Last month my colleague Sam Bradd invited a dozen or so visual practitioners to share our insights on what we noticed about human nature or communication in 2016, based on all the conversations where we’d been present as a recording witness. I was honoured to be included and pleased to have an opportunity to reflect on some of the bigger themes I had discerned in the many meetings I’d been part of. Sam included all our contributions in his end-of-year blog post, which you can read here.
I started by responding to the specific question Sam posed. But true to form, I couldn’t stay entirely within the lines of the question and soon jumped to what I thought should be a theme in our conversations. (Hey, there’s a reason I call my business Outside the Lines!)
Since Sam ended his year by posting our ideas, I thought I would start my new year by sharing what I wrote, edited and expanded here based on further reflection, and with a couple of references to external documents and books that might be of interest. So if you have a few minutes to spare, settle back in your chair, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and read on. And if you have some thoughts of your own on this topic, I would love to hear your comments!
In service of clarity
While I can’t land on an overarching theme, I’ve noticed a pervasive focus on “how do we prepare for a future we can’t predict?” in the conversations I’ve graphically recorded this year. It’s not like we ever could predict the future, of course – but the pace of change is so blistering these days that it’s become almost impossible to predict what will happen next week, let alone in two or five or ten years.
You brought up the concept of a “VUCA world”: a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; a world filled with disruptive forces – technological, political, social – that change the game at every turn. But while I hear a lot of anxiety about the first half of VUCA (volatility and uncertainty), there is less understanding of how to deal with the second half – complexity and ambiguity – as evidenced by an ongoing tendency to focus on “solving problems” rather than addressing messy systems. Seems like we need to spend a lot more time dealing with C and A if we want to be able to navigate V and U.
There’s a lot more to be said about that, but I’d like to shift to a theme that hasn’t been explicitly voiced in these conversations but has been increasingly occupying my mind. This is the desperate need for clarity in our complex, ambiguous, and often highly abstract world. We’ve all been in meetings where people talk enthusiastically about things like leadership, sustainability, accountability, innovation, engagement, and so on. But what do they mean?? My idea of leadership might be radically different from yours; a government official’s idea of engagement might be quite at odds with that of, say, a disability activist. We operate every day at a level of abstraction that we don’t even recognize, because these terms have become so embedded in our vocabularies that we don’t see how subjective they are, and how open to different interpretations.
This lack of clarity leads to confusion and makes it difficult to address issues effectively. For example, if we don’t have a shared understanding of sustainability (or accountability, or innovation, or whatever), how will we ever get there? That’s the problem at one level. But at another level, unclarity can also be downright dangerous. This shows up most glaringly in the realm of politics. The American public just elected a president who ran on a huge abstraction: “Make America Great Again.” But what does that mean?? For some people it means an America that brings jobs back. For others it means “let’s shake up the political establishment.” Others might envision a great America as one that welcomes diversity and inclusion. But still others see it as one where white men rule the roost and anyone who doesn’t like it should shut up or get out. What happens when people with different understandings of this abstract slogan begin to clash with each other? We’re already seeing the fallout, and it isn’t pretty.
So I’m making it my mission as a graphic facilitator to put myself in service of clarity. I will push people, at meetings I work in, to go beyond abstractions. I will ask questions like: What does that concept look like on the ground? How does it play out in action? How would you describe it to someone outside this room? By continually striving to making the abstract more concrete, I can bring fuzzy thinking into clearer focus, thereby helping those with good intentions be more effective in their actions – and reducing the power of those with less good intentions by exposing them for what they are. I think that’s a good role for a graphic facilitator in 2017.
Addendum #1: If you have an academic turn of mind and want to bore yourself for half an hour, ask me to send you a paper I wrote on metaphor for a Philosophy of Language class at McGill some years back. Most of it makes my eyeballs melt when I reread it now, but there are some nuggets toward the end that are still worth thinking about and have some bearing on what I’m talking about here.
Addendum #2: For some of the most cogent and accessible writing anywhere on the role of language in shaping thought, you can’t do better than reading just about anything by the distinguished linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. (Which autocorrect persists in trying to change to “Layoff”. Lay off, damned autocorrect!)
Happy new year! Raise a glass of claret to clarity!
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching a new course this coming spring through UBC Continuing Studies, in collaboration with my amazing colleague Stina Brown! This course, Visual Facilitation, will take a somewhat different approach from my old Artful Visual Facilitator workshop, which had a great run for several years but, well…it ran its course (pun intended). While Stina and I will introduce the concept and basic skills of graphic recording, Visual Facilitation is not intended as a comprehensive graphic recording training. Rather, it’s designed for coaches, facilitators, managers and leaders who want to add visual skills to their palette of techniques and bring a more holistic and creative approach to their work with groups.
Interested? Read more about it on my Workshops page – and if you like what you see, head on over to UBC Continuing Studies’ catalogue and register here!
