Tuesday, March 3, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: 'THE BACK OF THE NAPKIN', by Dan Roam
I have always been fascinated by visual thinking & visual problem solving. I attribute this captivation of mine partly to my engineering training - seeing the problem first before getting to the solution.
In the earlier years of my professional career, my field guide to visual thinking & visual problem solving happened to be Henning Nelms' 'Thinking with a Pencil'. I could relate to it very quickly because of my engineering work.
In subsequent years, I had picked up the mind-mapping techniques from Tony Buzan, which led me to explore other visual tools, partly fueled by my curiosity.
One of them was the mind-scaping techniques from Nancy Margulies.
Another was the rapid visualisation techniques from Kurt Hanks, especially his wonderful book, 'Rapid Viz', which gave me a more fun & spontaneous approach.
As I moved into the upper echelons of marketing & management, in conjunction with my career progression, I came across Terry Richey's 'Marketer's Visual Toolkit: Using Charts, Graphs, & Models for Strategic Planning & Problem Solving'.
Prior to it, I didn't realise a simple box matrix could do so much wonders to understanding problems.
As a matter of fact, today the Nine Block Matrix is one of my most favourite business analytical tools.
This was followed by Larry Raymond's 'Reinventing Communication: A Guide for Using Visual Language for Planning, Problem Solving & Re engineering'. The journey metaphor was a real eye opener for me, especially in terms of thinking strategically.
Both of them certainly gave me many broad perspectives about using more effective visual approaches to get into the heart of business issues.
In the early nineties, I went to the United States to learn advanced visual tools from the legendary Jim Channon. It was an awesome learning experience for me.
His brilliant work then led me to discover David Sibbet of Grove Consultants (graphic facilitation) & Jerry McNellis (storyboarding), from both of whom I had learned to develop my own professional expertise in helping small businesses to expedite their problem solving as well as fine-tune their strategic planning techniques.
As part of my strategy consulting & training development work in the ensuing years, with entrepreneurs, professionals, managers as well as students, I also started to explore graphic organisers & other visual organisers as power tools to manage information overload.
In the last couple of years, a handful of experts have further expanded my personal understanding about making systems sense of challenging business situations.
- Alex Lowry & Phil Hood, 'The Power of the 2x2 Matrix: Using 2x2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems & Make Better Decisions';
- John Bryson, 'Visible Thinking: Unlocking Causal Mapping for Practical Business Results';
I have even indulged in what I call 'deliberate doodling', with some great help from the work of Joy Sikorski.
As you can see, I have come a long way as far as exploring & practising visual thinking & visual problem solving are concerned.
In many respects, my learning journey has been greatly influenced by the teachings of all the above mentioned experts.
Against this backdrop, I am very glad to meet Dan Roam, through his wonderful book, 'The Back of the Napkin'. I have come across the book at first while browsing through some body's blog.
Fortunately, to my great delight, I have managed to get a copy from Kinokuniya Bookstore quickly. Upon perusal, I have found it somewhat heavy going for a visual thinking book.
In a nutshell, the book has four critical sections, from my point of view, with two supporting technical appendices & an extended case study:
- Part I: Looking at the problem;
- Part II: Seeing & Discovering Ideas;
- Part III: Imagining & Developing Ideas;
- Part IV: Showing & Selling Ideas;
My initial adverse response while reading this book is that I have to get used to the hand-drawn stick figures [which I really don't like] in the book, & also the need to do flip-flopping between images & text, but after a while, I just get used to them & finally, reading becomes a breeze, even though it's textually very dense.
Tactically, it is a do-it-yourself book. So you have to work with it systematically to get what you need.
Actually for me, & in application terms, the book is an expanded intellectual extension of Kurt Hank's rapid visualisation techniques, which are more spontaneous & artful, but Dan Roam has put in a more systems perspective - almost structured & yet still free-form, in a limited sense - to view issues or problems.
What I like about the book from the beginning is the author's "Guide Rope to Visual Thinking", which outlines his comprehensive 4-step process, 3 built-in tools & 6 ways of seeing. They are basically the foundational tools, while the latter forms the six fundamental questions that guide how we see the world.
I am glad that the "6 ways of seeing" has sparked off an interesting idea at my end - I can now synergise - in fact, I like to use the term 'synconvergise' from Michael Gelb - what I had picked up from an earlier book, 'So What? The Definitive Guide to the Only Business Questions that Matter', by Kevin Duncan;
All I can say so far is that all the techniques as introduced by the author certainly build on, or rather amplify, my current repertoire of abilities & skills to view, simplify & summarise complicated concepts with simple pictures.
To end this post, let me paraphrase the author:
"Welcome to a whole new way of looking at business . . . The heart of business is the art of problem solving . . . Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see . . ."
[Extracted & adapted from the 'Optimum Performance Technologies' webog.]