What is more relevant: the Visual Thinking Process or the Visual Artefact?

Last week, I talked to a friend who is as well into Visual Thinking. He was disappointed about the fact that the resulting diagram might be of less importance than the process of creating the diagram/artefact.

Frustrated as he was, it triggered a thought process on my side. Yes, I believe that a good visual representation is supporting most communications. It helps to transfer ideas. It’s just the proverbial “a picture says more than a thousand words”. I personally like structured visuals. Vithanco creates graphs and graphs can represent reality very well. Graphs can amongst other use cases define terminology (Concept Maps), capture discussions (IBIS), or reflect a project planning (Benefit Breakdown Structure).

But are the resulting visuals/diagram not the main benefit? Does the process of creating the diagram deliver more value than the outcome, the diagram/artefact itself? And if so, is this good or bad?

Examples

Today, I used a concept map to align on terminology. You know, words can be deceiving. People use the same terms but they might have a different understanding of what the terms mean. To cut through a potentially long story (I might tell it another time), it turns out that key terms of our mission were very differently interpreted. The creation of the concept map surfaced all the differences.

We now use the shared process of creating the concept map to align on our mission, to questions what we do and how we should achieve our vision. The outcome (a diagram) will come handy to explain to everyone else what we do and how. But the creation of the map aligns ourselves. This is where we create the full benefit. We could have pulled in different directions for (many) months without knowing until some difference in scope of a term would have become obvious.

Or have you heard of Dialogue Mapping? It is a facilitation method to align people, especially suitable for wicked problems. Dialogue Mapping uses the IBIS notation and at the end of the facilitation there will be a visual representation of a group conversation. Dialogue Mapping however is a method that focuses on creating a shared understanding of the facets of the problem. While important for the facilitation, the diagram itself has only historic value after the meeting.

Last example: Theory of Constraints. Its creator – Goldratt – was a smart person that used diagrams to support his thinking. E.g., he used Current Reality Trees to identify the root cause of observable issues. I doubt that he would have ever thought that the diagram is the relevant outcome. To the contrary, he was interested in identifying the main constraint (bottleneck), because that is the leverage point he was looking for. Once the constraint was identified, he immediately switched gears and created the next diagram to help him thinking how to widen the bottleneck.

Conclusion

It’s easy to think that the visuals are the key outcome of Visual Thinking. I thought this myself for a long term. But somehow, even the term of “Visual Thinking” focuses on the process and “ignores” the visual artefacts. Yes, the artefact of Visual Thinking can be very relevant. But in most cases, the process to create them will be more important and will create the bigger benefits.

Bonus Thought

My friend was frustrated. But it took me less than a minute to be positive about his insight. An hour after our meetingĀ I saw the situation in the light of a proverb I see regularly in the city I have chosen as my home.

One man's trash another man's treasure
Graffiti in Copenhagen

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