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Back of the Napkin – Review March 4, 2012

Posted by jackielamping in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Description and summary:

In The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam makes the claim that anyone can use basic drawings to describe and solve complex business problems more effectively. First, Roam argues that our brains are hard-wired from birth to think visually, and that activating these deep-rooted visual thought centers (such as volume, shape, orientation, position, and change over time) helps bring our ideas into clearer focus. Second, he claims that hand-drawn sketches (whether on a napkin or whiteboard) are more effective in communicating ideas than refined PowerPoint diagrams because they’re intuitive, unintimidating, and – in Roam’s experience – invite significantly greater audience participation to clarify, edit, and improve. Finally, Roam describes a simple “SQVID” framework for breaking down any business problem into its “6W” component parts (Who, What, When, Where, How, Why) and how to visualize and draw each component as a basic sketch.

Roam anticipates counter-arguments from readers who say “I can’t draw” by emphasizing the absolute simplicity of the drawings required (arrows, stick figures, and basic shapes). He also maintains that everyone has a natural inclination toward visual thinking that manifests itself in different ways: “Black Pens” instinctively get up and start drawing, “Yellow Pens” let someone else lead sketching but get inspired to make comments along the way, and “Red Pens” hold back throughout the process but then redraw the entire picture correctly.

Roam pulls from his lengthy experience as an international business consultant, having seen many painfully ineffective presentations and failed pitches while noting a high success rate with whiteboard usage. He cites a particularly illustrative example from his own experience in which he agreed to fill in for a colleague’s public speaking event at the last minute and had only a train ride to prepare a 45 minute presentation about an unfamiliar subject: Roam crafted a simple diagram on the back of a napkin, recreated it on a whiteboard during his presentation, and inspired so much discussion that his session extended for 2 hours and won him a huge new piece of business. After realizing the tremendous power of a simple sketch, Roam was inspired to learn everything there is to know about using visuals for problem solving in business. When he found little material, he set out to write his own book.

Critical analysis:

When I first read Roam’s story about using a napkin sketch to give a wildly successful presentation, it was tempting for me to conclude that I should stop spending so much time preparing slides for meetings and instead just “wing it” by getting up to draw a few crude sketches – it would save me so much effort! But as Roam went on throughout the chapters, I started to pick up on his underlying message that in fact, there’s still a great deal of effort involved: you have to know your audience (i.e., Are they right brained or left brained? Do they know a lot about this problem or a little?), and the critical business problem you’re trying to solve in order to select the appropriate sketch to draw. You also have to know how to “show and tell” to successfully walk others through your thought process.

Roam’s argument that “every problem can be solved on the back of a napkin” is incredibly compelling in that it implies we can all expend less effort while yielding greater outcomes. This notion appeals to anyone in the modern business world acting under time constraints – most notably any EWMBA student. However, napkin and whiteboard sketches are clearly not appropriate for all business situations. For example, while they may be incredibly useful in clarifying business problems, selling ideas, and inspiring participation and debate, they are ill-equipped for running complex mathematical calculations, maintaining regular business operations, or communicating through asynchronous channels.   

Still, I do agree with Roam’s key notion that people are inherently visual thinkers, and that pictures sell harder and inspire more discussion than words. I studied behavioral neuroscience as my undergraduate major, and the biology states that pictures are more universally recognizable and simpler to understand than higher-order thought processes like reading. I also work in the field of education where there’s lots of debate about how people learn differently (visual vs auditory learner, etc.), and what makes course material more likely to be remembered. The current research demonstrates that concept retention improves when both pictures and words are presented, rather than words alone (http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf etc).  

I also buy into Roam’s argument that the act of drawing pictures itself helps engage an audience in the discovery and problem-solving process. I can personally think back to a handful of business meetings in which someone got up to draw on a whiteboard, and I remember clearly the concepts that were discussed despite those meetings having taken place many years ago… I can’t say the same for the thousands of other meetings I’ve forgotten over my career.

Assuming Roam has plans to produce another version of the book, I would suggest adding at least 1 chapter that provides a series of short example scenarios and quick sketches that could realistically be used in a presentation or discussion (or better yet, that have already been used in the past with successful results). The current book offers a small number of lengthy examples, along with templates for sketching a range of other problems; it could be even more effective with a wider range of quick-and-dirty, real-life examples.

Value of this book?

As MBA students working full-time jobs, we hear things like “less is more” when it comes to PowerPoint presentations, or “tell me your elevator pitch”, or “give me a 1-page summary” on a fairly regular basis… Yet rarely do we learn specific examples of how this can be done effectively for different types of business problems. This book offers a helpful framework for simplifying such communications and making them more effective.

In addition, following Roam’s approach to exploring different visualizations for the same business problem is a key skillset for any innovator to learn. We’re being taught in Design as Competitive Advantage to “reframe the problem statement” and “look at things differently” and “find new sources of inspiration”, but it has been difficult to draw that out of our working teams despite all of the exercises we’ve gone through so far. Roam’s direction around the “6W’s” and “SQVID” as an approach to problem solving would be very valuable to include in course teachings in the future.

It occurred to me while reading The Back of the Napkin that sketching pictures to represent business problems is much like the prototyping process that we’re learning in this course. The basic idea is to create a visual representation of your idea that’s crude enough to indicate flexibility and encourage an audience to respond and contribute. The challenge with prototypes is that they may not always be appropriate or adequate for expressing a conceptual business problem to executives. Roam’s figure sketches provide a way to bridge the gap between what’s suitable in a research or engineering setting versus a business meeting or large-scale presentation.  

Relevance of the book?

In my experience working in business, anyone who gets up in a meeting and starts drawing on a whiteboard instantly commands the room. They’re seen as more knowledgeable and viewed as problem solvers because their actions and designs change the nature of the meeting – they spark new thoughts, energize people who haven’t been engaged, inspire others to get up and start drawing, and make for a very memorable conversation. In the past, I have felt the urge to get up and draw on a whiteboard, but I didn’t have the slightest clue of where to start once I got up there. Now I have tools and frameworks to pull from, and I’m less intimidated about having to be a good artist or getting it perfectly right the first time.

At its core, The Back of the Napkinis about how to communicate more effectively through the use of visuals. That message is deeply relevant across a variety of industries and professions, including teachers, lawyers, engineers, business professionals and more. The book is well-written, easy to scan, and obviously communicates effectively through images. It’s something you can pick up and find immediate value out of within a few hours or even 30 minutes. I would recommend it to anyone wholeheartedly.

Attached are a couple of my own napkin sketch attempts at describing the book:




1. Suhani N Mehta - March 6, 2012

Talking about people’s fear that they can’t draw reminds me of a class session wherein our professor asked us to draw simple objects such as tree, SF bridge etc. Though many were doubtful at first, such simple drawings were easy for them to make. Seeing their own work on paper instilled confidence in them and motivated them to draw more. And then they just couldn’t stop! 🙂

It also provided me an insight that even the simplest and most common words have different meanings. For example, when the professor asked us to draw a tree, many drew a tree with brown trunk and curled green tops. But I saw 1 person who drew a Christmas tree. Hence, unless something is made tangible and clear through visual artifact, meanings depend on people’s understanding.

2. jhpittman - March 11, 2012

I like your attempt to put the your impression of the book into your own napkin sketches – very creative.

One thing that we should always keep in mind is that clarity is the real goal. Quick sketches and visual frameworks can create clarity in informal situations – such as a whiteboard session. Sometimes photographic images or more polished visual approaches are better for more formal situations.

One key is that we often fall back on words – which are the most ambiguous ways of communicating, closely followed by large tables of numbers.

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