Matt chats with Dave Gray – author, designer, entrepreneur and founder of XPLANE. They discuss visual thinking, education, evolution and entrepreneurship!
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Matt: Welcome to the next episode of the UX Mastery Podcast. I have the very good fortune to be speaking with Mr. Dave Gray. Welcome Dave.
Dave: Thank you. Good to be here Matt.
M: Why don’t we start by you telling our readers a little bit about yourself Dave.
D: Okay. I’m a designer by training. I became an entrepreneur in 1993 when I started my company. I’m a designer by training, I became a visual journalist. I did information graphics. Then I started the company in 1993 which has grown and sort of grew from being a designer into a business person, and now even a business consultancy where we sort of found a sweet spot within companies where visualization is extremely powerful for driving business strategy and moving people forward. My company is called XPLANE and we operate kind of like a personal trainer for organizations. In the same way that a high-performance athlete uses visualization to picture the next stage in their evolution, we’re doing that for companies every day. That’s my background. And I wrote a couple of books in there along the way.
M: I find that fascinating. I’m sure there’s lots of listeners out there who are designers but who are entrepreneurial and probably think that the pathway to entrepreneurship is getting strong business skills, which is true but your pathway’s really been focused around the visual stuff which is unique and interesting. What is visual thinking Dave? How do you define visual thinking and why does it matter?
D: I see visual thinking as a way of using your hands and your brain. Design is about making things. Visual thinking is about taking the ideas that exist in a lot of people’s heads and translating them into ideas that are visualized on paper. We’re all visual thinkers in the sense that the vast majority of our processing power, sensory information coming in, and the vast chunk of our processing power is visual. And the way that our brain’s work is very visual. And so people are able to very, very quickly comprehend something when they see it, when they can visualize it. Visual thinking is the process of… Let’s say any time you’re planning something that you haven’t done before, you visualize it in your head. You’re planning to go. You take a bike ride or you’re going to go to a new place. Before you do that you visualize it in your head. Athletes visualize themselves performing at a high level, the next higher level in order to get there.
The reason that visual thinking is so powerful is that, number one, if it can’t be drawn then it can’t be done. If you can’t draw a picture of something then you will not be able to do it. And number two, if you can visualize something, if you can imagine doing it then you’ll have a far better chance of actually achieving that goal than if you cannot imagine it. Just try and think about the things that you’ve…
I’ll give you an example. I was working with a group on time and asked them first of all, “What are your goals? What are some things that you like to achieve in the next era.” [Unintelligible 00:03:52] draw a picture of what it looked like if it had been achieved in the process for getting there. I think they were maybe being a little tongue and cheek about the exercise, but one group chose world peace. They were not able to visualize world peace. They were not even able to visualize even the first step towards world peace, they struggled. And I think one of the reasons that we’ve had as a world, trouble achieving that goal is because we can’t visualize it. And figuring out the first step to doing that is an important piece of that puzzle.
If it can’t be drawn it can’t be done. They did admit to me they struggled with it. I think the fact is sometimes it’s more useful, rather than visualizing the ultimate goal just to try and visualize the next step along that path. What’s the next step in our evolution towards that? What would be the next phase of that? That’s a very long answer to your questions so I…
M: No, it’s very cool and I’ve never really made that connection, but it makes perfect sense. But we’re not talking about art here, are we? We’re not talking about being artistic. Do you consider yourself to be an artist?
D: I do, but I agree with you. I think that art and visual thinking are perhaps related but they’re not the same thing at all. I’m talking about something that anyone can do. I’m talking about something that will accelerate your evolution if you do it, and that people can do it. It’s achievable. Sometimes visual thinking is something that you just do in your head. Sometimes it’s something that you do on paper. The fact is that as an individual, high-performance athlete for example, you could do it in your head. You can imagine the ball going through the hoop over and over again. That’s what high-performance athletes will do.
