Do you feel overwhelmed - as though you are not achieving enough? As a leader you most probably experience the outside world as being volatile, uncertain, complex and as ambiguous (VUCA). Volatility and uncertainly make it more difficult to make decisions as variables are changing so fast that there often isn’t time to collect all the relevant information.
External forces create an environment of complexity and ambiguity. This applies in the world of work, too. New trends and challenges mean that we can no longer automatically continue to use the practices and tactics that worked in the past. The influence of Millennials makes it important to dislodge much of our traditional way of thinking. Disruption is essential in order to take advantage of opportunities for the future. The rapid advances in technology bring about many of the other changes to which leaders and other executives need to adapt. There are a multitude of other changes taking place in the workplace, too. In the real world, the practical application of the empowerment of women remains a challenge as does taking advantage of diversity.
External global and regional influences and emerging trends in the workplace result in increasing stress levels in leaders. This affects their ability to react or respond appropriately. When coaching leaders and other executives, I find that managing the present often consumes their time and energy. They find it difficult to allocate time to strategic issues, leading to the future.
These were some of my findings in my research study on ‘The role of coaching in developing character strengths in leaders’. This was part of my M Phil degree (Management Coaching) through the University of Stellenbosch Business School (2017). As a practicing executive coach I became increasingly interested in a gap in knowledge. Why wasn’t coaching being used more effectively, in general, in developing leaders in global organisations? And what coaching approaches, programmes, models and other techniques would result in outcomes which would help clients to shift their ‘way of being’ and thus cope better? This was with specific reference to coaching leaders in global organisations. I continued testing my coaching model which I streamlined for that purpose, and continue to adjust as I gain new insights. This has helped to refine my topic and model for a potential PhD study.
But how do I, in simple terms, describe the complexity of how the model works? This has been a challenge as I need to be able to address an academic audience and also potential clients. I found that my content was too abstract and I was having a problem connecting my thoughts to something concrete. I battled. But I was very excited to find a solution during Prof Sebastian Kernbach’s outstanding course, ‘The Productive PhD’ presented at the African Doctoral Academy in January 2018. My core question when doing this exercise was, ‘how do I explain what happens to leaders during the coaching programme?’
I’m sharing the process I followed in order to demonstrate how visualising can help to take thoughts and assumptions which are implicit and convert them to explicit visuals. In other words, we can take complex messages and simplify in order to make it easier for us to explain to others and also more interesting for the audience to understand. These principles apply in academic contexts and also help us to become more productive as executives, leaders or in any other areas where we need to organise and express our thoughts. In fact, they apply to any person who wants to get their point across.
For the exercise that I’m outlining, Prof Kernbach stressed that we needed to rapidly prototype and iterate. Our aim should not be perfection or beauty in our drawings but rather on creating meaning. According to Ben Schneiderman:
‘The purpose of visualization is insight, not pictures. It is not about aesthetics.’
In other words, by working speedily and roughly, the focus is on the message rather than on the detail in the drawing.
My first attempts at depicting how my model works when coaching leaders in global organisations appeared sterile. (Please see below.) However, we had been advised to value our failures, accepting them as part of the process, so I kept this series of rapid iterations and am sharing this version with you:
This visualisation did not achieve the desired outcome. It was not inspiring and it was hard to use this visual representation to explain the nuances of the changes that might occur in the leader as a result of being coached using an effective coaching programme. In the figure above I showed the external world (red) and the world of work (green) having an influence on the leader. These remained dominant influences during the coaching process. Moving from left to right, it showed how I visualised how the leader’s inner world (blue) was stifled but grew bigger through coaching.
But I realised that this diagram would not capture the listener’s attention through bringing the story to life. I was stuck!
I asked for help and Prof Kernbach came over to my table. As he listened, he quickly captured my message in visual format. As he proceeded, at each step he did a reality check, confirmed with me that he was understanding and on the right track. In less than five minutes, including a number of rough drawings, he arrived at the representation shown below.
He captured my intention in a fluid, flexible way. His emphasis was how the leader came into the coaching programme as a ‘frigid’ (rectangular) individual. (Seen on the left). His mouth was down and he was surrounded by the tough worlds pressing in around him. As the coaching proceeded, he was no longer a rectangle, but became a smiley resilient person. The leader has removed himself further from those oppressive worlds around him. They are still there, but in the last picture on the right (after 8 coaching sessions!) he is deflecting the demands of the external worlds.
Professor Kernbach’s interpretation inspired me to presevere and below is one of my later rough visualizations. This new series of drawings, is still ‘work in progress’ and will have further refinements, but has helped me to clarify my thoughts.
Remembering that it is neither the quality of the drawing that counts, nor how beautiful it is, but rather the ability of the presenter to clarify and express his thoughts, I quickly developed the visualization below. It needed to make it easier for me to explain my thoughts.
