My Interview on Techsmith’s “The Forge”

Last weekend I was invited to come and facilitate at the Visual Thinking and Literacy Conference in Birmingham, MI. This is the second year the conference has run – it’s a neat little event that draws a mix of people from the education & business worlds (as well as a hand full of students too).

In addition to my session (on brainstorming tools & techniques) I was also invited to participate in a live taping of The Forge, a monthly video show/podcast put together by Matt Pierce at Techsmith. The show was taped in two segments – the first a panel discussion/debate on paper vs. digital with my friends and visual thinking masters Jamie Nast, Karl Gude and Brandy Agerbeck. The second part was a one-on-one interview with me that ranged form “What do you do?” to my favorite tools, techniques and my thoughts on the paper vs. digital debate.

I’ve embedded the show below – the whole thing is worth watching. If you want to jump to my interview it starts around 16:05 in.

Innovation & The Importance of Crashing Into Walls

Every project has that looming obstacle in the distance (if not several), you know it’s there but you’re never sure when, where or how it’s going to appear. Even worse, you keep crashing into the same obstacles because that’s what the process tells you to do.

In the latter case people often don’t realize they’re hitting the wall because it’s always been that way, or they’re so removed from the people actually doing the work they never know what is happening. It’s as if you send your car off with someone you don’t know and they return it back to you sometime later, smashed up but just barely recognizable. At that point you’re so glad to see it again that you simply take it and say “Thank You”.

For innovators in a big organization I think it’s a critical part of our job to seek out those obstacles and deliberately go crashing headfirst into them. Let me explain…

The Field and The Jungle

My biggest learning in the past few months since joining a huge organization has been just how many obstacles there are and how hard it can be to identify who’s responsible and how to resolve the issue. There are endless rabbit holes of anonymous forms, group email addresses and blackbox processes where you slip in your idea and wait to see what comes out.

Having previously worked in nothing but small organizations & start-ups (<20 people, usually 3-5) in the past I always knew who was responsible for a specific task or process and where I could go if I was having problems. If it couldn’t be solved there was always a way around the problem. I’d equate it to standing on a path through an open field with some small pebbles and rocks blocking your path – Sure you’d hit the odd big, immovable rock (i.e. “Money”) but generally getting over, around or just plain removing an obstacle always seemed possible.

The path

Compare that to a big enterprise where it’s more like walking down a narrow, sometimes barely discernible, path in a heavy jungle that turns black with darkness a few feet off the path. Sure you encounter the odd pebble and rock but quite often you find yourself face to face with a giant boulder obstructing the way. It could probably be moved, and you know the person responsible for it is somewhere out there in the jungle, but stepping off the path is fraught with danger and you’re not even sure who you’re looking for. It’s full of risk and many people are taught “stay on the path”. As a result, many simply stand at the boulder waiting for someone or something to come along and roll it out of the way for them, resenting the process while they watch their project backup on the trail behind them.

Innovation in a Big Organization

In the team we refer to the three types of innovation work we address “New to ‘us'”, “New to the Industry”, and “New to the World” – of course everyone would rather play in that final category but the reality is very few organizations have the stomach for, or capability to play in, that realm.  Instead there’s a lot of time spent bringing new to us, or new to the industry, ideas that have traction in the ‘outside’ world into the organization.

Increasingly though, I’m seeing the role of our team evolve to become jungle guides – it’s become less about “what” we bring into the organization but more about the “how” we bring things in. There are actually plenty of innovative people in the organization, everyday we learn of initiatives or ideas that are being hatched and worked on. Too often though we hear about them because the people championing them are coming to us looking for help navigating the trail.

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Our team has a huge advantage in the enterprise jungle – Our cross-functional make-up of our team (we all report to different areas of the organization) and interaction with a diverse group of people across the organization gives us a unique view of the landscape. Our complementary skills (Strategist, Business Analyst, Facilitator and a Developer) serve as a giant machete, it’s not hard for us to blaze new trails occasionally and when we get on open trails we can move quickly. Lastly, our executive support means we’ve got air support that when necessary, can be used to help get obstacles out of our way.

Put the Stick Away

Here’s the thing though – putting all those tools to use helps in the short term, but in the long run it doesn’t actually help the organization. It all comes down to whether you want innovative ‘things’ or an innovative culture. Sure we can push a new technology or application through a little quicker or find loopholes and openings to get us around the obstacles but that isn’t something the average employee has the benefit of. To really benefit the organization we need to go running headfirst into some of these obstacles. This will necessarily mean it takes longer to get to our destination but there’s no point in blazing new trails that other people can’t follow.

Crash Test Dummies

The IIHS doesn’t crash cars into things because it’s fun (though I’m sure it doesn’t hurt) – they smash them into the walls, see what happens and then learn from their findings. As innovators we need to crash a few cars. Our advantage is we’re equipped for the crash. We know we can withstand it, and largely, we’re in control of it – we can see the obstacle ahead and we can choose when, where and even how fast we’re going to crash into it.


Now I’m not advocating rushing recklessly into walls to see what happens, to be effective you need to control the experiment as much as possible – in our case we first Scout out what’s ahead on the road. We learn what’s ahead while trying to balance not over familiarizing ourselves with the process, just enough to have a pretty good hunch where something is going to break. It’s important to scout on both sides, with the drivers and the obstacle owners. Find out what’s failed for people and learn what is expected at each stage – then you can put your car on the track.

There will often be multiple obstacles, take on one at a time.

Look What Happened To My Car

We need to crash into these walls not just so we can make better cars (better prepare our projects/ideas) but also so we can go visit the owner of the obstacle and say “Look what happened to my car” and hear their version of what happened. It’s not about blame, but rather understanding. One there’s common understanding we can begin to determine if the obstacle is the right size and how we better let the drivers know where it is so they can anticipate it.

