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Using Visual Language to Create the Case for Change


Last updated 8/5/2010

With globalization, growing competition in the marketplace and an ever-increasing pace of change, the pressure on organizations to produce results—fast--has never been greater. The timeline for implementing change so that it translates into direct financial benefit is growing shorter and shorter.

Ironically, however, by focusing relentlessly on bottom-line results, organizations often lose sight of some basic business practices that are essential to getting those results. One of the most overlooked and underestimated is the role that communication plays in the success of the change effort. Clear, effective communication on all levels of the organization is essential for conveying the case for change—and the strategy that provides the direction for change.

Unfortunately, when the pressure is on, most of us tend to fall back on traditional methods of communicating: memos, e-mails, written reports, bullet-point presentations and meeting—lots of meetings. All of these tools are effective in pushing out information to an organization’s workforce but a question remains: how effective are these tools in actually communicating and generating understanding on the part of the people who ultimately make change happen?

The answer is “not very.” All of these traditional media are primarily text-driven—in most cases, they rely almost exclusively on the written or spoken word. Decades of research show that verbal communication alone is not the most effective way to convey information—especially abstract or highly complex information such as strategic goals, work processes, systems or plans for implementing organizational change. Even more important, text alone is ineffective at helping workers see the impact on them individually and how they fit into the plan.

Visual vs. Verbal Learning
As an operational consultancy, we address the situation by identifying the existing communication style and then helping the organization develop a more effective approach. This involves applying some of the key principles of adult learning theory—in particular, the use of “visual language.”

Visual language uses tools such as maps, icons, storyboards, charts and matrices to convey information quickly and effectively. Thus communications translate faster and have a greater impact on bottom-line results. Such a blended approach creates momentum and action exponentially. Many graphics experts provide support in this effort, helping to translate complex verbal processes into easy-to-grasp visual/verbal messages.

Most of us understand this intuitively. How often have we heard “Draw me a picture” as the natural response from people who are overloaded with data and pressed for time to understand a concept? Adult learning theory codifies this observation, recognizing that individuals assimilate information verbally, visually and kinesthetically. In fact, it is widely accepted that approximately 60 percent of the adult population are visual learners. Yet managers often fail to take advantage of visual language to convey the process changes, system changes and behavioral changes that are necessary to improve their organization’s performance.

The Bottom-Line Benefits of Visual Language
When managers create a blended communication language, incorporating visuals, text and verbal communication, they make it easier for the members of their audience to understand their message. More important, they give employees within the organization the ability to see how they can dramatically impact bottom-line results. Visual language helps employees act more promptly, decisively and effectively. That means faster results and a quicker impact on the bottom line.

Evidence for this comes from research by Robert Horn at Stanford University, using studies from the Wharton School of Business, along with other academic and business studies. Among some of the recent research findings:

  • Responsiveness and decisiveness: An overview map, a fundamental visual language tool, can help people organize and process information faster—and act on it more promptly. In one study, 64% of participants made an immediate decision following presentations that used an overview map. The control groups lagged behind. 
  •  Meeting effectiveness and efficiency: Visual language has been shown to shorten meetings by 24%. The productivity gain from this finding alone has considerable impact on an organization’s results. 
  •  Decision making and consensus: Groups using visual language have experienced a 21% increase in their ability to reach consensus, compared to groups that did not use visuals. The ability to reach consensus quickly and move toward action is a fundamental factor for the success of a change initiative.
  •  Influence and believability: In one study, presenters who used combined visual and verbal presentations were seen as 17% more convincing than those who used verbals alone. Another study at the University of Minnesota found presenters with visual aids were 43% more effective at persuading their audiences to take a desired course of action.

Other research corroborates these findings, leading us to conclude that:

  • Written information is 70% more memorable when it is combined with visuals and actions
  • Visual language improves problem-solving effectiveness by 19%
  • Visual language produces 22% higher results in 13% less time

Each of these findings reminds us of the importance of including visual language tools in any change program. The impact on the organization’s ability to implement change quickly is direct, obvious and measurable. Moreover, in a multi-lingual workforce, visual language is even more essential in ensuring that information is understood and, more important, that it is used to take action.

Beyond Communication—Visual Language as a Planning and Strategic Tool
As valuable as it is for conveying complex information, visual language is much more than a communication tool. It is also a management and behavioral tool that can be highly useful in creating a dialogue around organizational issues and identifying actions for improvement.

For example, a basic tool of many operational consultancies involves “brown papering” the process and tools used to manage the business. Brown papering is a decidedly low-tech visual language tool that helps managers analyze the process flow. Actual “live” copies of the documents used to manage the process are mounted on long brown paper, with the relationships among these tools demonstrated graphically. The result of this seemingly simple exercise is invariably eye-opening, as redundancies, gaps and disconnects become visually apparent.

Of course, visual language can be applied on a much smaller scale, and in a variety of media beyond paper alone. Effective visual language tools range from the complex, such as storyboarding and visual maps, to the simple, such as icons and basic charts. Even something as simple as adding color to a chart demonstrates the effectiveness of visual language principles. When we use green to represent desirable results and red to represent undesirable, it doesn’t take long before people in a group start referring to the various outcomes by colors. Color, then becomes a form of verbal/visual short-hand that helps reinforce the message and streamline the group’s actions.

Simple or complex, high-tech or low tech, visual language provides a valuable, but easily overlooked, methodology for executing a wide variety of critical management functions. That’s not surprising, considering that the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than words alone. Clearly, visual language plays a key role in engagement, alignment, education and training of the organization’s human resource. Even more important, an organization that makes effective use of visual language tools has a powerful advantage in terms of its ability to think strategically, implement change effectively and translate its plans into actions.