There are so many poorly run meetings that many people hate them. Considering their cost, it’s worth improving them, especially if they are your meetings. An easy way is by getting four things right and visualizing them. This applies to any kind of meeting—regular, special, face-to-face, or virtual. They create the acronym OARRs. The metaphor should help you remember them. Let’s look at each one briefly.
1. Outcomes: If you do nothing else, get these clear at the beginning of meetings. This is where you would express your expectations in a regular meeting and indicate the agreed-upon outcomes of a design team in a special meeting. They should describe what you want to have happen by the end of the meeting. Clarifying outcomes is the most effective action you can take to improve meetings. Writing them down visibly makes a big difference.
2. Agendas: A simple agenda is a list of the items that need to be covered, in the order you want to treat them. A graphic agenda would do this in a “time block” framework where graphics boxes around the items are sized to the amount of time you want to spend on them.
3. Roles: Increase your flexibility by holding different roles and describing them clearly. Coach any facilitators or visual practitioners you work with to clearly indicate his or her role as well. Metaphors help. Are you the driver of the meeting, a coach, a referee, an evaluator, or designer? These are all leader roles but are very different from one another.
4. Rules: Make agreements about how you will handle known kinds of problems in advance of incidents. It can often prevent them from happening at all. How do you plan to handle people who are dominating? How will you deal with decisions? Are you going to make them? Will you accept input? Are you working by consensus? Can people use computers? Can they text during a meeting? All these things are better dealt with in advance.
Visual Listening Is at the Heart of Visual Meetings
What does work is true engagement, interaction, and, most of all, real listening. The heart of visual listening is the act of reflecting what people say interactively with graphic visualization. Once this happens, then the pattern finding and planning that happen occur at an entirely different level of involvement and effectiveness. Putting person-to-person communication back at the center of your leadership, without sacrificing the quality of your thinking, is the goal of visual leadership.
Bob Horn, founder of Information Mapping in Boston, loved to record in his regular meetings. “It was so easy for me to dominate as the boss,” he said. “Recording gave me something to do that was really effective—I was actually listening and everyone could see it in black and white.”
With experience, you will come to appreciate the power of visual listening as a leader. It’s easy to think leadership is about “telling.” But that is beginning leadership. The real art is bringing people along with you. In regular meetings, guiding everyone to review progress, flag issues, and ask for help is a continual process of asking key questions, then listening carefully. It’s possible to do all this without recording, or course, but it’s also very helpful for you to make notes of those things that everyone needs to remember, such as lists of issues and proposals for solution. Recording as the leader underlines the seriousness of your attention. If you do decide to use visuals actively as the leader, the following pages explain some basics about display making that will help you guide the process.
Visual versus Spoken Language
It’s important to understand the word part of visual language. It begins with the spoken word, arranged in a linear format. It’s sentences have a subject-verb-object structure biased toward action. This is one of the reasons that it is so hard to do problem solving with just talking. To compare different ideas and information you have to make a display somewhere. Since humans don’t live only in linear time, and stories occur in contexts and environments, verbal language depends on words pointing at images we can imagine as it goes along. The listener creates the pictures in his or her imagination. Visual practice makes this process explicit, but spoken language does not.
Leaders Focus on Interpretations
Spoken language is not precise. The built-in complications of making sure people share similar interpretations of important communication, such as agreements regarding plans, is one of the big arguments for having listening be visual. This extra level of feedback, even if you are just recording things on a flip chart, opens up the possibility of correcting errors in interpretation. Events seldom have direct impact on you or your organization, but everyone’s interpretation of what the events mean does. This is why leaders focus on interpretations.
One of the most useful guidebooks to thinking about language and its impact was written in the late 1960s by a French-Canadian Jesuit turned management consultant named Joseph Samuel Bois. It is called The Art of Awareness (and is well worth getting and studying if you want to become adept at the language side of leadership). It is a very accessible extension of the work of Alfred Korzybski, a Polish engineer and scientist who wrote Science and Sanity, a very influential, but challenging, book written in the 1930s. Korzybski contended that many issues in society flow from distortions introduced by our language and mental models and are probably a major factor in the wars people fight, which are often over sacred symbols and ideology. Korzybski cautioned against the trap of identifying with our language and symbols and is known as the originator of the maxim “the map is not the territory,” a fundamental idea in visual leadership.
Bois makes all these ideas very accessible and wrote his book with the intention that it be a textbook for thinking about the relationship between thinking and action. He calls it epistemics or applied epistemology (for those of you who are interested in more abstract theory).
What Is Visual Language?
In the last century with the development of many sophisticating image-processing technologies, words, images, and shapes have come to be integrated into many different visual patterns. In previous centuries this kind of visual language was used for maps, diagrams, and illustrations for books, but not in the fluid, layered way it appears in contemporary media. Now all of us are visual thinkers, whether it’s our preference or not. We work visually when we drive cars. Screens are all visual. Books are visual. Magazines, posters, billboards, and airline safety instructions are visual.
Even spoken language is visual, if you think about the way different words evoke images in a listener’s imagination, or see gestures as graphic imagery without paper. This happens so naturally most of us don’t think of this as visual thinking, but it is. The great value of working with visual displays and charts is the way it makes this integrated thinking visible and accessible. Active visualization opens the door to everyone becoming more conscious of the visual nature of all communication.
When you decide to work visually in either a regular or a special meeting, you are adding displays to the give and take of the dialogue. As a leader, you need to pick the right formats.
Want more leadership advice? Subscribe to the Fast Company newsletter.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Visual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management, and Organization Change by David Sibbet. Copyright (2012 by The Grove Consultants International. This book publishes 12/31 at all bookstores and is currently available for pre-order online.
—David Sibbet is the founder and president of The Grove, a company whose leading-edge group-process tools and models for panoramic visualization, graphic facilitation, team leadership and organizational transformation are used by consultants around the world, including many Silicon Valley firms. Sibbet was the "visual cartographer" for the 2008 TED conference, and created mind maps and diagrams of the lectures in real time. In 2008, The Grove received the 10,000 person OD Network "Members Award" for Creative Contribution to the field of organizational development. Visit davidsibbet.com
[Image: Flickr user AurelioZen]