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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:


The Back of the Napkin March 12, 2011

Posted by dacsrgeorge in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.

The Back of the Napkin is Dan Roam’s approach to bring visual thinking to the masses. Roam devotes plenty of page space systematically explaining the basics of visual thinking (Look, See, Imagine and Show) using simple ‘stick-figure’ drawings applied to problems both real and imagined. Beyond providing the reader with the tools and rules for good visual thinking, he introduces and applies the visual thinking framework to guide the reader’s thinking.

Roam attempts to win over his audience by proclaiming that it’s usually the most visually challenged person who ends up contributing the most, once they have been exposed to his methods. Regardless, of the clumsy attempts at trying to win over skeptical readers, Roam does have good and useful points. The basics of his approach are sound. The framework provided to supplement the approach is sound. The examples showing the use of the framework is both helpful and illustrative. However, it is unnecessary to have a prolonged tutorial on the basics of problem types. People reading his book will know the different problem types (who, what, where, when, why, how/many). Further, a good third of the book can be reduced to a single page, mapping problem type to visual tool. For ‘who/what’ problems select ‘portraits’, for ‘how many’ select ‘charts’, for ‘where’ select ‘map’, for ‘when’ select ‘timeline’, for ‘how’ select ‘flowchart’, and for ‘why’ select ‘multivariable plot’. Roam makes good use of examples throughout the book. It’s with the examples, particularly the real world ones, that he hooks the reader. We are taken through visual solutions of complex problems such as creating a comprehensive training doctrine for a company, and determining how to retain market share for a software company competing with the open source world. The book will be helpful to students and readers not exposed to the visual thinking process that pervades design programs, hci programs and creative agencies.

Certainly, I will use the tools that Roam provides, but, I caution the reader to keep in mind, that this kind of toolset is only valuable when applied to the right problem. Despite Roam’s proclamations that it can be applied to quantitative data sets, no one wants a visual that looks like a spaghetti explosion.

Example of Visual Thinking from the NYTimes website:

Back of the Napkin December 13, 2009

Posted by raimundosilvam in Back of the Napkin.
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By the cover, I expected this to be the best book ever. To know how to solve problems and sell ideas with pictures is one of the skills everybody would like to have. The book was interesting but I believe there are much better books on this topic, such as “sketching user experiences”.

My professional experience in Investment Banking and Consulting taught me the importance of being able to communicate the ideas in an easy and simple way. Hence, i did not hesitate to choose this book when I saw the cover. However, in spite of the fact that the book gives many tools to improve the way we communicate our ideas, the truth is that the framework is not sufficient to gain confidence to communicate/think with pictures. This is something that came up several times in the class (it is not a critic to the class but to the book instead). Now that I know the theory, how can I start thinking and communicating with drawings/pictures?. I would improve the book by including a sketchbook where the reader can do several exercises as he reads. I do believe on the importance of being able to communicate with picture, however practice, practice and practice, seems to be much more important that theory in this case.

Bottom line: The book is a good theoretical approach that has to be combined with practical experience. The book itself is not sufficient to train the drawing skill.

Christine Mucker on Back of the Napkin September 30, 2009

Posted by Muckzak in Back of the Napkin.
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This is a book about ’solving problems and selling ideas with pictures’. The funny thing… the book is comprised of 90% words.

I would love to be able to move away from my natural inclination of conveying ideas with numbers, tables and bullet points. Simplified pictorial representations can be so much more powerful. The problem is – I still don’t know how change from quantitative to qualitative and retain the whole story.

This book has gotten me thinking… How can I improve my ability? What should I consider when trying to create a meaningful presentation? If nothing else, the book has made me search for alternate methods of communication. One idea in the book that inspired me – ‘Push visual ideas by finding multiple ways to show the same thing’. However, it’s the HOW do I show something multiple ways that still has me stumped. Maybe I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

I must admit, I’m still not completely finished with the book. It started off in my bag and I’d read it on the bus and at school… then it landed on my nightstand for the before the lights go out reading time. Now it’s relegated to the bathroom. It’s losing ground in my reading heirarchy.

I’ll keep you posted if, during it’s reign in the loo, any more meaningful insights are revealed.

