In my previous post “Why Do We Need Visual Models ?” I talked about how visual models help simplify complexity in technical problems and various applications of visual models in software development.  In this post, I would like to explore alternate uses of visual models and the application of visual modeling to solve complex non-technical problems in business and life.

Visual Thinking

Visual thinking is our brain’s natural way of solving problems by picturing the problem and it’s various outcomes visually in our mind.  It enables us to abstract out the complexity in a complex problem or information and present the same in a much simpler and more meaningful way that is easy to comprehend.  Going back to the map example, it’s far easier and natural for us to visualize the route from point A to point B instead of remembering the textual directions in a list form.  We use visual thinking consciously or unconsciously quite often in our daily life – whether it is a sketch of an idea we drew up in a coffee shop or a brainstorming session using a white board or a more fancy presentation for the board.   In business world, power point presentations with fancy graphics, excel spreadsheets with charts and executive dashboards with all kinds of visual gadgets remain the most popular way to present complex business concepts and information.  Here is an excellent example of using visual thinking to describe the concept of Twitter.

Another excellent source of information on visual thinking is this video of David Armano, VP of Experience Design with Critical Mass, speaking at a conference on thinking visually.  According to David Armano, thinking visually may one of the most sought after abilities of the 12st century.

Effective communication is everyone’s job—whether you are trying to sell in a concept or convince a client. Visual Thinking can help us take in complex information and synthesize it into something meaningful. In an increasingly fragmented and cluttered world, simple imagery, metaphors and mindmaps can get people to understand the abstract and make your ideas tangible.

Click here to see some excellent visual thinking artifacts from David Armano.

Mind Maps

Start a New Business Mind Map - Hand DrawnA mind map uses visual thinking to create a visual representation of the problem and the possible solutions in a diagram that mirrors the way our mind naturally processes information.  It is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.  By presenting ideas in a radial, graphical, non-linear manner, mind maps encourage a brainstorming approach to planning and organizational tasks (Source: Wikipedia).

For example, if we wanted to draw a mind map for capturing all the activities surrounding starting a business – we can start with a central idea called “Start a Business”.  Radiating from this central idea, we can add branches for “Business Objectives”, “Business Plan”, “Market Research”, “Project Plan”, etc.  Each of these branches will now become the central idea for the creation it it’s own mind map thus enabling us to create a high level view and a detail view of what’s involved in starting our business.

Start a New Business Mind Map - Drawn using MindMeister

Start a New Business Mind Map - Drawn using MindMeister

Mind maps can be used to capture and solve complex problems in personal life or in business – for example, you can use a mind map to capture ideas during a brainstorming session or take notes during a lecture or create a non-liner to-do list, etc.  Mind maps enable us to start with a bird’s eye view of the problem and drill down into specific areas that require further exploration.  In addition, each area or branch within a mind map can be enhanced by attaching an artifact that is relevant to that branch — for example, a spread sheet with budget numbers or an email received from a customer, etc.  Mind maps can be drawn by hand or by using any of the several commercial and open source software available in the market.  Here are a some resources to explore the concept of mind maps a bit more:

Visual Modeling for Complex Business Problems

Idiagram's Approach (© copyright 2002-2007 Marshall Clemens)

Visual modeling is also used to model and solve complex business problems that are non-technical such as, business strategy, vision, business models, communication models, knowledge integration, etc.   During one of my recent online explorations about visual modeling,  I ran into a company called Idiagram owned by Mr. Marshall Clemens, that uses visual modeling based approach to solve complex business problems such as strategic planning & decision making, product innovation & design, dialog facilitation, knowledge management, creative thinking and marketing strategy.  I was very impressed with Idiagram’s approach and the way Mr.Clemens described the art of complex problem solving.  I also loved the fact that Mr.Clemens used visual models and his own technique to describe all concepts on the company’s web site — which not only makes it very easy to understand but also provides a great example of using visual models to abstract and simplify complexity in any domain.

Mr.Clemens does not define what a “visual model” should look like — instead uses any diagram or style (diagrams, maps, charts, pictures, etc.) that represents the concept under consideration effectively. Here are a few samples of Mr.Clemens’s work and more samples of his work can be found here.

Idiagrams Process (copyright 2005 Marshall Clemens)

Idiagram's Process (© copyright 2002-2007 Marshall Clemens)

Graphic Facilitation ()

Graphic Facilitation (© copyright 2002-2007 Marshall Clemens)

Knowledge Integration ()

Knowledge Integration (© copyright 2002-2007 Marshall Clemens)

In essence, irrespective of the target domain and the potential application of visual modeling within that domain, the underlying premise of using visual models remains the same — minimize complexity, visualize concepts, facilitate communication and increase collaboration to realize a common goal.

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