Unlock your visual thinking power & create change

After 12 years of working as a strategic management and change consultant I changed my work and myself by embracing visual thinking. I love how making thinking visual loosens up complex thought processes, leads to deeper reflection and playful exploration of thinking itself. And thereby fundamentally creates change. Here is my (visual) story.

In my work as a consultant I learned and applied different methods to support organisational development.

I noticed themes coming back both at clients organisations and in the organisations I worked for myself.

Research showed around 70% of planned changed projects failed. Goals were not met and people lost track. I could imagine people growing ‘tired of change’. So did I. I started to doubt if changing organisations with a planned approach was really possible.

I studied advanced change methodologies and came across the work of Chris Argyris and Karl Weick. They describe how the way we see the world, make sense of it and shape it is determined by our own beliefs and theories. Beliefs and theories that we are often not even aware of, but that we always hold on to in a circle of self-sealing logic. (I like the recent book ‘Liminal thinking’ by Dave Gray on these topics — which is more accessible than Argyris’ and Weicks work.)

How can we learn and change, if we cannot see that we are obstructing change ourselves? How do we become aware of our own mental models if they are so natural to us we do not even see them? Both as individuals and often reinforced in groups with people who think like us (which are often the people we work and hang out with). And how can we change our beliefs if even questioning them feels threatening?

I wondered if it would help to visualize process content and peoples’ viewpoints. So that people could see their own and each others thinking and explore the beliefs that are behind it.

I especially wanted to see if paper as a thinking platform could circumvent defensive mechanisms. I knew that working with visual models helped people focus on the content, less on ego’s and positions. Next to that I wondered if it would change peoples’ natural lines of reasoning if they translated their thinking in lines, shapes, words and some simple pictures — making it spatial instead of lineair. Forcing them to get to the core of their thinking and stepping out of the automatic language stream. And it did — all of it.

Since 2011 I tried out a range of visual thinking techniques in different settings and saw how visualizing thoughts and process content opened up new perspectives and possibilities. Along the way I was happy to come across the work of Dan Roam, focussing on how to visually analyse problems and how to tell your story with pictures (I especially like his latest book: Draw to Win which wraps it all up). The work of David Sibbet on visual meetings and change templates. And the graphic recording/ facilitation field with the insightful books of Brandy Agerbeck, focussing on visually grasping content. At the time I found myself convincing people that drawing was not another ‘childish’ tool to pimp up a meeting. Fortunately in the last 5 years the visual workfield has been booming. Drawing to visualize content is starting to be seen as a valuable approach to facilitate business communication and development. A vibrant new working field with lots of room for experimenting and learning what works and what does not. Sharing insights in visual communities. A while ago I wrote about 3 levels of working visually which received positive feedback by the field. In the responses it got I noticed that people who started out from the ‘drawing side’, also became more and more interested in the (change) process side.

Two years ago I started my own business to help individuals and teams apply their own visual thinking power. Especially to support learning and change. It took me a while to define my new ‘profession’. I was no longer a management and change consultant but also not a graphic facilitator. Somewhere in between, what did I have to offer? My work varied from facilitating management teams to concretize the direction for change, developing visual working material for change processes, provide visual thinking trainings to consultants and managers and visually coaching entrepreneurs to explore, organize and develop their work/ company vision. Continuously writing and drawing out my thinking on what I learned and discovered helped me sharpen my vision. In a playful and creative way. (It was great to read more on this proces in Brandy Agerbecks latest book: The Idea Shapers.) By trusting the visual thinking process I changed myself and my line of work. Visually exploring new ways of thinking, instead of finding fixed answers.