As an organization, as a team you cannot do it in your head because you have to align your picture with the picture of other people. And often in organizations that’s where communication breaks down, is because we are using the same words but we’re imagining different things. And so it’s only in the process of, “You draw what you mean by that, I’ll draw what I mean by that” or “We’ll have an artist in the room with us who’s talking to us both and trying to draw what we both mean by that”, and it’s in that process of looking at it, saying, “Yes, that’s kind of right. No, that’s wrong.” And we sort imagine asking the question, “We’re a high performance sales team. What does that look like? What are people doing every day? What is happening?” And in the course of answering that questions you’re going to have a lot of different pieces of the puzzle coming together. And at the end of the day you’re going to only get that shared picture by actually making it explicit outside the mind. It’s just like you can’t share a dream with somebody else. You can’t share a visualization unless you make it explicit on paper.
That’s why we’re like a personal trainer before organizations because high-performance organizations are a lot like high-performance athletes, they know that there are certain things you cannot do for yourself as well as having someone come in and be your coach, or be your adviser, or your trainer, or whatever. The process of creating those visualizations of the future is extremely exciting, it’s energizing. Not only does it drive understanding it drives alignment, people getting aligned about stuff. It also drives commitment because you’re drawing pictures of things, only things that you are going to commit to do.
The other thing that’s exciting about it is it also actually drives forward motion on whatever the strategy or the project is. Because by drawing a picture of it you’re already starting to move into that future space and you’re also creating any materials that you need to communicate that stuff or just naturally going to come out as a part of that process. Not only have you got your own team aligned but now you go out of it with some pictures to show other people, “Hey, here’s where we’re going. Here’s the next stage in our organization’s evolution. Here’s the kind of things that we need to be doing.” It takes kind of the abstract stuff that you might see in the spreadsheet and makes it very clear so people actually can do… It becomes a blueprint for action.
M: You used some big words just then. You said, “accelerate your evolution” that’s a big call. As kids we confidence in sketching and we lose that confidence. Why is that and why is it tied to evolution?
D: I’m not sure I understand that question.
M: Sorry, I probably confused a bunch of stuff because you got my mind firing.
D: No, it’s great. Why is it that we stop drawing?
M: I’ve got a kids book that I wrote and illustrated and read it in my daughter’s primary school. And I asked the kids in the class, “Hands up. Who’s an artist?” They all put their hands up. They’re all really proud of being able to communicate visually. And if you do that to my eldest daughter’s class between 9 and 10 then you’d probably get about half the kids that are proud to say, “Yeah, I’m an artist” or “Yeah, I can draw.”
D: Let me answer the first question about why we typically stop. And then I can answer this second question about how we can accelerate evolution because I think they’re two different things.
M: Fair enough.
D: All right. The first question, why do we stop doing it? I think this is actually a flaw in our education system. If you look at the way that our educational system is designed, it really has… Our educational system, at least in my country and I probably in yours, has not evolved that much since let’s say 1900, or maybe 1930’s or so when people started moving from farms to the cities. In the farmlands you have these rural school houses where all the kids were learning together. There was much more, actually probably creative and integrated, holistic thing. When we moved to the cities we took the same kind of approach that we did to building factories and industrializing the business economy into industrializing education.
And so if you think about it made perfect sense at the time. We were building a world of standardized parts and standardized processes and procedures where people actually had to fit into that world. I can’t remember who said this. It was some famous educator or somebody who said, “There’s an over-curriculum and a covert curriculum in our school systems.” The over-curriculum, the obvious curriculum that’s spoken about is reading, writing, arithmetic. But the covert curriculum is what you’re also learning at the same time is stand in line, do what your told, don’t stand out, don’t do something that’s unpredictable, give the answer that the teacher wants. Basically, don’t be creative. There’s that covert curriculum then. We don’t even think about it that most kids are not sophisticated enough to actually understand. They’re just trying to conform to the expectations of the adults. And if you think about it, it’s not too soon after we get into that, industrialized system that the urge and the desire to be creative and draw starts to go away. So they’re tied together.
