From the March 2008 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

Visual Thinking

It's simple. It's obvious. And it's absolutely free! Learning to draw a simple map--similar to the visual maps the army relies on--can help you plan next year's business goals: Uncover critical information, make connections, see new patterns and define actions that add the highest value. Plus, contrary to today's world of perpetual upgrades and learning curves, this simple practice will save you time and ensure that you stay on target.

I first learned the value of visual mapping when I was a 20 year old on an Army Ranger team. Unlike the business world, the military has always relied upon visual planning and maps. Don't get me wrong; the Pentagon also writes reams of training and planning manuals--most of which are never seen by the people carrying out their mission. But the big difference is that critical information is conveyed via a visual map.

As Col. Barry Lowe, a former 75th Ranger commander, explains: "Once a military objective is known, planning begins at the mission's end and works backward toward a starting point. Pertinent information is either drawn on a large working wall map hung in the open at a command post at the company level or computer-generated and displayed on wide-screen monitors in the battalion or brigade tactical operations center (TOC)."

Military Visual Plotting and Operational Maps

In addition to topographic locations of suspected enemy locations, the maps plot friendly troop positions, no-fly zones, pre-plotted artillery fire, helicopter insertions and extractions, LZs (landing zones), direction and route of march, and the E&E (escape and evasion) routes. All that information is then transferred to smaller maps that Rangers carry into the field.

Now imagine performing the same drill, except instead of military targets, you're plotting elements of your marketing plan: Your mission and objectives, demographics and trends of your target audience, competition and saturation levels, opportunities, threats and critical issues, forecast and budget, implementation milestones, marketing activities and outside services, current situation analysis and positioning.

Once you've drawn those components, step back and observe the 'picture' of your business. Patterns will materialize where none seemed to exist; misdirected efforts and cumbersome or circuitous layers will reveal themselves.

Businesses are Map-less

When I first entered the business world, I was surprised at the absence of any visual planning; my map had been replaced with a to-do list and a phone book. The only visual I had was the posting of last month's sales figures--which I was supposed to exceed.

A map presents all relevant information in a non-linear format within the eye span. This allows you to expand your awareness by zeroing in on one activity, then pulling back to see how that activity relates to everything else. Isolating activities keeps you from becoming overwhelmed by unimportant inputs.

In contrast, most business plans are too complex and information-heavy. And once you have captured all this information, it then sits on the shelf unused. Unless you have a highly visual imagination, anything written down and stored away--whether in a three-ring binder or a computer file--doesn't provide a clear picture of what to do next or if what you're doing is achieving the desired result.

Ken Ziesenheim, president of Santa Fe, N.M. Thornburg Securities and past-chairman of the National Endowment for Financial Education, has participated in his share of planning sessions. He agrees that most business plans contain far too much data--an overabundance of disconnected facts. "Most business people become experts at managing priorities and details, but have no method for seeing the business as a whole," he says.

Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, believes that when quantitative information gets sequentially stacked, it suppresses context and prevents reflective analysis. This coincides with theories of another brilliant thinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the bestseller The Black Swan. Taleb writes that plans fail because of "tunneling," which causes people to miss events outside of the plan itself. What is needed to break through this "ceiling of complexity" are simple visual tools.

The Mapping Process

For our purposes, this design consists of six component parts: theme, activities, values, connections, outcomes and monitoring.

Begin by laying out a large piece of banner paper (available at most art- or office-supply stores) on a conference table or securing it to a large presentation board. Use bold markers to "map" a visual "universe" that your activities affect. This map will keep the '"how to do it" right in front of you, making your plans more obvious and predictable. Do not draw a straight line from start to finish.

1 - Establish a Central Theme/Business Objectives

Your central theme, such as your marketing objectives or corporate vision, should anchor your activities and actions. The more you shape your actions around one clear idea, the better the chances for success. This theme is centered on your paper. Your theme helps establish the criteria--an algorithm for the steps needed to solve a complex problem or task. Your theme becomes a touchstone for what information to keep, combine or discard. Anything that doesn't support your central theme should be discarded. Having a central theme allows you to step back periodically to evaluate whether the information remains valid and forms a coherent plan.

Understand that central themes can change. A military example: During the first Gulf war, the name of the conflict was changed from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm. The operational themes signaled the actions that followed: Shield is defensive; storm, offensive. Your central theme should resonate in every action, beginning with the way you introduce yourself, so give yourself permission to alter it accordingly.

2- Identify Your Actions / Activities

Drawing circles and boxes to represent activities helps reveal the unconscious order to these actions. This will help you to find out whether they support your central theme, where they lead, and if they can be measured. Using different colors helps to create a visual identifier of both priorities and hot spots.

3 - Rank Activities in Terms of Value

Now, assess the value of each activity in terms of high and low value. High value might equate to response rate, immediate return, what you believe you're best at or even what you most enjoy doing. Low value might mean one of two things: Low results to cost (time wasters), or activities that do not convey the appropriate message. Remember, if an activity doesn't express or contribute to your goals or central theme, eliminate it. (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann stated that the most valued personal trait is the ability to decide what information to heed and what information to ignore.)

4 - Connections

Oftentimes, two or more actions are connected by a short chain of influence. In that case, what happens to one action may affect the other(s), even if the parties involved in the activities are completely unaware of each other.

For instance, in the 1980s, Bill Gates' mother, Mary Gates, sat on the board of United Way with John Akers, a high-level IBM executive. At the time, Akers was helping to lead IBM into the desktop computer business. Because of her shared interests with Akers, Mary Gates was the one who made the connection for Bill's first big meeting with IBM.

A former business associate or a colleague who has become influential in an area of interest to you and your firm could become a crucial contact. Shared activities forge ties between diverse individuals by changing their usual patterns of interaction, allowing them to break out of their prescribed roles.

Draw lines that connect your high-value activities to obvious networks.

The goal is to find open-looped activities that can benefit or complement your central theme. Once you see how everything interconnects, you will feel more confident about the certainty of future actions.

5 - Calibrate Outcomes

Calibrate possible outcomes (predictions and goals)--both short-term and long-term--that support your central theme. What would you like the end results to be or look like? What will those results mean to your business? What is each outcome worth on an annualized or long-term basis (quantitatively and qualitatively)? How will you know an outcome has been achieved? What are the actions that need to occur to cause these outcomes? Lastly, identify any obstacles that might keep you from achieving your desired outcomes.

The Completed Map

6 - Implement and Monitor

After you have objectively and logically analyzed possible courses of action, identify the right person to implement each activity. Acknowledge your accountabilities in writing in a clear-cut fashion.

Now you finally get to use a straight line--to create a timeline.

Predictions require a comparison between what is happening and what you expect to happen. Your timeline becomes your gauge or monitor; it makes it apparent whether expected results are or are not being produced. When something changes, it can be easily identified and corrected.

To get the most use out of your map, keep it in plain view on the wall, or convert it into a screen saver, to maintain top-of-mind awareness. Schedule a regular, routine time to review your map. Compare and measure "backwards" to your starting point--not the distance from your end point. And of course, highlight milestones andaccomplishments and acknowledge them.

At the very least, you'll gain a fresh perspective on your practice.

Larry Chambers (www.Competitiveforce.com) serves the financial services industry as a coach/ writer whose books and articles assist firms and organizations to gain credibility and visibility. He is the author of Credibility Marketing and The Guide to Financial Public Relations. He spent 15 months as an Army Ranger in Vietnam, where he earned two bronze stars and other decorations.

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