Seeing What You Say

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“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” is most often attributed to E.M. Forster, an English novelist. In the same vein, when I was teaching professional communications, I told students, “Don’t wait for your thinking to become clear before you begin writing! Writing helps you think more clearly, and thinking more clearly helps you write more clearly!”

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Writing out ideas not only helps us clarify our thinking in real-time, but also seeing something we wrote earlier helps us recall where we have been—and often how far we have traveled—in our thinking. Looking at some sketch of a previous thought acknowledges the “social-ness” of our individual selves. When I pick up something I wrote last week or last month, I’m a different person from when I wrote it: I’ve had new thoughts, different experiences, altered circumstances. And I bring those to bear as I look again at the words or diagrams that whoever-I-was created. “Represent” literally means to present again.

Use Visual Representations When Possible

Visual, rather than text-heavy, representations are especially useful when trying to anchor complex ideas, interrelated thoughts, possibilities with lots of contingencies, and dependencies. Rather than getting tangled up in sentences, we can use short phrases to proxy for Big Thoughts and then focus on the relationships among those thoughts by clustering similar themes together or ordering dependent actions from one side of a page to the other. While valuable when I’m working alone, I find such visuals invaluable when working with others.

The OODA Cycle

John Boyd’s OODA Cycle is a simple, yet effective, visual representation.

Visual representations in the context of an OODA-loop understanding of pacing and iteration offer a powerful approach to constructing agreements for action among multiple people, even when those people hold different perspectives and stakes in the conversation. John Boyd’s OODA (Observe→Orient→Decide→Act) principle asserted that iterating faster on less perfect information yields better outcomes. Similarly, we might say iterating faster with ugly visual representations yields more beautiful results.

Rough-and-Ready Representations Invite Collaboration

Planning to iterate allows us to time-box the work on any particular representation of our ideas. We must do it badly because we don’t have time to do it well. That is strangely liberating when we’re tackling a big, hairy project or idea; no particular version needs to address everything because we have planned to return to it again.

I like a low-tech approach to visual representations, too. Ugly representations invite “fixing” by others. When we give our ideas a social life and share a sketchy representation with others, they feel free to add their ideas because, clearly, this thing is not done yet. On the other hand, beautiful representations look finished and “correct,” and often people will not share differing perspectives because, well, the picture already looks so tidy.

As people modify a representation to incorporate their own experiences and perspectives, they can become more invested in the ideas to which the visual points. Inviting others to help us iterate with visual representations over time builds shared commitment. Rather than a “big bang” approach to addressing a complex issue, a series of small agreements about useful individual and joint actions can emerge.

Accessible Representations Spark Insight

Getting ideas out of your head and onto something you can see—the page, a whiteboard, the conference-room wall—allows you to revisit them iteratively, casually as you’re passing by, peripherally as you’re conversing about something else. Oddly, that’s often when insight strikes. The visual’s very accessibility means you can record that novel nuance now, right now, before it slips behind another to-do list item in your brain. Was the insight there in your mind before? It didn’t come from the visual, did it? There is some odd interaction between what we think and what we see. Let’s use it to our advantage.

Key Ideas

  • Using visualizations helps us think more clearly.
  • “Ugly” drafts invite collaboration.
  • Rapid iteration yields beautiful results – faster.