Visual thinking and NeuroLeadership

Dave Gray
Dave Gray
Nov 16, 2015 · 5 min read

I was on the phone with a friend and former customer yesterday, who is now a leadership coach, and she asked me if I would connect the dots between our core practice, Visual Thinking, and NeuroLeadership.

“I’m sure there’s a connection because I’ve seen the process, there’s something there,” she said.

Yes, there is absolutely a connection. Thank you Laura, for asking the question and giving me the opportunity to think it through.

NeuroLeadership is a discipline that connects brain science to leadership. Its focus is to apply hard science to solve problems and increase effectiveness in leadership and management. One concept from NeuroLeadership that I have found very helpful is the SCARF model developed by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, Quiet Leadership, and Coaching with the Brain in Mind.

Some social needs are as important to the brain as air, food and water. If these social needs are not being met, the brain reacts in the same way as it would if you were literally starving or gasping for air.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

Status: People need to feel important, recognized, needed by others.

Certainty: People need to feel confident that they know what’s ahead, that they can predict the future with reasonable certainty.

Autonomy: People need to feel like they have control of their life, their work, their destiny.

Relatedness: People need to feel like they belong, to trust that the group they are in will look out for them.

Fairness: People need to feel like they are being treated fairly, that the “rules of the game” give them a fair chance.

Visual Thinking is drawing in order to make sense of the world. When you visualize something, it becomes more concrete. Complex concepts become easier to understand. Visual Thinking has been widespread in Science and Mathematics for many many years, and, like NeuroLeadership, is emerging as a best practice in leading-edge organizations.

Visual Thinking drives understanding, alignment, commitment and action.

At XPLANE, we help our customers design and run Visual Thinking sessions, where teams visualize their challenges, imagine creative alternatives, develop strategies and plans, and design the next steps in their evolution as a business. I’ve written elsewhere about what XPLANE does to create more connected, faster-moving organizations. My colleagues and I have detailed many of these ideas, principles and exercises and we have shared them with the world in a best-selling book called Gamestorming.

Many aspects of a typical business meeting trigger anxiety and emotional distress, triggering the fight-or-flight response and causing people to shut down. Visual Thinking sessions address and resolve many of those issues.

Status: In a typical meeting, status and hierarchy create distance between people. Sitting around a table increases the sense of direct threat.

A Visual Thinking session flattens the hierarchy. As soon as people start drawing, it’s ideas and insights that matter, not status. Also, because people are focused on the shared picture as opposed to each other, status takes a back seat to creating something together.

Certainty: In a typical meeting, abstract language, diagrams and complex PowerPoint slides create a sense of uncertainty about the future. It’s difficult to translate abstract ideas into concrete action. Without a clear picture, people procrastinate or act in ways that are counterproductive.

Visualizing the future makes it more tangible. Drawing a plan is thinking it through. Drawing what “good” looks like, who will do what, and how, makes the future less abstract, and reduces anxiety and uncertainty about next steps, reducing resistance and making it easier to move forward.

Autonomy: In a typical meeting, the boss or presenter is in charge of the agenda and the dialogue. Other participants are reduced to listening and asking questions instead of actively contributing. This reduction in participation leads to reduced commitment and makes it less likely for people to carry the ideas forward after they leave the meeting.

In Visual Thinking sessions, everyone is involved in making ideas and plans more tangible and concrete. This increases people’s sense of control. If everyone participates in creating the picture of what will happen, it is easier for them to take ownership and run with it.

Relatedness: Typical meetings are focused primarily on the exchange of information, not team-building. Most business meetings are dry affairs. It’s blah blah blah, until it’s over.

When a group of people works together to create a shared picture of their situation, their vision, and a plan to get there, they are simultaneously building a sense of who they are as a team. Creating a vision together makes it easier to take action after the session is over.

Fairness: In a typical meeting, the extroverts — people who like to talk — often get the lion’s share of the airtime. Introverts, who may have great contributions to make, may not get the time and space they need to share their ideas.

When we design Visual Thinking sessions, we design the exercises to ensure that there is time for individual reflection as well as group discussion and interaction. The structure of Visual Thinking sessions recognizes the value of both introverts and extroverts, and gives everyone a voice and a role in the process.

XPLANE is the visual thinking company. Visual thinking drives understanding, creativity, alignment, and commitment to shared goals. And it does all of these things simultaneously.

We use Visual Thinking to help organizations get better, faster. Give us a call. We’d love to show you what happens when people understand.

Dave Gray is the Founder of XPLANE.

The XPLANE Collection

Thoughts and musings from the visual thinkers, co-creators…

The XPLANE Collection

Thoughts and musings from the visual thinkers, co-creators, and culture champions behind XPLANE Design Consultancy.

Dave Gray

Written by

Dave Gray

Founder, XPLANE. Author, The Connected Company and Gamestorming

The XPLANE Collection

Thoughts and musings from the visual thinkers, co-creators, and culture champions behind XPLANE Design Consultancy.