The Back of the Napkin: Solving Business Problems with Pictures


For the Monday morning breakout session I chose Dan Roam’s “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Business Problems with Pictures.” This turned out to be a well-attended, lively, active session. The hook for this session was, you’re in the airport lounge after VizThink and someone asks why you’re in San Francisco. What do you tell them, or better yet, what do you draw. Through a set of hands-on drawing, anecdotes and stories, Dan laid out for us a visual communication tool set to tackle visual communication scenarios.

Appropriate to the title of the session, as well as Dan’s forthcoming book, Dan distributed napkins to all the tables in the room, with the intent that we would be drawing on them. Our first exercise was a self-assessment of five questions intended to rank ourselves on a continuum of how “visual” we are. For example, the first question was, “I’m in a brainstorming session in a conference room that has a big whiteboard. I want to:”

1. Go to the board, pick up a pen and start drawing circles and boxes.
2. Try to decipher whatever is already on the board.
3. Go to the board and start writing categorized lists.
4. Add a little clarification to what’s already up there – you know, to make it clearer.
5. Forget the whiteboard – come on here, people, we have work to do!
6. I hate brainstorming sessions.

After the answering all the questions we summed up the answers to rank ourselves on a scale from a “Hand me the Pen!” kind of a person on the left end of the spectrum to “I can’t draw, but…” in the middle of the spectrum, to “I’m not visual” on the far right.

Dan made a point that a lot of executives he works with fall on the right side of the continuum, but they have some great insight and can often add great clarity to visuals.

By the way, I’d love to copy the hand outs with all the questions from this exercise, but it is copyrighted so I’ll try to just summarize and point you to Dan’s book, which I’m looking forward to getting.

From there we moved on to the next exercise, discovering our tool set. Time to draw on napkins. After trying to draw on the napkin however, I found that they don’t take the ink very well so I outlined a napkin on my VizThink pad of paper and used that instead. Below is the result of what we ended up drawing, I’ll explain the process below.


First step is to get over the stigma of having a blank sheet by drawing the little smiley face in the top corner and the “My Problem” in the bottom left. Next was to draw the outline of the Swiss Army Knife that you see in the middle of the page. The remainder of the session would be to explain the various blades (tools) we have available to us to solve business problems with pictures.

Here’s where I really wish I had taken better notes. But I’m banking on a lot of this being in Dan’s book. The first three tools available to us is the set at the top. These are our eyes, to see the problem, our mind’s eye to visualize, and our hands to draw.

Using these three tools we get the next four tools, to Look at what is out there, to See things like emerging patterns to Imagine how those patterns might be manipulated and to Show what we See and Imagine.

Next up in the tool set, five focusing questions. This is the corkscrew at the bottom of the knife with the unruly acronym, SQVID (Simple, Quality, Vision, Individual and Change (think of the Greek letter delta which signifies change to get the D)). The explanation of this tool set will be the most challenging to describe – it was very visual and I can’t remember all the elements. But here goes:

Imagine you’re walking on a tropical beach in the south Pacific where the islanders are very friendly but don’t speak English. You see an islander walking your way and as you pass, he greets you and offers you a strange-looking fruit you’ve never seen before and invites you to eat (I immediately thought of Rambutan).
You try the fruit and it’s delicious and you want to communicate your favorite fruit – an apple. You happen to have your sketch book with you. What do you draw to visually communicate the apple experience to your islander friend?

First, you draw an apple:

Hmm, not good enough, he needs to see that apples come from trees:


Nope. Still not good enough, he needs to see that apple trees are in orchards:


In these three sketches, we’ve drawn a qualitative representation of the apple from a simple single apple to more elaborate set of apples in an orchard. This is the S of our SQVID corkscrew. (Stay with me here, this will lead into the last set of tools – the five focusing questions – that are the last set of tools on our Swiss Army knife).

But we realize that we’re still not really communicating the apple experience, even with these visuals. Here’s where I’m forgetting a few more examples that Dan led us through. Another set of visuals aim to represent the quality vs quantity dimension – the Q of our SQVID.

Another set of visuals represents the Vision vs Execution – the V. This is one I remember. What if we wanted to envision the ultimate experience of an apple. To me, that would be apple pie. I’m sure all apples out there aspire to be part of an apple pie. (For Dan’s exercise we used the example of a caramel apple – but I think that pales to the apple nirvana of
a

pple pie). Anyway, so you could draw an apple pie to show your friend the ultimate vision of apple-ness:

But wait. That doesn’t communicate anything about how to make an apple pie, so we might draw out some diagrams and flow charts of the apple pie making process – the execution of the vision.

Hopefully you’re getting the idea. There are multiple dimensions or facets about problems that dictate how we communicate visually about that problem. And the nature of what we see as the problem will naturally dictate the best ways to show, aka communicate visually.

1. If what we see is a “who/what”, a qualitative representation such as a portrait is appropriate.

2. If what we see is a “how much” kind of thing, that’s a quantitative representation and is best shown with charts.

3. If what we see is a “where” kind of problem, use a map.

4. If it’s a “when” kind of issue, a timeline is appropriate.

5. If it’s a “how” issue – a flowchart would be good.

6. If it’s a “why” issue, it’s an issue of deduction and prediction and maybe a multi-variable plot would be best.

So, if you haven’t already picked up on it, this is describing our last set of tools on our Swiss Army knife, the old “who, what, when, why, where and how,” that we all learned in grade school.

That’s the essence of it. At the end of the session Dan provided some examples of real world messy business problems for real world companies that he’s solved problems for with pictures. Issues like global warming, product design, globalization.

In my opinion Dan did a fantastic job. I’m just sorry I can’t do it justice with this summary. I’ll definitely be getting Dan’s book, The Back of the Napkin, when it comes out. Maybe I’ll do a book review here. If you want more information about Dan, check out his website, www.DigitalRoam.com.

2 Responses to “The Back of the Napkin: Solving Business Problems with Pictures”

  1. Dan February 9, 2008 at 1:52 pm // Reply

    Thank you Makani for attending my NAPKIN session, and for your brilliant summary of it!

    I agree with your assessment that the apple pie is a better “vision” of our apple than the caramel apple, but I can live with whatever the audience throws back :-)

    Keep up the wonderful work: the attention you pay to the speakers and the notes you take are amazing.

    - Dan

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  2. Makani February 9, 2008 at 6:20 pm // Reply

    Thanks Dan! I just wish I remembered more of the details with the apple example. Looking forward to your book.

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