Author Archives: admin

Writing Your Book

Did you make a New Year’s resolution to write a book this year? Perhaps you‘re planning to write a novel in November, during the month-long sprint that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Or, you’re not sure yet— maybe you want to keep thinking about it until it’s more than a vague idea.

Drawing of a person thinking about possible book projects
I used to work for a university publisher. That experience taught me that it’s almost always better to think about a book first as a proposal: a one-page outline of your idea, along with a table of contents and a sample chapter. This is true whether you’re planning to send the book to an agent, directly to a publisher, or publish it yourself.
Whatever your final plan, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what other books might compete with yours. Publishing is a risky business, and any editor will want to be convinced that what you are offering is new and, most important, sellable. It pays to do your homework. (A good place to start is to recall what books you bought in the past year. Make it a habit to frequent brick-and-mortar bookshops. Know what’s hot in your field. Be honest: is your idea a book, not just an article or a blog post?)
Once you’ve decided for yourself that a book is a good plan, something that people will want to buy, spend some time working on an outline which will help you develop ideas in a coherent trajectory. This is where a graphic recorder can help: visually mapping out the flow of your book. I’m always happy to help people with projects like this. A little time up front can save months later.
Good luck with your writing project!

Complexity in the Workplace

Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

Visualizing Complexity: Why Does it Matter?

Edward Tufte, author of numerous works on representing data graphically, gives a chilling example in the day-long workshop he's been running for years. Engineers working on the Challenger space shuttle mission failed to convince NASA that the lower temperatures expected on the planned launch date, and the possible failure of the o-rings, would constitute an unacceptable level of risk. They had data, they had graphs, they had diagrams of o-rings, but the launch went ahead. As we all know, the Challenger exploded.

What if their presentation had instead featured a graphic like this?

Challenger disaster visual of risk of low temperature

(Tufte proposed a simple, elegant graph that showed the likelihood of o-ring failure in direct proportion to dropping temperatures. In all communication, understanding your audience is key.)

Consider something complex but not quite as distressing: the map of the London Underground. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former employee of the Underground, produced this map, still recognizable to us almost 100 years later:

London Underground map from 1931 by Harry Beck

Earlier maps had followed the city's geography more closely, which is not relevant if you're traveling underground. Subway maps around the world have been modeled on London's, giving passengers information about transfer points and the number of stations between them and omitting extraneous geographical detail.

Mapping the human genome, mapping complaints, mapping where items are found in the aisles of grocery stores: maps are visual tools that can help clarify complexity.

Next week: What complexities are found in your organization, and how might they be made visible so as to render them more understandable?

Complexity, Visualized

A few years ago, when the avian influenza epidemic raised urgent red flags about the potential for a global flu pandemic, I was working at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. The epidemiologists there were working to understand the systems that could trigger such a pandemic and determine what steps might be taken to avoid one.

A major concern for scientists, health personnel, and policymakers is that influenza viruses mutate easily and can even jump species. They are complex systems, they are highly adaptive, and their trajectory is not predictable. With so many people in the world keeping poultry and other livestock near wildlife, and with rapid global travel so common, one of these mutations can become deadly enough to kill people and then spread quickly. Communicating the danger inherent in such a complex system is made easier by the use of graphics: it's easy to follow the flow and trajectory.

Drawing of the trajectory of the spread of a deadly disease

We live in a complex world. How can it be understood more easily with the help of a graphic recorder? Next up, we'll look at the visualization of different complex systems.

Graphically Recording Nature

I recently certified as a California Naturalist. I've been a birder for decades but this was a great chance to increase my knowledge of other pieces of the nature puzzle in our area like fungi, galls, and dragonflies and damselflies.

Drawing of person recording observations in nature

Something magical happens when you sit in nature, journal and pen in hand, and just take it all in. For me, it cleans out the inside of my head. It's a meditation.

Sitting still and focusing on what you see and hear, and recording what species are in your local area, can serve as a valuable resource for scientists as well as addressing nature deficit disorder. Try it! I always learn something new. 

Just like I always learn something new when I step into a room to graphically record a meeting or workshop.

Moving Forward with the Right Tools

When we started talking about strategic planning, we looked at negative reactions and suspicions you might encounter when it's brought up. If you've taken some time to talk to members of your organization and communicated your belief in their value and honestly asked for their input, you might all be ready to move forward with a planning process.

Some of the milder negative responses to hearing "strategic planning" evoked tedium and dread, summed up as "endless meetings in dark rooms with stale air."

So: find a light, pleasant environment for a meeting. Make sure people are given healthy food choices. Never go over time, and be sure to include plenty of breaks.

Find the best facilitator you can, someone who will naturally suggest all of the above. And have someone present who will capture the conversation, live, using images and words. (Someone like me.)

You may find people looking at what's been said, and then ask, "What if we did this this other way?" —which also gets drawn. A path begins to emerge. It may not be what you had in mind at the beginning, but I encourage you to have the courage to allow it to form. The result may be something much better.

drawing of a mountain with a trophy on top, with three different ways to reach it

A skilled facilitator working with a graphic recorder can make all the difference in a room full of people who are jaded with planning processes. Try it. It could open up a whole new way forward. And if you've done all the communication legwork beforehand, it might make you look like a genius.

