need to get there?”, “What will we do when we arrive?”. You can’t expect people to follow you blindly.’
He and his team began by developing a maturity model that plotted keys areas of the organisation on one axis (customer strategy, skills and resources, people,
process & performance measurement and so on) against six stages of maturity on the other. Those six stages of maturity were then adapted to fit the motivational mountain climb narrative: ‘Lost’, ‘The Swamp’, ‘The Trail’, ‘Base Camp’, ‘The Climb’, ‘The Summit’.
Soon, each area of the organisation had a course plotted from from swamp to the summit, in a form that promoted engagement and emotional alignment.
I see now, from the perspective of Scriberia’s studio, that it was Peter’s hardworking picture that made them stakeholders in the drive for change across the organisation. They literally saw themselves as part of the bigger picture.