Q&A: Group Partners on How Visualization Provides Strategic Ways To Solve Business Challenges

Why We Think Visually from John Caswell on Vimeo.

To be great at strategy and innovation, you must be able to work through an interconnected system. And, as the pace of change exceeds our ability to grasp what is happening around us, a better approach is needed for developing strategy and innovation. A visual approach to systems thinking.

To help deal with that challenge, Group Partners, has developed a unique approach to visualize and better solve problems with strategy and innovation. Here is a quick interview with visual thinking gurus, John Caswell and Hazel Tiffany of Group Partners.

JB: It isn’t difficult to notice that you are a visual thinker. Not everyone has developed that particular skill. How did you develop it and when did you start using it for the purpose of strategy and innovation?

John Caswell (JC): We are all far more capable of learning and articulating visually than we think. Visual thinking is directly linked to creativity; creativity has been knocked out of us to some extent by the more analytical side of business – the “numbers” people if you will, the stuff that drives so much of Wall Street, but not everything comes down to that.

Tie that to the way businesses are run for growth based on profit alone, that has created a barrier for the creative in us. But now, data that drives business is being visualized by ever more powerful social media and devices capable of delivering it. Visuals are now used to convey complex arguments in very powerful ways.

For me starting to apply visualization was born out of sheer frustration. Boring presentations and methods of creating strategy or innovation just didn’t seem right. Many decades ago, I grabbed the whiteboard, the markers and started to visualize what people were saying – even the crudest of shapes and marks could wield massive power – creating engagement and ownership.

Five years ago I started noticing some bloggers get attention because they use visualization to explain how social media impacts business operations, it was this trend of social business they were noticing. What kind of impact has visualization had on the way businesses approach strategy and innovation?

JC: A major impact. We’re all considerably more aware of well designed interfaces on smart phones and the digital technology generally that we use mobily. There, user interfaces rely on visuals to create a compelling experience and useful way to navigate, this knowing the what and why of everything. There’s no difference in strategy or innovation.

HT: Businesses certainly find it easier to bring a group of people very quickly up to speed around the key messages of a strategy and they enjoy the fact that it creates more engagement with the workforce than the traditional review of lengthy documents. It also makes it significantly easier to see the connections between strategic decisions and day-to-day operations. The more that data is visualized in structure the more easily we can develop tools that help businesses stay on top of their strategy.

Why do you think people and organizations have a hard time thinking and working – visually?

HT: Any difficulty is probably the consequence of being stuck in traditional ways and conventions and lacking the appreciation or rigor of the structure within the visual. It can also be very hard for many to sustain the effort because they lack the follow through or investment in time and energy – or simply the confidence to release the creativity that we see is there in the teams if allowed to express itself.

JC: We used to be clients ourselves, working in large and complex organizations. We designed what we do by seeing how much more value could be gained (errors reduced, time saved, understanding caused, risks reduced, gaps identified, knowledge shared, definition aligned, meaning created, visions realized by thinking this way.

The difficulty they may find is not doing it with quality, using skilled practitioners used to creating useful outcomes through impartiality and visuals – and not superficial pretty pictures that lack meaning or utility.

From the Group Partners approach, you talk about changing the way businesses think and work, and a lot about dialog and the art of conversation. From your experience, what are the key enablers for organizations to start having the right conversations and working in more collaborative ways?

JC: Firstly the right questions, the correct context needs to be established and the right people need to be involved. Strategy demands the mandate and the consciousness/awareness of the leaders and they in turn need to engage with purpose and meaning. A new mentality is required to cope with the way the world now works and thinks.

HT: Recognition that their current ways of working are outdated and sub optimal – a curiosity in the way the world is developing and an appetite to try things differently. And the more they can look at their business as a dynamic system the more they can break down the silos that plague most of them and block genuine collaboration.

How should an organization integrate visualization into their strategic planning?

HT: Rethink the capabilities that are required in the 21st century and change attitudes on what constitutes strength and valuable contribution.

JC: I’d add some definition to the idea of visualization; at Group Partners, we mean logical systems within highly visual structures – logical models and architectures that take no prisoners and force the right answers. Strategy demands this and the outcomes need to be conveyed to the enterprise. Visualizing everything from the vision to the road map, the operating blueprints to the business models has massive benefit and is a powerful amplifier of value.

Organizations should embody a visual mentality if they want to sustain and engage these complex concepts in the hearts and minds of the whole enterprise.

John, in your work, you speak about the art of storytelling. As a storytelling tool, what role does visual play? How can we use story to develop better strategy and innovation?

JC: All strategy is story. Stories are the raw material of how humans do anything. Stories engage the emotional attachment of people in ways that deeply resonate with them. They can be internalized and socialized quickly and broadly – with integrity and passion.

How can I get better at visual thinking?

JC: It’s a case of gaining confidence in the idea of thinking ‘visually’ and within systems and frameworks.


Frameworks that hold integrity and meaning. Visually just means understanding and then ‘drawing’ a clearer interpretation of the idea.

From a business owner’s perspective, what are the most important benefits that solving problems visually provides?

Quite simply it is simplicity, communicability, collaboration and understanding by co-creating something within a shared framework and process. Add to this the speed and differentiation that inspires people to think.

Greater alignment over language, definition, challenges and intentions, and more significant participation of the workforce through seeing this in ways that are relevant to them.

What are three things that any person or company can do right now to start thinking visually?

  1. Record ideas in pictures as well as words. Take ideas that work and look at how visual everything around you is.
  2. Learn about systems thinking – start to think of the adjacencies of the idea with the rest of the system.
  3. Next month, we’re launching a product to help facilitators and practitioners of visualization and visual thinking that will help called Equipped4Thinking, this is another great possible resource. We’ll be doing beta testing and are looking for facilitators to test the product, email macala.wright@grouppartners.net if you’re interested in participating.

Are there any other thoughts or comments that you would like to add?

We would strongly want people to understand the ideas contained in our #resilience manifesto. Deeper explanation of what we have learned in over 2500 cases would take a while to convey but as a result of thinking visually we have been able to spot the patterns of every single business/enterprise situation and can show how progress can be made by adopting these idea. The following starts to drive our philosophy on this:

group partners

You can follow Group Partners on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+ for more on the use of visual thinking and visualization. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnCaswell and Hazel on Twitter @Tifferly.

Below is more work done by the team at Group Partners:

exploiting technology and platforms (group partners)

(–Click image for larger size –)