By Robin Klein Executive Consultant at Riverbank, former Senior Vice President at Root Inc., with Kaylee Somerville, Project Manager at Riverbank
The authors would like to credit Root Inc. and Jim Haudan, author of the Art of Engagement, for inspiring this piece.
As we venture into the return to work, we also return to travel and vacation experiences. After a travel-free year, Robin embarked on planning a family vacation for herself, her husband, and their four daughters. Yet disruption at their regular getaway location forced them to seek a new summer spot. While Robin felt she understood why the place they had always gone worked so well for them, she quickly realized that each family member had a different take on what was most important to them. For everyone to be excited about their summer getaway, each person needed to share their vision of the perfect vacation. Could these different perspectives come together in a picture of the best family vacation? Robin used visualization to create a picture of a family vacation with something for everyone.
We face similar problems in business. Leaders and managers believe they have the right “vision for the company” or the “strategy of the marketing initiative.” Still, the alignment of a team can be a challenge without checking that we all have a common understanding.
To engage and align people, leaders need to make strategy relevant to everyone and simple to understand.
One powerful way to overcome misalignment is to use images. In her 20 years at Root Inc., helping C-Suite leaders connect people and business outcomes, Robin used visualization to align leaders on strategy, market trends, and organizational culture.
The Power of Images
Visuals have been part of society for hundreds of years. We rely on road signs and traffic lights to universally guide our roads. Our ancestors used hieroglyphics to communicate with one another.
For example, think about a movie you watched with a friend or family member recently. While you may have had nuanced views on your interpretation of the movie, you were likely aligned on what the characters looked like, the music that played, and the film’s scenery. Now, pretend that instead of watching the movie, you and your friend/family member each read a book. You likely would have had vastly different interpretations of the book. Even with the authors’ descriptions, you might have pictured the characters’ appearances, the sounds of character voices, or viewed the scene differently than the other person.
“Every business has a story to tell”
— Jim Haudan, Art of Engagement
Similar to books, every business has a story to tell. But alignment on these stories is no easy feat. Visuals are key to gaining this alignment.
Often, when we try to explain something complicated, we use analogies to gain alignment. We do so in explaining strategy, managing people, or describing innovation. While analogies are great, do people know what they really mean? Kaylee remembers an experience at a previous organization that referred to siloed thinking” — it wasn’t until she saw the visual of siloes that she understood the point.
Some might think: “businesses use ‘visualizations’ all the time to explain data.” While data visualizations and data charts can communicate a lot of important information, images and drawings create richer discussion and better capitalize on the story-telling element. 
In Robin’s experience, the most sophisticated method to create visualizations involves partnering with an artist to develop a prototype. The “Art of Engagement” recommends a similar tool — the “Sketch” that involves having an artist sketch while the leaders talk. Doing so works so well for alignment as leaders can modify their explanations based on what they see in real-time.
Robin emphasizes that partnering with Root on your needs for C-suite level strategic alignment is a best practice and one she highly recommends. However, you can practice using visualization on your own without the support of a world-class consulting organization and an artist.
An artist is not mandatory: a how-to guide
Robin uses visualization beyond the C-Suite Strategic Alignment in Fortune 1000 organizations. She uses it in her coaching at Riverbank and in her personal life. Regardless of whether the audience is one person, ten people, or thousands of people, visualization aids alignment and understanding.
Here are some tips for creating this process yourself:
Start with Questions
Questions like “What does success look like? What will accelerate our success? What are the roadblocks? How are we going to get there?”
“Where are you in your personal journey? “What are the next steps? “What will achievement look and feel like for yourself and others? What values are critical to ensuring you stay true and authentic?
Write your own questions and answer them. Is there any supporting data that is important?
What pictures come to mind for what the story feels like emotionally? Is your story calm or rocky, is it like a buffet or formal meal in a nice restaurant, is it like going on a space expedition, a mountain climb, building a bridge, etc. Logic and data are great, but practice using your right brain for this part of the process.
Deepen the Meaning
Based on the answers to the questions and visual inspiration, see if you can find a metaphor that can deepen the meaning of your story, building a greater understanding of what you want to communicate. Metaphors are a great way to add depth and build alignment. Just make sure the metaphor holds — — or it could cause more confusion. For example, don’t use a race track metaphor if pit stops don’t add meaning.
If drawing isn’t your thing, use pre-created images: Find existing images online or in magazines, etc.
Work with others to create a picture. All of us have this capability, yet many of us stopped using it after childhood. Visualization is not only for kids. Take any images that speak to you and get some scissors, glue, and markers. Even if your picture looks like a 4th-grade rendition, it will work to build alignment with others. Have a team or multiple teams practice together building visuals. Have the teams present them and see what generates the most meaning and engagement.
Stay Flexible and Keep Iterating
Ask your team or group, What’s missing? What isn’t clear? What would make this picture even better?
The Key: Discussion.
An important aspect to remember is that visuals do not have a ton of value without discussion. We create meaning for ourselves by discussing visuals. When we go to museums, we want to talk about it with others. Doing so makes it personal in which we can learn from others and see things differently. Leaders talk all the time, but authentic discussions can be rare. Use visuals to make discussions richer and more effective.
“Tell me, and I forget, teach me, and I may remember, involve me, and I learn.” — Xunzi
Alignment is a learning process. Individuals must take their perspectives and learn about the other parties’ views to agree. Creating visuals can make learning much more efficient. This process is not only useful in business –it is part of the human experience. Use it wherever you want to better communicate or build alignment, including Work, Personal, Family. Give it a try and view the feedback you get as a gift to getting to deeper understanding and alignment.
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