Picture cards from CCL's Visual Explorer tool support collaborative conversations about complex issues through images.What do military generals, engineers, scientists and Type-A professionals have in common? A reputation for being serious-minded, a no-nonsense approach to their work — and an affinity for visual thinking.

“Visual thinking uses pictures and images to evoke ideas, thoughts and feelings and to foster powerful conversations,” says CCL’s Chuck Palus. “People use pictures as the starting point for talking about complex or difficult things.”

Palus and colleague David Horth — both engineers by training — began using visual tools as a way to facilitate complex issues in groups and instigate deep thinking. Initially, they used magazine clippings and postcards. Later, they developedVisual Explorer, a packet of 216 diverse and interesting images and a guide for how to use them as a tool for dialogue and effective leadership.

“When we first started putting our ideas out there, there was some concern that they would be viewed as frivolous or a waste of time by highly analytical or no-nonsense people,” Palus recalls. “But we’ve found visual thinking tools are seen as the opposite: a way to cut to the heart of issues and to uncover multiple solutions.”

Visual thinking processes are now often used by CCL faculty, facilitators and clients. They’ve found using images works effectively with diverse people from all walks of life and around the world. In addition to the Visual Explorer tool, CCL has created several card decks that work in a similar way, including Leadership Explorer, Boundary Explorer and Values Explorer.

In a typical workplace, the “most verbal people or the person ‘in charge’ wins the day,” Horth notes. “But using images shifts that pattern, diffuses tension and engages the whole group.”

“To jump-tart visual thinking in your team or group, you can bring a stack of magazines, postcards, photos, even small mementos,” Horth explains. “Don’t worry about having the “right” images – what matters is having a wide range of choices and then deciding how to frame the discussion.”

Examples of framing questions include:

  • What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses?
  • What do you see as our biggest challenge?
  • What behaviors will help drive the business strategy?
  • What is getting in our way?
  • What stands out for you in the data we just reviewed?
  • What are the possibilities we see in this situation?
  • How do you feel about this at a gut level?
  • What are we missing, neglecting or underestimating?
  • Where have we been? Where are we going? To what do we aspire?
  • What would we do if the roles were reversed?
  • What if one of our key assumptions is wrong, or backwards?
  • How would we do this if we had unlimited resources? If we had no resources?

Introduce the issue or question to the group and allow them time to jot down their initial thoughts and reactions. Then, without speaking, have everyone browse though the images and choose the one that depicts the problem or issue for them. If you are doing a comparison or paired question, instruct everyone to pick a card for each question. The discussion begins with group members taking turns sharing what they see in their image and why they chose it. The conversation then shifts to finding commonalities and differences, sharing insights and offering ideas (see “Tips for Creative Conversations” below).

“We’ve worked with CEOs and senior leadership teams, generals and State Department officials, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs, young people and educators,” says Palus. “Putting images in the middle of the conversation taps into the whole brain, invites interpretation and is a very positive way to get different perspectives on the table.”

Tips for Creative Conversations

  1. Ask a “framing” question. What is the challenge or complex idea you need to address?
  2. Write about it. Take a few minutes to think about the question. What’s your perspective on the issue? Write down your thoughts —bullet points, journaling, whatever works for you.
  3. Turn to the images. The images (postcards, magazine clippings, photos) should be arranged around a room, on tables or in decks of “cards” to sort through. Without talking (background music can be nice), look at the images. Choose an image that reflects or relates to what you are thinking and feeling about the question or challenge. (Don’t over-think it ? if you’re drawn to an image and aren’t sure why, that’s OK).
  4. Look closely. Once you’ve selected your image, pay attention to what you actually see. Look at the details. What is there? Write down as much as you can to describe the image.
  5. Talk about it. With your partner, team or group, describe your image. First tell them what you see. Then talk about why you chose that image. At first, the image is all yours — the others need to simply listen. After a few minutes, you can ask others what they see in the picture. Each person will then repeat the process.
  6. Consider So what? and What if? What did you learn from the images and the process of talking about them? How was it helpful? What was surprising? What was commonly shared? What were key differences? And what if you used these insights as you addressed the problem or challenge? What will you do now?

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