To my mind, there aren’t a lot of rules in graphic recording. You listen, you distill, you write and you draw – how you do that is up to you. But one thing I often worry about is whether I’m doing my job properly if I don’t finish my charts when the session ends – or at least very shortly after. I take a lot of pride in my work and think I do a good job for my clients. And the feedback I get suggests I’m not overestimating my abilities. But I’m not super-fast. I envy those of my colleagues who can wrap up a chart shortly after a speaker finishes: honesty compels me to confess that I’m rarely able to match their speed. Which means that sometimes, at the end of the day, my charts aren’t finished. I’ll stay till I’m done, of course – but am I doing my clients a disservice if they don’t see the “big picture” as soon as the meeting ends? No one has ever complained to me when that happens, but still – I worry.
Yesterday, though, something interesting took place. I was graphically recording an event I had designed and was facilitating myself. The bulk of the session was a modified World Cafe with three rounds of table conversation around three separate but related questions. The process I’ve evolved for mapping World Cafe dialogues is to collect the key ideas from each table after each round and transfer the information to the chart while they’re doing the next round. It usually works pretty well. It worked fine for the first round yesterday. But in the second round, the question we posed elicited such a fire hose of content that there was no way I could get it up in a coherent way before the third round began. And the charts were going to be used to present to a government ministry later on, so it needed to be coherent! What to do?
I did the only thing that seemed realistic: I told them I was going to listen carefully to what they said, put everything on sticky notes, and then finish the chart in my studio a couple of days later. It felt like it would be a disservice to the group to simply list things as they came up without distilling and theming them properly. But I still felt badly. I wanted them to be able to take away a completed chart at the end of the day, and I wasn’t going to be able to deliver.
Then my client – the person who was spearheading the whole process and who was very much involved in it – did something wonderful. She stood up and said, “Thank you for being so honest and flexible, for recognizing what we need, and for being willing to shift your process to give us what we need.” Far from being upset that she wouldn’t have a finished product at the end of the day, she was impressed that I wasn’t a slave to my original design and that I would put in extra hours in my studio to deliver a chart that was legible, organized and usable. Well. That flipped my anxiety on its head. And it reminded me yet again that being upfront and transparent and – yes – vulnerable is sometimes the best service I can render. A good lesson to keep relearning.
So – would I like to have been able to finish the chart at the end of the day? Of course I would! I still want to be superwoman, dazzling my clients with my speed as well as my virtuosity. But all I can be is me – and I’m glad that yesterday that was enough.
There are those who argue that we should look at the world through our eyes and not through our cameras – that we’re less present in the moment when we’re viewing the world through a lens. Having a mediated rather than a direct experience. Distancing ourselves from the world rather than immersing ourselves in it. And there is probably some truth in that – especially when we just snap away mindlessly, treating the world as nothing more than a backdrop for our selfies or as scenes to add to our scrapbook – and having shot, moving on.
But the opposite can also be true. When I look at something familiar through the lens of my camera, the familiar can become quite wonderful and strange. I close in on it, step back for a wider view, look at it from a variety of angles, play with exposure and effects, and actually give myself a deeper experience of the thing (or person) I’m looking at than I would have if I weren’t framing the image through my viewfinder. By the same token, when I look at something unfamiliar through my lens, it gives me a chance to become familiar with it as I engage with it for longer than I would if I were just passing by it, and puts a kind of exclamation point on the scene, where otherwise there would just be a period.
And then when I upload the photo to my laptop I can play with it again: crop it to my satisfaction, tinker with the lighting and colour, and create something that is both a memory and a work of art. OK, a minor work of art – Ansel Adams I’m not! But still something creative and satisfying, and I’ll dare to call it art.
I took several photography courses back in art school, which was (ahem) a rather long time ago: way back before iPhones made everyone a photographer; back before digital cameras were even thought of; back when you bought film in 24- or 36-shot rolls and composed each picture carefully because that was all you got, and if you failed to load your film properly, you got…nothing. (Yes, that happened to me a few times!) I shot almost exclusively in black and white in those days, and loved the magic of watching the image emerge from nothing as it soaked in its chemical bath. I still don’t feel the virtual images I shoot on my digital camera are entirely “real” – though maybe I’d take them more seriously if I got them printed. But I still love taking pictures, and I still believe the act of doing so helps me be more, not less, present in the world and gives me a different angle on reality than I’d get from seeing things only through my eyes.
I’ve started uploading some of my photos to Flickr. If you’d like to see them, please go to my Flickr page. Let me know what you think … and if you like what you see, come back from time to time because I’ll be uploading more at regular intervals.
I’ve created a new page on my website! It’s called “Goodies“, and that’s what you’ll find there: a growing set of resources I’ve created that you’re welcome to download for your own use. For starters, I’ve included a 2-page PDF of lettering samples I put together a few years ago (see the page for more details), and a poster of World Cafe Guidelines I created ages ago that has long been available for download on the World Cafe’s website and is now available here too. Come back often, as I’ll be adding new goodies from time to time – and might even be inspired to (gasp) blog about ideas that have been rolling around in my head. The easiest way to know when to look, of course, is to subscribe to my blog, which you can do by filling in your email in the Subscribe box at right. (I guarantee it won’t fill up your inbox in a hurry unless I change my habits drastically!)
CLICK HERE to go to the Goodies page – and have fun!