Value of Visualization
A few years, I was meeting a potential client and describing my recommendations and work processes when they remarked that I seemed to “rely” a lot on visualization.
I got the definite impression that they were not impressed that I relied so much on such a basic concept!
They were right, though. So much of my consulting and coaching work relies on visualization, and as basic as the concept sounds, it is surprisingly powerful.
Why Visualization Works
Visualizations are increasingly the only way to make sense of the work that actually happens. This is most obvious with data-intense activities such as surgical procedures or aviation industry R&D, but even the so-called routine activities in complex organizations require a level of visual expression.
Information, decisions, and process flows in so many environments are hard to understand, much less optimize in continuous improvement efforts if you can’t first see what’s happening.
If you’ve been doing Agile for any length of time, you’ve experienced the value of visualization with your information radiator, whether it is a Kanban board or a Scrum board. Having an information radiator enables shared understanding of a huge amount of information: the group’s goal, the work being done, and the path to getting work done.
Thanks to visualization, everyone knows what’s being worked on, and each person can pull in work as they have the bandwidth. Co-located teams do this with the ever-present sticky notes on a wall, whereas remote teams can use a range of online tools, from Trello to Jira.
Visualization in Problem Solving
These are all examples of visualizing work items and work progress, (i.e. the delivery of work), but visualizations are equally important in the discovery process. When we’re trying to brainstorm or problem-solve, visualization is a necessary pre-requisite for effective collaboration.
Group brainstorming isn’t just about capturing our shared knowledge; instead it’s about capturing the things that only one person knows and bringing those unique elements together to create a “3D” representation of the current state so that we can build upon shared knowledge to generate alternatives and envision possibilities.
A great number of the techniques I use – Impact Mapping, Lean-Agile Kaleidoscope, Value Stream Mapping – rely on visualization as a pre-requisite.
To use any of the above techniques without understanding the value of visualization is like packing for a trip without knowing the destination, duration and purpose. In other words, you can “finish” packing, but your packing will not actually add value for a specific trip.
So - what, exactly, is visualization?
The Dictionary Definition of Visualization
The representation of an object, situation, or set of information as a chart or other image
A chart or other image that is created as a visual representation of an object, situation, or set of information
The formation of a mental image of something.
What should visualization do?
Transform data to information – help users see the patterns that can transform bits and bytes of data into actionable information by applying visual efficiency
Visual communication of non-visual information – data, either concrete or abstract, must not currently be physically visible since the goal of visualization is to transform the invisible to the visible.
Produce an image – the form of the visualization must be part of the communication
The result should be readable and recognizable, and answer the following questions in the affirmative:
Does it provide an insight into the data?
Do we know something new or different about the underlying people or processes as a result of the visualization?
In the immortal quote from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:
“Here’s a thought, perhaps there’s something there that wasn’t there before.”
Visual exploration efforts are about generating insights from existing information because of the way the information is elicited from people or integrated with people’s interpretations. Even if the idea of visualization seems simple, the reality is that visualization is absolutely indispensable in optimizing organizations.
Many of the techniques used in Lean and Agile are both visual confirmation and visual exploration efforts. They provide the change in perspective and the “aha-moments” that can trigger behavior change that is the heart of sustainable transformations.