Monday, May 23, 2011

Simply Illuminating, 1.02

[Part 2 of a short series]

A smattering of diagrams. A few abstract representations. That’s the normal extent of the artwork in the business bibles I read -- much of which, in my opinion, is mediocre: as if tacked on at the last minute; not well-integrated with the text (like the best illuminations of old); not effective in its own right.

Why’s this the case? Why do some business communicators place more emphasis than others on telling their tales with pictures? How is the relative success of their methodologies impacted by their art choices?

Don’t know. Don’t know. Don’t know.
Won’t know, either, ‘til I start asking questions.
And bringing up a few examples.


I don’t want to dwell on the bad, but I would like to start with (and then summarily dismiss) an example. The diagram directly below was used in a just-published book I just read. The main message therein? It’s a leader’s job to align his or her company’s strategy, organization, and people:

Had a chance to drink it in? If so, need I say why it added next to nothing in terms of my comprehension or appreciation of the authors’ theme? Why it detracted from my reading experience? Seeing the thing made me want to revisit…


The good ol’ growth-share matrix. Probably the most important conceptual tool of the earliest stage (between 1960 and 1980) of the so-called strategy revolution. Walter Kiechel III wrote appreciatively about it in his 2010 book The Lords of Strategy:
Admire for a moment, the beauty of the thing. In a single graphic and conceptual device, the Boston Consulting Group had managed to pull together all the elements it thought essential to strategy, including the three C’s. [costs, competition, customers]
I can relate. Here was a simple, balanced, four-box structure -- “festooned with witty symbols” – that captured and integrated several complex concepts that BCG had taken years to develop. It was easy to understand. And powerful. It could both track and predict industry change, and thus offered guidelines for how businesses were to be managed. Here ‘t’is:


Another diagram I especially like is this one below, devised last year by Haviland Studio (Palo Alto, CA and Lahaina, HI) and used by John Hagel, et. al. in The Power of Pull. It’s essentially a roadmap of the authors’ “new approach to value creation.” Take a gander:

By my count, it incorporates at least eleven (11) major factors, or themes, covered in the book. It strikes me as: original; imaginative; harmonious; balanced; thoughtfully constructed. The sizes and shapes and relative positions of the various elements all have meaning, i.e., they’re well-matched to the concepts they represent. (The overall shape and directionality of the arrow, for example, reflects the exponential nature of what the authors call an “increasing-returns collaboration curve.” ) All for the better.


If I had to rate the topmost diagram on an imaginary scale from one to ten, with one = “ugly” and ten = “beautiful”, I’d give it a two or three. I think it does have some redeeming qualities. (The scales we use for judging diagrams are less like old-fashioned phone lines with single metal wires – and more like bundles o’ fiber optic strands; objects can strike us as beautiful in some ways, but not in others.) By the same token, however, the two diagrams beneath it each have their own shortcomings:

  • GROWTH-SHARE: If beauty is truth, as the poet Keats said, then you could make a case that the g-s matrix and the logic behind it -- which came to be attacked as simplistic, even dangerous (i.e., untrue) -- became less beautiful over time. From a strictly artistic standpoint, it's also not something you're likely to see in a gallery. Even in an intro to design course it wouldn't get high marks.
  • PULL: Like it a lot but I have some doubts about its utility as a teaching tool (it hasn't furthered my understanding of the authors' approach) or as a guide for going forward (it's not something to which you’d refer before making decisions). It strikes me more as an impressive feat (as in, How in the world did they engineer all o' those concepts into a single diagram?) than an impressive communication tool intended to make a real-world difference.

The quest goes on. 

What have you seen out there? I’d welcome hearing about particular diagrams that've made lasting impressions. One way or the other.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have comments about this particular posting -- or wish to reach its maker about anything else -- fire away here!