When words are not enough

This is a simple plea for mixed teams and visual tools.

I once asked a friend if he dreamed in colour or black and white, and he said ‘neither, I dream in concepts’.   By contrast with both of us, many post-modernists  seem to believe that thought can only be verbal, but that way madness lies: The only validity of 1+1=2 is as a representation of words, and ‘one plus one equals two’ is a social construct.  Oh dear.

I challenge this doctrine that the Word is god.  When I want to work out how things relate to each other I find words are completely useless. They are are ok for communicating concepts (sometimes) but often I find them bad for uncovering concepts, and they are next to useless for working out how things relate to each other.

Years ago I learned a consultancy or counselling exercise whereby you or the client list(s) all the factors on 3x5s and the client organises them in groups on a table.  It is great for aggregating things together.

The house is a mess, the dog has fleas, the kids are in trouble for losing their home-work, and you’re broke because you’ve been buying lunch at work all month.

Write ’em on cards and put them all on the table along with everything else, and suddenly there’s the Eureka moment: the common thread is being short on time.  Deal with that and the other problems melt away.

But until you get the chance to move them around and play them off against each other, you think you’ve got dozens of impossible little problems, instead of one or two larger  ones.

There are many variations on this, and it’s used formally in a lot of project planning workshops for grouping activities into work-streams and blocking them out in time.

The pure gold in this approach is its value in working out the relationships between things.  You can do  on whiteboards, you can do it with cards, you can do it with post-its.  These days I am lazy, so I do it in PowerPoint or Visio. The point is that it’s a process, you won’t arrive at the finished diagram in five minutes, but the very activity of moving things around, like blobs in a lava lamp, will enable your thoughts to coalesce and clarify.

This isn’t just a post about tools, though. It’s saying that there are some conclusions you will never arrive at if you stick to words.  It helps to understand how your team think.  NLP divides thinkers up between the auditory, the visual and the kinesthetic.  I am increasingly doubtful about this, and find it more useful to place them within a venn diagram with circles for the numerate, the verbal and the visual.

Get one of each on your analysis team and so long as there’s no explosion, you will really be cooking with gas.  And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you get stuck on a problem, change  your tool.

7 responses to “When words are not enough

  1. “These days I am lazy, so I do it in PowerPoint or Visio. ”

    Interesting. These days I am too lazy to do it in ppt or visio, so I do it with post it notes, because with post it notes I can do it on a table with two or three other participants at once, whereas with ppt or Visio it’s me and a mouse and a keyboard.

    I’m a bit disappointed that in 2010, while a lot of the grindwork of my profession – iterative calculation, three-dimensional modelling – can be done better with computers, the actual stimulating creative parts are still better done with pen and paper.

    Wonder why?

    • Totally agree about post-its when you are working with others, SoRB. But when it’s me, solo, I tend to do it on the PC.

      >> the actual stimulating creative parts are still better done with pen and paper

      And I rather like that. Though my favourite surface is a whiteboard.

  2. HAve you come across Garner’s theory of multiple intelligences? The NLP thing is used a lot in education – mainly because it works well enough, of you see what I mean – but Garner’s is a bit more precise sounding.


  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention When words are not enough « Thinking about it… -- Topsy.com

  4. There are all kinds of analysis tools; at one point, I worked my way out of a hole by plotting my problems in a circle of circles, then broke them down by their infulence on each other. The circles with the most circles it led to, won. Worked for me, but then I’m not ordinarily that analytical.

    Solnuchka, great link.

  5. That’s my sort of diagram, spacecadette!

    Welcome to my blog, and thanks for taking the time to comment.


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