If you like conformity, you don’t want creativity, you don’t want people drawing. Think about the art teacher, how do you grade… what’s right and wrong as an answer to a drawing problem. Visualize world peace, how do you grade something like that? How do you fit that into a standard educational format where there’s a right answer and wrong answer. How do teachers even teach that?
That was a good solution for the problem we had at the time. Now we have a different problem because what’s happened is that we’ve now got automation. Basically we’ve got software and robots who are going to be doing anything that can be predicted and anything that can be repeatable. And we’re still training people to be robots but we’re going to have actual robots. We’re not going to need people to be robots anymore. What we’re going to need from people is that creative thinking, that outside the box, for a lack of a better term, the getting better at asking questions, getting better at understanding other people, getting better at getting aligned, getting better at getting people committed to things, and getting them excited about creating new things, new business models, new ideas.
I do believe that our educational system will inevitably transform. It’s going to happen faster in some places than in others. It’s interesting when you look at the percentage of super successful, high-powered, high-level, new economy CEO’s that were trained outside the typical educational system. There’s a lot. Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, I think possibly Reeve Hastings from Netflix, there is a number, a higher percentage of the general population of super successful tech entrepreneurs that were trained outside of that traditional and industrialized education system, a surprisingly large number. And so I think that’s pretty fascinating. I think it’s inevitable there’s going to be a shift.
Unfortunately it’s not happening as fast as probably you or I would like. But I do think that what’s going to happen is as our educational system transforms you’re going to find that unless the kids are stopping drawing and you’re going to actually see the kids who are drawing are going to be more successful. They’re going to have more creative ideas, are going to be better aligned with their peers because they’re going to have those conversations about what things look like. They’re going to be better able to achieve results. I’ve been on a mission for probably about 10 years now to try and build a curriculum at schools, at least try to conceive a curriculum that schools could adopt and apply in the educational system.
M: Awesome. Evolution, that’s a big word.
M: How does visual thinking help us evolve and become better humans rather than just be more successful in business?
D: I guess I sort of did answer in a way, I think that as a species we’re moving from having to scale our activities by being consistent, predictable, and repeatable, and marching in order, and synchronizing our bodies and that kind of thing. A factory assembly line to actually a phase in our evolution where those things are going to be taken care of and we need to figure out what else we want to do. What is the next great business model? What’s the next Uber or the next Airbnb? What’s going to be the bank of the future going to look like? We now have kind of an open slate and the biggest constraint is not our ability to make things so much is our ability to get creative is just come up with the idea.
People are talking about the internet of things, people have been talking about the future refrigerator or the future shopping cart for years. But the lack of progress is more about the lack of creativity and ideas than it is the lack of technological capability. We have the technological capability right now we just don’t have the creativity. We don’t have the creative capability.
So I think next phase in our evolution and visual thinking is going to be very handy for them because you’re thinking about our problems both politically and just the problems that the world faces. A lot of them are problems related to people not being able to come up with creative solutions, sinking back into either or, either we raise taxes or everybody starves. This dichotomies that are really false dichotomies and they’re due to a lack of creativity. We’re going to evolve when we start building shared understanding about what is and also building shared understanding about what could be and what we could create together. And I think visual thinking is absolutely a key part of that.
M: So playing devil’s advocate, there are a large number of people who are successful and who would not describe themselves as visual thinkers. And I’ve worked with people in organizations and they don’t want to engage in this kind of activity because I guess, like for whatever reason the way that their brain works or the way that they’ve been brought up or whatever. They feel like it’s not for them. How do you address individuals who are resistant to this kind of thing?
D: I don’t try to… There’s enough people who understand that I don’t spend a lot of time with people unless they have big budgets I guess. I’m trying to convince them. We work in large organizations where there’s all kinds of different people. Once we’re working with a client we will find sometimes people have issues or resistance. I think the easiest and quickest way to get that over is do a simple drawing exercise or something like that. It’s actually realizing, this isn’t something that I can’t do. I think the issue there is to get underneath whatever belief they’re expressing and figure out what need they have. Maybe some people have a need not to look foolish in front of their peers. Maybe some people have a need for power and authority and they feel very confident in their verbal authority in a meeting or business situation. But drawing puts them on the same playing field as everyone else and they’re going to lose status.
