The Disposable Business Plan

Dan Roam’s intriguing new book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures (Portfolio), attempts to teach businesspeople something that is second nature to designers: the art of the sketch. But this is not a how-to-draw book, but a how-to-visualize tome for the business set. The author began his career as a graphic designer, spending a number of years with Roger Black, and now runs a management-consulting firm that helps companies solve problems through visual thinking. Recently executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to him from his San Francisco studio about the strategic advantages of design thinking, dreary Power Point presentations, and the wonder of sketching.

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Every designer I know sketches to explain, to solve problems. Why don’t more business people use this approach?
Business demands that success be measurable. And the way they want to measure it is with things that are quantifiable and easy to identify: profit and loss, head counts, operating expenses, market caps. These become the things that business people are trained to think about. But what might be more valuable are other less quantifiable aspects: is a given product simply better than someone else’s? That’s not the kind of thing that Wall Street can measure. They can’t tell us whether an iPod is qualitatively better than a Zoon. All they can tell us is that one is selling better. And, therefore, there must be some other forces at work. The interesting thing now in business schools, you hear the phrase “the MFA is the new MBA.”

What do they mean by that?
Many of the major business schools—Stanford, Harvard, MIT—have formed alliances with design schools, because they’ve recognized that there’s something in the creative education of designers that makes a measurable difference in the success of one business over another. The poster child for this continues to be Apple, where the design of the products is so quantifiably better that those products tend to succeed in unexpected ways. So business people are looking at Apple and saying, “What is it that they do that’s different? And how can we get some of that?”

How does this tie back to your theory of thinking in pictures?
We all have an innate ability to think in pictures. Well over half the sensory neurons in our brains are oriented towards vision. It is far and away our most sophisticated sense. Designers spend a lot of time studying such things as composition, color, drawing, sketching, all of which are approaches that take advantage of our innate ability to think visually. This is something almost completely missing in business.

Your book could be seen as almost a quiet screed against mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. How do you sit through these things?
Very painfully. When I have to sit there and watch someone else’s PowerPoint now, I find it difficult, because in my mind I’m screaming, “Please put it away! If your idea is good enough to understand in the amount of time that we have together, couldn’t you just go up to the wipe board and sketch it out for me?” I’m convinced there is an almost magical power in creating a picture, regardless of how simple or ugly it might look, in front of an audience.

Santiago Calatrava does that brilliantly. He brings the house down with his drawings.
Now let’s imagine the person doing that isn’t an architect—who everyone expects to be visual—but they’re a CEO. Someone no one would expect to be visual. The best visual-thinking CEO I know is Stephen Pratt, head of Infosys Consulting. He is a classic consulting CEO—button-down suit, tie, the whole deal. But every time he goes into a meeting he starts drawing. And a miraculous thing happens. Nobody expects it, and the audience is just enthralled. But even more importantly, the pictures are being drawn by hand, so everybody in the room is willing to participate in the process, because the images don’t look finished.

Today there are great drawing tools in a lot of software packages, and many business people, bless their hearts, are getting better at using them. The problem is the pictures look perfect when they’re done. And by virtue of looking finished, they actually turn off people’s desire to constructively comment on them. If they all look finished, then the conversation that you want to happen—which is big picture: have I achieved the right direction? is this feeling more or less correct for you?—becomes difficult to have, because the clients think they’re seeing the final product.

What is it about drawing that makes it such a powerful tool?
When you put pen to paper, an amazing thing happens. It doesn’t matter how accurately you’re drawing. But it’s got to work at a cognitive level, when our mind is able to see, spontaneously, with our hands, what we’re thinking about while we’re thinking it. That act opens up channels in our brains that I’m convinced are closed when we’re working solely through computer software.

I’m not a luddite by any means. I use computers all the time. But when it comes to idea discovery, or trying to convey an idea to someone quickly, I avoid using the computer, because I know that regardless of how good the software is, its capacity for problem solving is a fraction of my brain’s ability. With any piece of software, we make a deal when we’re working with it. The software says, “I will give you the results that you want if you’re willing to use the tools I give you in the way that they were designed to be used.” This goes for Illustrator or a 3-D program or even PowerPoint. We have to leave 90% of our ability behind in order to use the piece of software in the way that it wants us to. And so of course everybody starts coming up with the same solutions. Before long all the presentations look exactly the same, because we’re using exactly the same tools to create them.

A lot of your work involves basic information design. Are you a fan of Edward Tufte or Richard Saul Wurman?
Absolutely. Tufte and Wurman are certainly the grandfathers of information visualization, no doubt about it, and we must bow to our elders who have been there before and cut through the swamp. That said, I’m not always a huge fan of Tufte. His books have been given awards for being the most beautiful books of the 20th century. But every time I walk into an office and see them on someone’s desk, I ask, “Have you read the books?” And I have yet to meet anyone who’s actually read them. From my take in the hard and fast world of business, his approach is dry and academic. In his own work I find that he drains the blood out of the visual.

Maybe it’s not “designed” enough for you?
I had an interesting conversation with Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT. She’s an ex-Navy fighter pilot, who’s taken her understanding of how people in high-pressure situations understand complex data, and thought about how that data can be presented in intuitive ways. The topic of Tufte came up. Missy said she appreciates his ideas, but where she disagrees with him is: if you’re in a high-pressure situation and have multiple sources of data coming at you and one of them is off, you want chart junk yelling, “Pay attention to this piece of data over here!” You want flashing red lights, drop shadows, three-dimensional effects—all the stuff Tufte tells you to avoid. You’re supposed to take time to really look at and understand his charts. That is a lovely luxury that you almost never have in business, and certainly don’t have when you’re flying a plane.

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