Hannah Davies on Back of the Napkin September 30, 2009

Posted by Hannah Davies in Back of the Napkin.
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“Visual thinking is an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems, and though it may appear to be something new, the fact is that we already know how to do it.”

Comforting words indeed to someone as drawing-illiterate as me! The whole idea behind this book is that not only is it more effective to convey ideas and solve problems using pictures rather than words, it’s also easier. OK… I have to confess to more than a little skepticism when I started this book. I could happily buy the first bit. But, really – easier to draw than write? Yeah, right…

This book did not, by any stretch of the (un-visual) imagination, provide an epiphany of creative discovery. To be honest, I really can’t see it even changing my business presentations from the traditional PowerPoint deck to a new, funky back-of-the-napkin style (I am an MBA student, after all). What it did do, though, was provide a really interesting, useful, simple framework for tackling and communicating about problems from different perspectives, which I can definitely see myself using in both a business and non-business context.

The basic premise is that you should use three in-built tools to solve problems: our eyes, our mind’s eye or imagination, and our hand-eye coordination. Using this process helps us to really ‘see’ all aspects of a problem in a more holistic way, which makes it easier for us to find the right solution. The book takes you through a step-by-step process to doing this effectively, using six fundamental questions to guide the ‘seeing’ process (see the toolbox on the Wiki for a summary of the process). It also gives examples, techniques and lots of practice problems to help you get started. Plus, as you’d expect, it’s full of great illustrations!

Visual thinking is not something that feels familiar or easy (the main reason I chose the book). And whilst the Back of the Napkin hasn’t magically turned me into a great artist or superb visual thinker, it does offer a very simple, intuitive and clear framework to follow which I believe, with plenty of practice, really will help me to improve my problem-solving and presenting skills. I’d definitely recommend it.

Maybe we should just use napkins for eating September 23, 2009

Posted by milimittal in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Back of the Napkin ~ a classic case of choosing a book by its cover. When I picked this up I was super excited: the book claimed it would teach me to use visualization to communicate and potentially to solve any problem I ever faced. Sounds great. Roam took me on a journey through ‘looking,’ ’seeing,’ ‘imagining,’ ’showing,’ on another path through the ‘who/what, how much, when, where, why, and how’ of visualization, and down a few other paths with a few other tools, but at the end of it all, I can’t say that I discovered how to see or show any better than I did before. For example, when Roam asked me to close my eyes and imagine a dog, bird, a couple with a baby carriage, and so on, to prove that my brain has the ability to see and differentiate between the ‘who/what, how much, when, where, how and why’ of a scene, I felt I was supposed to be blown away. I wasn’t. At numerous points after Roam introduced his tools I felt the same way: underwhelmed. So, at the end of book 1, I am wishing I had chosen by something other than the cover. Hopefully books 2 and 3 will do more for me.

Nii Sai Sai on Back of the Napkin September 23, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Look See Imagine Show! Who/What Where When How/How Much Why? These are all part of our lives on a daily basis, but we do not know how they fit into a structured approach to problem-solving. Dan Roam does a great job of explaining how to use tools we already have to solve problems. The first big revelation for me was about my own comfort level with using pictures as tools for solving problems. I always thought my drawing skills were just average, but quickly realized that those skills could be a big part of my problem-solving toolkit going forward. The book provided me with a way to embrace visual thinking based on my personal ability to actually capture ideas using pictures.
The idea of using ‘active looking’ as the starting point to tackling a problem echoes a key observation mentioned in class about effective design thinking . . . identifying the problem or need accurately. Given the overload of tools, frameworks, best practices, etc. that we receive in school, our instinct is often to role up our sleeves and dive right into the fun of developing a solution to a problem presented to us. However, it is only when we can accurately pinpoint the problem that we greatly improve our chances of coming up with a solution which actually addresses the issues at hand.
In today’s world, information overload is a real problem. That makes is much more critical that we can look at a sea of data, identify very quickly what is there, notice patterns and groupings, and then figure out how to connect the knowledge we’ve gathered to the problem we’re trying to solve. That sounds much easier that is really is, but it is undeniable that if we can present the ‘story’ of the problem visually, we can convey the key messages to people much quicker and get everyone on the same page. Pictures are equally effective in showing people what the solution.
The 6 W’s that Dan Roam talks about really help in getting to the heart of an issue. As I mentioned earlier, most MBAs like to solve problems, right away. Taking a step back to first work through the who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why, helps provide clarity and direction. These questions can usually be answered using visual thinking techniques. The process of sifting through data to answer these questions could be tedious, but then the ‘aha’ moments along the way culminate in an end product which draws the biggest ‘aha’ because it hits the bull’s eye.

