By Rob Zell:

I had a boss once who loved to draw on the white board. It became something of a joke on his team, that at the beginning of a meeting we would hide the dry erase markers before he came into the room. It never stopped him; he started carrying them around. Only recently do I truly appreciate his approach.

Sidebar for a personal story: My daughter’s soccer team recently ended their season and part of my end of season gift was a coloring book and crayons and the missive that it was something to help me reduce my stress (something of a gag gift). At home after the party, I sat down with the coloring book and colored a picture. I took the time to work slowly and carefully, experimenting with different colors and used shading to highlight areas. It took me back to a calmer time: I worked on the image for me, not for my boss, or my kids, or for the executive committee – just for me. I loved it.

I am known among my peers as the visual learning guy. I push hard on the team to use fewer words and more pictures in both the training materials we produce and the presentations we create. If an image is worth a thousand words then we should we be creating voluminous training in images, not pages of text. Too often, the push back is, “I can’t draw” or “I’m not creative.” Let me say now that everyone can take this approach given some processes and tools.

  1. Take some time to tap into your creative side. A quick search on Google yields a plethora of sites on coloring to relieve stress. I’m not saying you should make it a daily habit, but why not take a few minutes once in a while to doodle? It unlocks a thinking habit that thrives on free association and random connections that you might not have considered. Those links are the foundations of innovation and might lead to bigger and better ideas.
  2. Incorporate a process for thinking differently. The Six Thinking Hats framework developed by Edward de Bono is a wonderful starting point for organizing meetings and encouraging a style of thinking. Assign the role of Green Hat to various team members and have them work at being the creative, “blue sky” thinker. By assigning the role to a person you give permission for ideas to flow and remove limitations.
  3. Encourage mind-mapping as a technique for organizing information. On many occasions I find myself in meetings struggling to grasp how all the parts of a program or initiative are tied together. The various stakeholders have input into the problem and the resulting maelstrom can be hard to decode. A mind map can help illustrate the interconnectedness of all the ideas and make concrete the linkages that the entire team needs to see.
  4. Seek out visual representations of complex ideas. I have two sites I visit regularly to keep my mindset firmly planted in a visual approach. One is the RSA.org channel on YouTube. This British think tank does a fabulous job of linking thought leaders to artistic displays of the concepts. The images drawn in the videos make the presentations so much more vivid. Another is visual.ly a web site that shows how information can be presented visually and, in my opinion, more memorable.

Finally, let me say that visuals don’t have to be high end art work to be effective. A very simple visual can speak volumes to the reader and communicate at more levels than a paragraph of text. Visuals are great for learning, meeting management, brainstorming, even project management (what’s a WBS but a visual of all the tasks in a project?). Don’t fear the creative side, embrace it and take your projects and work into a different, better, more holistic place.

How are you using visuals and creativity to work more efficiently in your role? If you aren’t using them now, how could you?

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