If you'd like to schedule a free graphic recording demonstration, please click here!

The Solution Starts With You

Last week we took a closer look at some people's negative gut reactions to the words "strategic planning." If you thought, "Wait! We don't do that! We don't think that way! We just want to know where we're going and how to get there!" — congratulations! What you actually have is a communication challenge, not an insoluble problem.

Begin by understanding that every single person you work with has a unique perspective on the organization. At the risk of sounding obvious, it's in everyone's best interest that those perspectives be aligned if you're all going to move forward. Take the time to talk to people and ask questions about their perspectives. Pay particular attention to any answers that surprise you.

If you think you don't have the time to do this, don't be surprised if people start polishing their résumés. Organizations whose leaders contemplate major changes without first getting significant buy-in from their employees are doomed to failure, according to John Kotter, emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change.

Drawing of supervisor asking employees for input into some ideas

If you have a healthy organizational culture, people will be unafraid to share their perspectives. You will learn a lot while at the same time instilling trust in your workforce. Trust leads to loyalty and a happy, productive team.

Now you're ready to begin planning the way forward. Next week, we'll look at ways to make a strategic planning process less tedious and more fun, engaging, and effective.

Corporate B.S.

Last week I mentioned the informal survey I had conducted to find out what friends in many different fields thought about strategic planning. Of the responses I received, the negatives outweighed the positives by a wide margin. Here are some of them. Do any match your feelings when you hear "strategic planning"? 

Drawing of three figures with their different reactions to a strategic planning announcement

"It's a waste of time." People who work for an organization are probably already trying to "do more with less," and the thought of a long series of meetings that likely "go nowhere" is filling them with dread and possibly contempt. They might feel, for example, that their input is being sought as lip service only, and that the leaders are "going to do what they're going to do anyway." If this were the case, it would certainly be a waste of their time to participate. 

"Corporate B.S." According to Urban Dictionary, this is " new language that looks and sounds just like English, but is actually lies and propaganda spewed forth by big corporations." Take this example from the Corporate B.S. Generator: "fungibly synergize agile convergence." None of these words in itself is problematic, except possibly the verbification of synergy, but together? Meaningless. 

"Brace for layoffs." If employees think a strategic planning exercise is an expensive and long, drawn-out way to justify laying people off, the implication is that managers and CEO's are cowards who point to graphs and numbers as a way to avoid uncomfortable words like "we think you should consider retirement" or "we've decided to take the organization in a different direction." It's dehumanizing. (This tactic was mercilessly satirized in the film Up in the Air.) 

Clearly, not all organizations behave this way. Check in next week to find out how you can be sure yours isn't one of them. 

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What are they really thinking?

I recently conducted an informal survey via Facebook, asking this question: What pops into your head when you hear the words "strategic planning"? The results astonished me.

First, the sheer number of responses -- I got over 100 in 24 hours. I had clearly touched a nerve; people had strong opinions and were eager to share them.

I put the responses into three categories -- positive, neutral, and negative. Only 16% reacted positively (mostly friends who do some kind of facilitation work or who have a managerial role in organizations). The neutrals (also about 15%) seemed to understand the need for planning, though they were just, well, neutral, though leaning toward unenthusiastic.

The negatives? Over 60% used such terms as "boring," "waste of time," "corporate BS," "military/authoritarian," and on into "brace for layoffs," all indicating tedium, cynicism and deep mistrust.

This was a small sample size, and it wasn't a scientific survey. But any organization thinking about embarking on strategic planning should understand that some of its members could share those reactions and prepare accordingly.

drawing of a general asking workers to charge toward the future with a strategic plan

Next week, we'll look into some of these negative reactions more closely to see how to turn them into positive interactions with your team to allow everyone to go forward in a purposeful way.

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The Right Tools for the Job

Last week I talked about my first day of school in a new country and my trip to a magical stationery store. I got a pencil case so I could fit in with my five-year-old classmates and put my pencil, pencil sharpener and eraser inside so they wouldn’t get lost.

What does this have to do with you?

Knowing that you have the right tools for the job.

What are your tools? drawing

So much of what we do requires tools and the skills to use them. I’m typing this on a laptop using software I had to learn to use. Yesterday I was making some yarn on a spinning wheel. We cook our dinners with kitchen tools and we garden with gardening tools that have changed little since the middle ages—because they were well designed to begin with.

When it comes to tools for our work, we are often given standard-issue equipment. Mostly it works well enough. But what if we looked at tools in a broader sense? Tools are often about what choices we make. Should I send this person an email? Call them up? Arrange to meet in person? Send them a handwritten note? The point is, the choice might have a strong impact on the outcome. “Management by walking around” is a style, but it’s also a tool.
My own professional tools are markers, paper, and boards I set on tripods. I choose German Neuland markers because they come in a huge range of colors, they’re water-based (non-toxic), and refillable. I choose layout paper because it’s smooth and takes ink well and because the smell of it takes me back to the inside of a stationery store in Madrid on a September afternoon.

What are your favorite tools, and how do they help you excel in your work?