How to harness visual leadership


04.11.13 Thumbnail TomCoxWhen we need our busy co-workers and our busy selves to be both smarter and faster, what can we do? Get visual.


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Smart people in a hurry become stupid. (Or at least act stupidly. My work with busy executive teams tells me that this phenomenon is universal — and I see it in myself daily).

When we need our busy co-workers and our busy selves to be both smarter and faster, what can we do?

Get visual.

Recent advances in brain science are teaching us to harness the natural strengths of the human brain to overcome its weaknesses.

Our brains are lousy at lots of things:

  • Remembering lists
  • Remembering details correctly over long periods
  • Getting emotional buy-in from purely factual input

Our brains are awesome at a few things:

  • Thinking and remembering by association (oh, that reminds me…)
  • Spotting patterns
  • Refreshing memory from a shared visual

Retaining a Shared Understanding

Value of Shared Visuals (by David Sibbet)

It’s shocking how many professionals hold meetings, yet never write down what happened. (I still do it, and regret it each time.)

The result is often a totally wasted meeting that requires a second meeting to untangle. ”Didn’t we agree that…?”

One of the most effective changes we consultants often bring to a client is a refreshed practice of writing down, during a meeting, what decisions were made and who got a work assignment — Who will do What by When.

Without faithful documentation, we retain very little of what happened. With documentation, memory is longer, and is capable of being refreshed from a common source — creating a shared reality.

And as David Sibbet’s work has shown, the positive impact of faithful documentation is refreshed and amplified if the agreement (or decision or shared understanding) is documented visually, and that visual is then shared — using what he calls “Big Charts” (see graphic “Value of Shared Visuals” nearby).

A further bonus occurs when we keep and share photos of the team working together to create the charts — seeing yourself doing the work refreshes your memory and commitment toward the decision you helped reach.

For leaders ready to harness the awesome power of visuals, I recommend all three of David Sibbet’s books, including his latest, Visual Leaders.

Reaching a Shared Understanding

Do you see what he said?

Often our big problem isn’t remembering the shared agreement — it’s reaching that agreement.

I’ve shortened many a difficult conversation by jumping up and writing everybody else’s points on a white board or flip chart.

As soon as Fred sees his point written down, he can stop repeating his point — because he now feels heard.

Many of us have ears that don’t work until our mouths have run for a while. Don’t fight that — just accept and work with it. The sooner you make Fred feel heard, the sooner he’ll be capable of listening with a more open mind to his co-workers.

As Sibbet puts it in this illustration from Visual Leaders, “Do you see what he said?” And they do.

Lesson: any time the conversation gets complex, have your most visually competent participant start writing the major points up on a wall somehow.

Further trick: put the desired state on the far right, put the current reality on the far left, and objections on the bottom half of the center as “hurdles” to be overcome. Most native speakers of English equate the left with the past and the right with the future (we read left-to-right). This leaves the top half of the center for solutions for overcoming the hurdles. Most audiences get this layout intuitively.

How Visual Leadership Helps Leaders

David Sibbet

I interviewed David Sibbet to ask him about the impact of visuals on the effort to lead.

Q: Why this book?

A: Visual Leaders was written for leaders and managers, who work WITH visual practitioners and want to support making their organization visually literate. The first book “Visual Meetings” was for the facilitator of meetings. The second book “Visual Teams” was for teams, and covered both visual tools AND the team dynamic — that one is perhaps most useful to internal team developers, HR people, and so on.

This third book is in color, and is written to the leader and manager.

Q: Who should read it?

A: Any leader who needs to know what’s possible so they can support their people. There’s an explosion of options, and this cuts through to the best for given needs.

It also lets you increase your visual tools, and provides the ‘seven essential tools’ — chapters 7-13

Q: Who has done this? What happened?

A: The big shift is, realizing that the key to results is motivating and engagement IN the plans — not just HAVING the plans. And people get motivated more when they co-create.

Visual facilitation takes standard tools of design and data visualization, and gets you working iteratively and interactively with the team.

I’m now working with a global procurement organization. They want to be more organized globally about procurement.

Clearly, if you’re better organized you’ll save a lot of money. Yet historically, their divisions grew up with their own suppliers. The central procurement people need to become consultants to those divisions. So, to change, they had to change the procurement organization

Rather than do a top-down plan and announcement, the leader engaged the top managers in a collaborative process. In a meeting of 60 people over several days, they went through a strategy and visioning exercise, starting with the top leaders stating strategy, and engaging the rest of the people on how that might happen.

The result included a complex and detailed visual that they now call their “North Star” — it has guided them for three years.

They now can go through a best practices process, very consistently, that visually involves their client organizations. They’ve been very successful.

Another example is the DLR Group.

DLR set a 5-year goal and plan, using this visual approach, and set the goal of creating a best-in-the-country firm. It’s hard to manage and align people in that industry (architecture) because they are so collegial and non-hierarchical. Within five years, they were in fact rated one of the best firms in the country. DLR attributes much of their success to their use of the visual tools.

Bottom Line: Co-Created Visuals Engage

In each case Sibbet relates, people wanted high engagement and buy-in. There is a nice interplay between a leader with a vision of what they want to do, who can also listen and upgrade their vision as they engage.

The quality of people’s thinking goes up when they engage visually. Visual leadership works.

If you change the way the information is displayed, it disrupts memory. If you preserve that display, it upholds memory. You create a kind of “internal memory theater” — not unlike the “Mind Palace” mentioned by memory experts.

(This works at the individual level — with vision boards and similar tools — where it’s more helpful to visualize yourself working on the goal than just achieving it. See also Lean Visual Management.)

The fad for graphical meeting illustration is okay, says Sibbet, but is in some ways less effective than a co-created image that is shared.

We all work smarter and faster when we get visual.


  • Use shared visuals appropriately to spark creativity and anchor agreement
  • Start getting visual as soon as there’s sharp disagreement or mutual misunderstanding
  • Create a partial vision and encourage others to fill in details
  • Publish and re-use the resulting image

David Sibbet’s three “Visual” books. All three are ranked in the Amazon Top 100 for their categories.

// Illustrations courtesy Wiley

Tom Cox is a Portland area consultant and executive coach. He helps leaders exceed their business aspirations.