Solving problems with pictures

back of the napkin

Book Review
The back of the napkin:
Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures.
Dan Roam.
Penguin/ Portfolio, 2008.   278 p.
http://www.thebackofthenapkin.com/

Whether or not you rated highly on the analytical skills section of the Graduate Record Exam, you can learn to take an immensely complicated problem, break it down into constituent parts, explain how things work, identify what is missing, and develop an elegant solution.

Dan Roam insists that we all have have the ability to think visually. From the beginning of our lives we learn to look, see, imagine, and show. And almost all kinds of problems can be solved with pictures: business issues, political deadlocks, technical complexities, and organizational dilemmas. That’s because pictures can represent complex concepts and summarize vast sets of information in ways that are easy to see and understand.

Roam presents a case study, spread across six chapters, each showcasing one visual framework.  Here’s the scenario:  “Our latest product release a year ago introduced many new features, making our software the most feature-rich available, but our customers’ reception has been lukewarm. Our sales reps complain that they’re having an increasingly hard time selling our expensive software, given the rise of open source freeware over the past year.”

He walks us through the process of determining why that’s the case. To introduce his concept of visual thinking, he applies the 6 W questions we were taught to ask in journalism class:

‘Who’ and ‘what’ problems relate to things, people and roles.
‘When’ problems relate to scheduling and timing.
‘Where’ problems related to direction and how things fit together
‘Why’ problems relate to seeing the big picture.
‘How’ problems relate to how things influence one another
‘How much’ problems involve measuring and counting.

When presenting data, Roam says, there are thousands of possible charts we could make, but all are derived from just six basic “showing frameworks” or a combination of those six.  Learning when to apply these six frameworks and how to draw them gives us the ability to create a pictorial representation of almost any problem we can see.

He then walks us through a visual imagination activation tool he calls SQVID, a series of 5 questions that brings an initial idea to visual clarity and to refine its focus:

S: Simple vs. Elaborate
Q:  Quality vs. Quantity
V:  Vision vs. Execution
I: Individual attributes vs. Comparison
D: Delta (or change) vs. Status quo.

Combining the six ‘W’ questions and the 5 imagination-focusing SQVID questions creates a powerful analytical tool. Before we know it, solutions begin to appear on the page.

VENI   VIDI   IMAGINI.

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One Response to Solving problems with pictures

  1. […] Review of Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. at Paul Baker’s blog, EducationPR: Social Media for Communicators In Education […]

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