Tag Archives: brain

Visual Problem Solving

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the world’s leader in 2D & 3D design software.  He has brought several software applications to market, including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall, and Maya which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry.  Given Tom’s expertise with technology and software, some might find it surprising to learn that he is also a pioneer in the use of simple, interactive visuals to help teams solve problems.  Using images, sketches, and animations, Tom and his team make complex ideas understandable by making them visible and tangible.

So why should Tom’s work at Autodesk be of interest to you?  As I have written before, neuroscientists have discovered that we don’t actually “see the world as it is.”  Rather, our brain filters the information it receives based on past experiences to create the view of the world we have around us.  As Tom describes it, our brains conduct a “visual interrogation” of everything we see by asking a series of questions and creating a mental model based upon the answers.  The depth and variety of questions our brains ask (where, how, location, number, why, color, when, shape, size, what) is dictated by the richness of the images it encounters.  The richer and more diverse the images, the more of the brain’s three primary regions are utilized in processing the image to create meaning.

Since one of our goals as leaders is to improve the effectiveness of our organizational problem solving, Tom’s work provides us with a couple of interesting lessons:

First, make problem solving more visual.  Rather than merely using data points and words to describe, analyze and solve problems, use images.  Images help the brain clarify ideas, identify underlying patterns of logic, and create meaning.  As opposed to numbers and words, a good visual invites the eyes to dart around and engage the entire brain to create a visual logic and make sense of the information to which it is being exposed.  The more fully the brain is engaged in the act of analyzing and creating meaning, the richer the outcome of the problem solving activities will be.

Second, make your problem solving more interactive.  The act of creating a visual narrative of the problem solving process is critical to the team’s ownership of the problem as well as their engagement in finding a solution.  The more the team creates the visual logic used to tell the story of the problem and what caused it, the more vested they will be in the outcome.

Creating a culture of continuous improvement requires both engaging people in the process of identifying and solving problems as well as providing them with the tools to do so.  Most traditional approaches to problem solving fail to inspire people and generate creative solutions.  They lack both a visual component to kick the entire brain into action as well as a sufficient level of interactivity to create ownership between the team and the problem.  By challenging teams to use images to identify underlying patterns and create meaning, you just might be surprised at the improvement in both the quality of thought as well as improvement ideas.

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“Seeing” Red

In 2009, Charles Jacobs published a book entitled Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.  In it, he discusses the power of mental paradigms and what leaders must do to change behavior.  According to Jacobs research, we interpret the world and structure our behavior according to a narrative of our own creation.  A story we repeatedly play in our heads which helps us define, analyze and categorize all we see and experience.  More importantly, it is a story with an implicit set of rules that define the way we believe the world works and dictates how we behave in response to it.

Because this story defines our mental paradigm, is self-reinforcing and drives our daily behavior, the only way to change behavior is to invalidate the current paradigm and replace it with a “new storyline.”  To do this, we must create cognitive dissonance and demonstrate that the rules that govern the current worldview no longer apply.  We need to shock the system and interject something new…something unexpected.  By introducing information that runs counter to what is expected, the right hemisphere of the brain fires up, takes a step back and reflects.  Since the right hemisphere is responsible for reflective consciousness, processing “big picture concepts” and creative expression, we need to have it engaged for people to drive daily innovation.

So how do we do this?  Since the brain is programed to reinforce the status quo, how do we introduce new information in a way that stops the brain in its tracks?  Visual management.

When done right, a simple visual (coupled with clear expectations) provides the brain with new information about the status of a process and presence of an abnormality.  Team members are quickly able to see whether the process is performing as expected or a problem has occurred.  Whereas without the visual, the story told may have reinforced a worldview that everything was “ok,” the presence of the visual forces the brain to take a step back, reflect, and reconcile its current paradigm with the new information.

So when driving continuous improvement, never underestimate the power of simple meaningful visuals.  Our brains are programmed to see, analyze and interpret information based on a self-reinforcing story playing in our head.  We construct our own view of the world and the only way to change our thinking (and thus our behavior) is to be presented with new information in a way that can’t be ignored.  Often the simple act of creating “a spot of red in a sea of green” can be the catalyst for significant behavioral change.

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey