The Art of Visualization: Using the Right Brain to Connect Your People to Strategy

Victor Zhang
Creative Director

Imagine for a moment that you are in a room and the lights go out. You are in total darkness. But you know the direction to the door. You have navigated it many times. You know where other objects are placed. Yet, you bend your knees and reach out your hands tentatively, fumbling toward where you think you will find the door.

Click to see the visual at full size!

Why are you moving so slowly? Why are you hesitating? Where is your confidence? This is a metaphor we can apply to almost every example of employee engagement in terms of executing strategy or organizational change. A room with the lights off is like navigating a new strategy without understanding what it looks like. It’s simply not enough to present your new corporate strategy on paper and expect your employees to be immediately engaged – you need to help your employees understand it, feel it, visualize it. They need to literally be able to picture themselves in their roles, how their roles connect to the company’s overall goals, and how each individual contributes to future success. How do you accomplish this? Do you take a traditional route? Do you employ an “out of the box” method?

It’s not all about tradition. There’s a time and place for traditional tactics in any corporation. There are time-tested processes that have worked for years, and then there are situations where it may take something new, something that will breathe life into your strategy instead of just proclaiming it exists. We are so used to cookie-cutter presentation tools and tactics to reveal corporate news or direction. After nine or 10 pages of bar graphs, SWOT analyses and a laundry list of strategic goals, what are your people really retaining? Probably not as much as you would like or need. Without retention, none of it means anything. So why is visualization key to engaging employees in your strategy?

  • It helps people understand how to reference the material when necessary
  • It helps people to connect dots and understand the relationship between the different pieces of business
  • It fosters better retention levels throughout your workforce
  • It facilitates an emotional connection to the strategy

Let’s Get Visual.
Marker in Your Hand.

How do you start? What do you do? How do you get people involved?

1. Use a pen and a napkin for visual thinking exercises. You can use a variety of shapes and visuals – draw circles, boxes, arrows and stick figures. Lay out your ideas, information and issues in a two-dimensional way.

2. Observe those objects you put down on the paper. Think about them and try to connect them with lines.

3. Use the picture to start a conversation. What needs tweaking? What needs to be added? What needs to be taken out?

4. Highlight the connections that are important to you. Record any additional ideas on the same paper perhaps using a different color pen.

5. Don’t worry about neatness. You have the option to redraw the picture or you can continue to the next step.

6. Invite someone you trust to observe the picture with you. Have real conversations about it.

7. Revise. Use the two-way dialogue to build greater clarity into your visual. Make it better.

8. Get succinct on the key driving chapters of your visual. Picture it as a compelling story. What needs to really stand out? If it is not crisp enough to draw, it is not clear enough to execute.

9. Make your drawing more clear and easier to use as an illustrative backdrop to the strategy story. If you are ready to actually build a visual language that gives way to a shared meaning for your strategy, you may even want to enlist the help of an artist.

Visualization 2
These steps create a cycle that will help fully form your visual from strategy to reality. Real-time changes will occur throughout the exercise and create a fluid and effective process. Think about the metaphor I started with involving the dark room. Wouldn’t a visual of that scenario have a stronger effect on an audience than lecturing about it?
(See sketch 2)

Stimulating the Brain Unleashes Its Power.

Strategy helps you look forward and creates something for you and your organization to move toward. Visualization enables people to see the path and destination.

Some people think they are strictly left-brain thinkers and argue that they are not good at the visual process. Yet we were all infants at one time. We understood pictures way before the words and numbers. It is in your DNA. You may be excellent at writing or great at crunching numbers. But don’t deny your imaginative talents.

Visualization 1
There is an image in every imagination. There is imagination in every creative act. There is creativity in every innovation. It all starts with tapping your capability to think in images. Everyone uses their right brain and taps into their creative side at some level. We all have the ability to react to information if it’s presented in the right language. Visualization is that language. It’s a universal one that everyone can relate to. It transcends culture and beliefs. It touches souls and hearts. If you were in a foreign country and looking for a bathroom, the silhouette of a man or woman on the door would need no explanation. You would understand immediately which door to enter. Imagine instead if there were words in another language you were not familiar with. It wouldn’t be as easy to figure out which door was the right one, would it? (See sketch 1)

Visualization 6
The same idea could be applied to navigating an instruction manual. You buy a piece of furniture that needs to be assembled. You take out all of the components, get your toolbox, and open the direction manual. But there is just text and no images. You have no idea what the different parts are. There’s no visual of the finished product. Wouldn’t it be easier and add more functionality to the manual if there
were pictures to accompany the directions? (See sketch 5)

Visualization 3
Data by itself is just data – not enough to create change within an organization. Relying on numbers and pie charts alone creates a cold and unemotional tone. A number can accurately tell the past, but it can’t predict the future. (See sketch 3) It doesn’t provide meaning. A number can measure the goals, but it can’t make sense of the meaning behind the goals. It is the common mental image you embed in people’s mind that inspires them to bring it to life. Remember that while numbers are important and speak to the left brain, you are working with people – humans who possess innate emotion and therefore have the ability to connect to things on a very visceral level. Using visualization to engage their right brain helps employees see the big picture and how they fit in.

Visualization 7
I know, I know, you are a more traditional left-brain businessperson, in the game to create shareholder value. You understand income statements, know how to read balance sheet, and master the cash flow statement. (See sketch 6) You are probably even good at finding and telling a story strictly from the numbers. But can you share it with others in an inspiring way? Can you have the troops rally behind you, Visualization 3fully engaged as if your eyes are on the same target, moving with speed and confidence? (See sketch 4)

Don’t just lay out a strategic initiative and give people their numbers-based marching orders. Show it to them. Help them tangibly feel the role they will play and encourage ownership and accountability. Help them see how valuable they are to the accomplishment of your desired outcomes. If they connect to the strategy on a personal level, they are more likely to deliver on a personal level.

While I made my point in the bathroom and furniture anecdotes, I also demonstrated the visual power of a metaphor. Metaphors make sense to us because they help us connect a new idea to something we already know. Art, as metaphors portrayed visually, provides context, bridging the gap between what we say and what we mean. Business revolves around the people in it, so it’s crucial to establish an emotional connection between your people and your organization. Business vision helps ignite the business passion. A powerful visual tool can trigger emotions and inspire creativity and connectivity. So how do you get people to use their creative side, their right side?

Inspire them. Include them. Help them find their voice.

Magic Markers. Passion to Play.

Sometimes all the magic you need to unleash creativity from your workforce lies in a seemingly insignificant item. In this case, it could be a marker. Sitting idle on a table, it’s merely a writing device. But in the hands of someone who has been inspired, it’s a magical instrument stimulating the right side of their brain with every stroke.

Think about how much power that magic marker yields if you ask someone to draw what the situation looks and feels like from their perspective. You will literally get a front row seat to what is going on in their mind. How are they feeling about the situation? What barriers do they see? How do they think they fit in?

A new strategy, or any change for that matter, can elicit feelings of trepidation and intimidation. However, if you approach a situation with curiosity, truly engaging employees along the way, they feel invested and part of the solution, instead of feeling like they are taking orders.

Using a visual tool to kick off conversations about strategic direction will produce the qualitative feedback necessary to get everyone moving in the same direction. It will complement the hard data and the numbers. It will make your people more vocal and allow them to see your business issues in a new way. They can look at it, add to it, remove from it – make it theirs. In the end, you don’t just have a picture; you have a common mental business model and people engaged and invested in your future.