I’ve been consistently amazed when I talk to the groups on either side and find how similar their stories are. Each feels the other doesn’t understand them, has unreasonable requests and ridiculous time lines. “There’s not enough information” “They can’t tell me what information they need” – the list goes on. The reality is, neither side is to blame, often there’s multiple middlemen between the people with the request and the people whose job it is to fufil it.

Communicate & Facilitate Change

At the end of the day this is all an exercise in communication. You need to crash a car or two so you can demonstrate that you’ve followed the path and something isn’t working long it and it builds credibility with all involved. The most important thing is to avoid blame, note the wording of “look what happened to my car” versus “look what your boulder did to my car” . The obstacle owners aren’t mischievous punks who put a big rock out to see what happens – they may not even be aware it’s there or that something they’re doing makes it bigger than it needs to be. Everyone is trying to do their own job to the best of the ability but they may have goals or expectations that challenge the others. This process is about helping create awareness about what each participant needs and helping create an environment where those needs are fulfilled.

Sometimes awareness is all that’s needed, other times the solution is more complex but if we don’t follow the path we’ll never gain those insights.

Photos: Car Wreck – OpenSkyMedia | Jungle Path – chrissuderman

Visually Exploring the idea of “Personal Brand”

I know, I know – half of you clicking through just cringed when you read the term “personal brand” – I’m not a fan of the term either, but up until now I’ve been hard pressed to find a term that summed the concept up better. Also, I’m approaching this thought exercise not from the notion that you can directly control or shape a ‘brand’ for yourself but rather trying to understand what the underpinnings of the concept are and how  someone can ensure they’re putting the right foundation out there for people to build their own impressions, and thus your “brand” on.

For the specialists of the world I’m not sure this is as big an issue, but I think a lot of generalists (like me) struggle with it. As I’ve pondered on my blog in the past here, it’s not always clear to me exactly what it is I do, and if it’s not clear to me I can only imagine how messy it gets when other people try to form opinions or thoughts about what it is I do.

Anatomy of a Personal Brand: Attempt 1

I took a first stab at creating a model in my trusty sketchbook the other day and came up with this:

Anatomy of Personal Brand

Ultimately as I dug into the visual though and tried to create a more refined version I realized what I was drawing here was actually more a representation about how individuals form opinions about you and didn’t speak at all to how the greater collective opinion (a.k.a “Personal Brand”) got formed.  So, instead, I moved away from this circular idea and tried approaching this from the bottom up.

Anatomy of a Personal Brand: Attempt 2

Formation of Collective Reputation
(Click to enlarge | Hosted on Flickr)

For this visual I started at the bottom, the foundation – Facts & Fictions. Everyone’s opinion is based on their perceptions of impressions of the baseline facts and/or fictions available to them. Perceptions are the intuitive feelings people get – gut feeling, sensing, etc. whereas Impressions represent the interpretive side, where someone makes deliberate judgments based on the ‘evidence’ before them. Both perceptions and impressions can influence each other and they roll up to form the individual’s opinion, which in turn gets added to a Collective Reputation based on the individual opinions of the masses.

Context is Everything

As with most things, context with everything – we don’t have one single collective reputation. Your collective reputation will change depending on the lens you’re being viewed through – i.e. Your collective reputation in the context of “Trustworthy” might be dramatically different from that of the context of “Can Fix Cars”. That said, the contexts are not exclusive, if I’m considering who I want to have fix my car I would consider both “Trustworthy” and “Can Fix Cars” in making both my decisions (and if you screw up my car or screw me on the bill both could be affected).

Individuals Weight the Collective Reputation

Also, there’s no standard “reputation” for any context – each collective reputation is formed by the individual’s networks and their opinions of the individual people who make up that network. For example, if my view of the collective reputation of person X is that he’s not very trustworthy then I’m not going to weight his opinion of Person Y as highly as I would someone else more trustworthy.

Facts, Not fiction

Facts & Fictions are the only place you have any control and even then, you only have the power to create new facts or fictions. Fictions are unsustainable though and will ultimately lead to negative Facts being created, and you can’t ‘delete’ those.

Feedback Wanted

All in all, I’m happy with where this visual is headed – I think there’s a few other visuals that can do with some exploring as well including; context, weighting & how you go about evaluating and improving on the collective reputations you have today.

I also like the emergence of the term “Collective Reputation” – I’m not 100% sure it’s the perfect terminology but it sure sounds a whole lot better than personal brand.

What are you thoughts or comments? Share them below.

[Presentation Design] Making the Pitch for Action on Climate Change

A few weeks ago I got introduced to the Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA), an organization which had been assembled to help achieve a ambitious, fair, and binding agreement in December at the UNFCC Climate Conference in Copenhagen. As they enter the final run-up to the event over the next few months they were looking to spruce up their presentation deck in advance of their official launch – the only catch? it had to be done in roughly 48 hours.


The Process

Up for the challenge, I got started. Over the next 48 hours I helped them entirely reflow the presentation to create a story that built up a case for action and showed how the GCCA would play a pivotal role in coming away from Copenhagen with a deal that was best for the planet, and all its stakeholders. From there I built out the presentation deck, created a consistent template and added visual elements that helped further illustrate what’s at stake.

The Results

Some example slides from the finished presentation

gcca_port gcca_port1

Case Study

I’ve summarized the entire process as a mini-case study on my site – you can access it here.

As a freelance facilitator and information designer, I can help your organization discover, define and develop your story so you can share it more effectively – If your organization could benefit from better explaining what it is you do, then I can be of help. Contact me today.