They’re worried about losing their status. I think that’s a matter of understanding what is the underlying need that they have. Maybe some people feel that it’s going to create a lot of uncertainty for them. They don’t know what it’s going to look like. So in that case then you could show them what it’s going to look like. You can say, “Here’s what we’re going to kind of think we’re going to be working on, that kind of thing that we’re going to come out with.” I think it depends on the need. But one thing I spend a lot of time doing is not necessarily focusing on the belief that people are expressing, but I focus on the need and where that belief is coming from. And usually that belief is coming from some kind of a personal need.
There’s a model that I really like called the SCARF Model. It comes from a guy named David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute. It’s a model that basically there are certain social needs that we have, and SCARF stands for those needs. I’ll go through them in a second. These social and emotional needs, the brain treats the same way. If you’re lacking at one of these emotional needs you’re not getting what you need. The brain reacts the same way as if you’re not getting enough oxygen, or if you’re not getting enough food. The brain reacts in a very strong fight or flight kind of a way. And you’ll see this in meetings and you’ll see this in people. Here are the needs, because I think the model’s very useful.
SCARF, S stands for status. Some people need to feel that they’re important. They need to feel that they’re not going to lose their status within the group based on your visual thinking activity. Another thing is see a certainty. People want to be able to feel that they can predict the future. So they want to know that if they go through your visual thinking activity, what’s that going to look like and what’s going to happen? What do I need to do? What are you going to ask me to do?
A, autonomy, people need to have feeling of autonomy, they need to feel like they have control. Sometimes that means giving people the option to opt out, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it means giving the option of if you want to do this as part of a group, great. If you want to go off and draw your own picture that’s fine too, or whatever, giving some choices.
R is for relatedness. People need to feel like they belong, like they’re part of the group. What if everybody else draws better than me? Maybe you reduce the barrier there. It’s often when I’m facilitating that I will draw a bad drawing on purpose just to reduce the level of… I can’t draw. What am I going to have to do? I’ll do something much lower quality than I might be capable of. I’ve noticed my friend Dan [Unintelligible 00:22:38] does the same thing. He went to design school but he never talks about that, and he’s always drawing stick figures. He’s capable of much more, but he’s always drawing stick figures. And he’s never send this to me explicitly but I believe pretty strongly that there’s an intentionality behind that. He wanted us to make this stuff very accessible.
The last one is F, fairness. I don’t think fairness is coming up that much in the lack of people’s fears about visual thinking. But if for some reason they feel that the world isn’t fair or they’re not going to be fairly treated if they draw that somehow someone else doesn’t have to do it, or I don’t know what that would be, but fairness is another one of those needs that I think is very valuable and important to be aware of, thinking about all those things.
If you find that underlying need generally speaking somebody’s feeling choked. Someone’s feeling emotionally choked. They’re feeling emotionally cut off. I don’t think it’s skepticism about the power of visual thinking in most cases. I think it’s the fear thing. In that case the way you get around is to find a way to… It’s either a fear thing or they’re just busy, they don’t have time, and they don’t think that they need it. It’s like there are things you don’t feel like you need until you’re at end of your road. And those people who just don’t have time for it then move on. It’s a fear thing, I think it’s easier to get in there and try to understand it.
M: Dave, it’s always inspiring and a pleasure to talk to you about this stuff. I’ve got a bunch of things that I’m going to go away and thinking about it some more. And I’d love to do this again because I think you’re absolutely right, there’s a real grand swell of momentum around this stuff and it’s exciting. Thank you for giving us your time. I really appreciate it.
D: My pleasure.
M: If people want to track you down online where should they go?
D: I’ll give you my website and my company’s website. It’s going to be easy because they’re almost the same thing. My company is xplane.com and my websites xplaner.com. And it’s just because I’m very focused on my company and that’s pretty synonymous with who i am and what I do so you could find me at either or both those places. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
M: Good stuff.