Let me explain my rough drawing above: At the beginning of the programme, shown on the left, the leader is ‘frigid’, almost paralysed through stress. He is inflexible. I have depicted him as a blue rectangle and his mouth is down and he is not looking ahead. The external world (brown) is not separated from him. He cannot distance himself. The same applies to his life in the workplace here drawn with a green pen. In both cases, the lines inward show the pressure or expectations of both worlds and how he is absorbing all the negative energy.
As the 8-stage coaching programme proceeds, moving towards the right, the leader becomes more and more flexible, more fluid and more able to adapt. After the eighth session he has grown, wears a big smile and is looking ahead. The external (VUCA) world remains the same size, but the leader is managing to distance himself from influences that could impact negatively on him. The same happens with the world of work. In both cases, because the leader has become more resilient, he is able to deflect the influences of both worlds and this is shown in the brown and green arrows.
You may ask: ‘Where does coaching show up in the diagram?’ A good coach remains flexible and ‘in the moment’ meets the person ‘where they are at’ at that time. So the red line between the beginning sessions is straight epitomising the need to match the coaching with the needs of the rectangular leader. Towards the end of the programme, as the coaching proceeds, the client benefits, becomes more receptive and the red line becomes more wavy signifying that the coaching has also been adapted to suits the person’s needs and the coach’s approach is thus much more fluid.
As you can see, what began as a difficult task for me mellowed into a fun, thought-provoking exercise. Before the visualization exercise, I battled to explain what the coaching programme seems to achieve and even in my first set of drawings, I did not appear to be gaining positive results. However, in the final series my thoughts are clearer and I’m able to more effectively describe the likely effects of the coaching programme.
I have shared just one example a visualization exercise. Examples are everywhere… in movies, maps, pie-charts, posters etc. I’m extremely grateful to Dr Kernbach and look forward to using different learnings from his course in my own self-development running parallel to my continuous progress as a coach and researcher. In addition, others will benefit either through being coached or when I mentor other coaches.
My message is that you can cope with feelings of overwhelm by becoming more productive. Make your thoughts explicit and easier to communicate to others. For example, as a leader or other executive use visualising in doing presentations. As a researcher one of the benefits will be that you will find it easier to get your message across. Use visual thinking to your benefit when thinking, communicating and writing and there will be benefits to those you influence. By becoming more productive you’ll be helping your organisation and its people to flourish.
Use these principles and you can more easily organise your thoughts, add meaning and make them explicit thus enabling you to share with others through communicating clearly. You can become more productive!
Please contact the following for more information on:
- Leadership development or executive coaching - Brenda Eckstein through www.strategy-leadership.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Visualization workshops - Professor Sebastian Kernbach through www.vicola.org
- The University of Stellenbosch Summer or Winter Schools: The African Doctoral Academy (ADA) - http://www0.sun.ac.za/ada/
The following is intended for those who are interested in the theoretical background to the above example of a visual thinking exercise:
There is a need for a new working intelligence (Kernbach, 2018). When we engage in activities like this, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence (reference) is relevant as we are using three types of intelligence which he refers to as ‘analytical intelligence’, ‘creative intelligence’ and ‘practical intelligence’. We are using analytical intelligence for abstract thinking and logical reasoning. Creative intelligence comes into play allowing divergent thinking in novel situations. We are also using his third kind of intelligence, practical intelligence, in order to apply the knowledge to the real world and shape our environment. This requires methods, tools and resources.
During the course we captured our message in ‘one eye-span’, a term coined by Edward Tufte whose work was based on Cognitive Load Theory (Clark, Nguyen Sweller and Baddeley, 2006). Thus, our message needed to fit on one page so that we didn’t have to turn our heads. If you can see everything at once, you are able to make sense of information more easily as, for example, you don’t have to remember what was on the previous page. Visualisation extends the brain’s capacity through Distributed Cognition to help us make our implicit thought explicit and thus available to others. The use of shape colour, space and size are used to create visual representations of our messages.
The process here demonstrates aspects of Dual Coding Theory. Processing information through two channels, here imagery and verbal, and using them together increases engagement, attention and recall. The work of Barbara Tversky is relevant in her work on ‘picture superiority’.
- Black, A. (1992). Envisioning information: Edward Tufte, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 126 pp. ISBN 0 961 3921 1 8.
- Clark, R. C., Nguyen, F., Sweller, J., & Baddeley, M. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence‐based guidelines to manage cognitive load. Performance Improvement, 45(9), 46-47.
- Kernbach, S. (2018). The Productive PhD. African Doctoral Academy
- Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(3), 255.
- Sadoski, M., & Paivio, A. (2013). Imagery and text: A dual coding theory of reading and writing. Routledge.
Shneiderman, B. (2008, June). Extreme visualization: squeezing a billion records into a million pixels. In Proceedings of the 2008 ACM SIGMOD international conference on Management of data (pp. 3-12). ACM.
Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. CUP Archive.
- Tversky, B., Morrison, J. B., & Betrancourt, M. (2002). Animation: can it facilitate?. International journal of human-computer studies, 57(4), 247-262.