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Picture Perfect

Posted by Amy Wilson on March 9, 2009

airport_napkin_500As luck would have it, we at TalentedApps are bestowed with our own personal book reader and recommender. I recently utilized Mark’s services again when he recommended Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Back of the Napkin is the latest in my series of obsessed-with-the-visual (Presentation Zen and Slideology being the first two), likely sparked by Meg’s passion about presentations.

Back of the Napkin’s mission is to enable people to solve any problem through pictures. In doing so, Dan lays out a toolkit of sketches for different purposes. Specifically, he identifies the kind of sketch you need to answer the key questions of life – who? what? how much? where? when? how? why?

It occurred to me while reading this book, that Ken had it going on when he challenged the usefulness of the bell curve when making critical business decisions around talent. Adding to Ken’s sound personal and professionally researched case, I now bring forth picture evidence. The fact of the matter is that a bell curve is answering the wrong question.

Before getting into the question being asked, let’s reflect on the questions you could ask and the visual representation needed to answer them:

  • Who? – Portrait
  • How much? – Bar graph
  • Where? – Org chart (map)
  • When? – Timeline
  • How? – Flowchart
  • Why? – Multi-variable plot

The bell curve is a bar chart and the question it answers is “how much?” It answers the most basic question of how many people there are in each performance category and whether there are more in one category than another. Excellent, ready to run your business based on that information? Of course not. Though answering “how many” is a useful starting point, it is not providing real insight. Businesses and talent, in particular, are far more complicated than that.

What you really want to ask is “why?” “Why is region x performing better than region y?” “Why are we losing top talent?” “Why is Raj better suited for promotion than Tina?” In fact, there is an endless supply of why questions when it comes to talent and increasing business performance. Fortunately, there is a visual representation that answers “why?” It is the multi-variable plot.

Here is Dan’s advice when it comes to drawing a Multi-variable plot (you can learn more from Dan’s blog):

Begin with a simple x-y plot, using any two qualitative variables for which you have data as the two coordinates … plot in any quantitative variable for which you have data using appropriately sized bubbles in the middle.

Once that is set, he recommends adding and exchanging different dimensions and/or a timescale to answer particular questions or to draw out hidden insights.

So, there you have it: a picture is worth a thousand words. And in this case, the 9 box or the multi-variable plot is worth a thousand questions from the CEO.

4 Responses to “Picture Perfect”

  1. Meg Bear said

    wow! Amy this rules. Actual explaination as to why a 9-box is so useful. Frankly this kind of thinking blows my mind.

  2. Excellent insight, Amy! This shows that bell curves, forced rankings, etc. are examples of “execution as efficiency” where the process is basically fixed and it’s all about “cranking numbers.” Is it any wonder then that folks look at the process as a chore? There’s no chance to really improve things when the process itself can’t be changed. Contrast that to approaches like 9-box, which by asking “why?” is an example of “execution as learning.” People can still use it as a process for purposes related to compensation and so forth, but they now also have an opportunity to see how the various measures relate to each other and to inputs from the organization (e.g. structure, programs, strategy, etc.) This gets them thinking about what changes might improve results and that’s what gets people excited and engaged in making the company more competitive!

  3. Amy Wilson said

    Meg, I agree, this was definitely not a “read before falling asleep” kind of book. In fact, my head hurts just thinking about it.

    Mark, thanks for your insights and the recommendation and *so forth*.


  4. Amy Wilson said

    That’s not to say it was a hard book to read. It is quite a pleasant, easy read actually. It just makes you think … a lot.

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