You Might Need a Lot of Napkins, Though – Sehoon September 23, 2009

Posted by Sehoon Min in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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It needs to be noted that this book is about “visual thinking” rather than “visual communication”. The author tries to ground this term, visual thinking, by emphasizing that “looking” and “seeing”, in his own meaning, should come ahead of “imagining” and “showing”. In other words, the well-structured process of understanding and defining problems determines the quality of solving and presenting them.

For better understanding and defining problems, he proposes rather un-fancy framework of 6Ws, who/what, how, when, where, etc. However, the true essence of this book seemed to lie in how this 6W-based understanding can be effectively and efficiently translated into solving and communicating the solutions.

His framework of ” model” matched with “SQVID framework” are coherently linked with6Ws. Therefore, these connection of frameworks provide a simple, comprehensive and efficient ways of defining, solving and communicating problems with the aid of visual elements.

One concern is that although 6W-based problem definition framework look simple and easy to execute, it will require lots of experiences and good intuition to really come up with meaningful sub-questions and answers. At this level, the questions and answers may not simply be grouped as 6Ws, causing 6W lose its role as a framework.

Pau Min Wong on Back of the Napkin September 23, 2009

Posted by Pau Min Wong in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Having worked in consulting for several years, the process of selecting appropriate tools to visualize and present volumes of data in a simple and communicable way became a natural part of daily work. I stopped thinking hard about it and relied mostly on existing templates, previously used visuals and slides. However, reading Dan Roam’s “Back of Napkin” provided me with two fresh insights.

Firstly, Dan extends the usage of visualization beyond the typical presentation and communication process, and instead made it central to the problem-solving process itself. He proposes that any business issue can be broken down into 6 basic questions: Who/what, How much, When, Where, How and Why. Using these 6 lenses, we can then decide on the most appropriate visual tool that best represents the information we have, helping us to look beyond the numbers, see and recognize trends and imagine the underlying forces at work. This eventually leads us to either a set of deeper probing questions, or a likely solution for the issue at hand.

Secondly, Dan provided a simple yet elegant and structured framework to encapsulate the entire visual thinking and presenting process. The same six lenses that we have used to inspect problems can also be used to project the solutions and ideas. Adding to that, Dan introduces the SQVID technique that guides us through the delicate tradeoffs involved in customizing visuals to the needs of specific audience groups.

I must admit that Dan’s framework is not a ‘cure all’ solution. It merely provides a guideline, a starting point for us to think on our feet (or rather hands), throw some ideas in the air (drawing board in this case) and kickstart the discussion. Getting to the right solution still requires application of the inquisitive mind, collection of past experiences, strong analytics, all of which cannot be replaced simply by a visual thinking framework.

Napkins – are they recycled? September 23, 2009

Posted by Alison Zander in Back of the Napkin, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin addresses how to solve problems and sell ideas with pictures. I am a quantitative thinker and I do not instinctively draw pictures to convey my ideas visually. This book definitely encouraged me to draw ideas out. I’ve experimented with drawing, and I now know that I can draw well enough to convey my ideas to others and that in some settings drawings can be more impactful. I don’t know if I will ever be the “black pen” person that can’t wait to get in front of a whiteboard with a marker, but the book has encouraged me pick up the marker and draw.

This book also described frameworks to use when approaching visual thinking. Although the frameworks offered were great thought starters, the images the book used as examples are already used in business to communicate ideas. I think the book brought to light a fresh approach to problem solve and sell ideas through free-hand drawings, but the way that it was presented gave me the impression that I was going to learn some break through ways to be more effective. I think this book will help me draw ideas rather than listing them especially in brainstorming sessions, but I didn’t really get a new perspective from this book and I found myself wishing I had picked something else.