Let’s be clear…
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!