Book Review: The Back of the Napkin

Yes, I know this book was published in 2008, and it’s been sitting on my “to read” pile almost that long.

Fortunately, the Association Chat book club got me to bump it to the top of the pile, and I finally read it last month.

The book’s subtitle is: solving problems and selling ideas with pictures, and teaching you to do that is author Dan Roam’s ostensible goal.

Short version: it’s a great concept, but I’m not quite sure how to implement it.

Longer take:

According to Roam, there are three types of people: black pen types (who LOVE to draw ideas), yellow pen types (who are quick to jump in to edit and add), and red pen types (“I can’t draw”). Confession: I am definitely a red pen type.

On the other hand, I also LOVE visual representations of information. I love infographics. I’m always the one urging colleagues to use fewer words and more pictures to share information with senior leadership. I think every organization’s board status report should be a series of 5-10 key metrics that are tracked over time and shared in graphs or charts. I’m the person who infamously talked a panel  for the 2009 ASAE Annual Meeting into doing a presentation with NO words on the slides (that didn’t go over all that well).

So what I’m saying is that, while I am a red pen, I’m also someone eager to be persuaded that representing problems visually can help us solve them and to learn how to do it.

I’m just not sure that this book can get most of us there.

It’s not that Roam doesn’t provide plenty of information and explanation. He spends almost 150 pages explaining six key ways of seeing and five key ways of showing, then placing all that into a grid (page 141 if you have the book handy) that can tell you, based on the type of framework you need and a short series of either/or questions, which type of picture you’re going to need to explain what’s going on and spot a solution.

The second half of the book uses a single case study to work readers through the ways of seeing and showing, the framework, and the questions to get to, in chapter 15, a not-immediately-obvious solution and description of how one would present that solution to a team of executives.

But I still don’t feel like I would be able to apply the techniques he describes successfully the next time I’m faced with what looks like an intractable problem at the office.

Maybe I just need more practice. I have, in my last two positions and since hearing Roam speak at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference a few years ago, insisted on having a white board in my workspace. I even use it sometimes. And once in a while, it doesn’t even feel forced.

The book does, however, make a GREAT case for hiring Roam to help your organization solve big, hairy problems, assuming you can afford him. And maybe that’s really the point.

Visual Thinking

Still pondering the whole idea of visual thinking from Dan Roam’s keynote at the recent Great Ideas Conference.

I am not a visual thinker. There are white boards all over the offices at Beaconfire, and 90% of them have all sorts of diagrams and sketches all over them. Mine falls into the other 10% – largely blank (at least when it’s not pro football season). I’m a “Red Pen” person 100%. Actually, the point of the red pen person is that you can eventually get them up to draw on the white board if you can make them mad enough that you’re oversimplifying the problem. I guess I have an exceptionally long fuse, because I’m never going to get up and take the pen of my own accord. So I may be the elusive “No Pen” person. I’m all about words, baby.

And yet, the concept of visual thinking is really appealing to me.

Roam pointed out that ALL 5 year olds report being able to draw, if you ask them. But at some point, most of us decide that we can’t, and that’s that. No more drawing. Or as he put it, we’re “not taught to make use of our inherent visual sense.”

And I really love the idea of simplicity on the other side of complexity, which is what I think this is fundamentally all about. My spouse, who also foolishly studied philosophy, calls it the “essay paradox.” Most philosophers start out expressing their ideas in essays, generally 100 pages or less. Then a handful get famous and decide they need to write books. BIG IMPORTANT books. The next thing you know, you’re saddled with all 600+ pages of A Theory of Justice when “Justice as Fairness” says pretty much the same thing in WAY fewer words.

As Roam articulates them, the rules of visual thinking are:

  • Whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it.
  • Whoever draws the best picture gets the funding.
  • The more human the picture, the more human the response.

So how do you do it?

  • Draw a circle & give it a name (Roam says it should generally be “me” because people are usually at the center of their own problems.)
  • Divide problem into 6 slices: who/what, how much, where, when, how, and why
  • Determine which of the 6 are involved

So what about those of us who, left to our own devices, will literally NEVER do this? Are we SOL?

I don’t think so, and here’s why: those questions are the key.

  • Who/what?
  • How much?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Why?

Sure, you *can* answer them with pictures. And if that’s the way you work, go for it. But it seems to me that there’s no reason you can’t answer them with words, if that’s the way your brain works. And (Red Pen Person alert) with words, you can explain the thinking behind your answers. Additionally, Roam identified one potential flaw in answering “why?” with a picture – confusing correlation with causation. It seems to me that if you’re forced to document your reasoning (by using words), you’ll be less likely to fall victim to that confusion.

Or am I completely wrong and doomed to be mired in complexity if I can’t overcome my disinclination to draw stick figures?