I was recently reminded of the truth of the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and why it’s so relevant for us as change leaders. By nature, I’m a rather left-brained, analytical person – and with my doctoral-degree academic training, early in my career I was the queen of dry, fact-based, death-by-PowerPoint (or back then, overhead transparency) presentations! Yet, even then I knew that when I learned, what was often most memorable to me was a simple graphic, or model, or a photo that depicted clearly and succinctly current state, future state, and what we needed to do to get from here to there. Back in the day, we talked a lot about “paradigm shifts”, and what makes “shift happen”: the combination of data + emotion. So often, we overplay the data and downplay the emotion.
As John Kotter and Dan Cohen wrote so well in The Heart of Change, most leaders focus on prompting people to “think differently” – but that’s not how change really happens. Instead, change occurs at the level of individual behavior change, which happens when people “feel differently.” We not only have to engage the brain (Head), we have to connect with the emotions – appeal to Heart even more than the mind. Many of us logical folks were trained to lead by employing the “analysis-think-change” model – when the real change dynamic relies on the “see-feel-change” cycle.
Impactful change leaders embrace this truism and capitalize on the fact that transformation takes place for emotional reasons – which is not “soft” but based on “hard science.” We need to creatively and compellingly “show” not merely “tell” – through visual cues that can range from educational and entertaining videos to diorama-like display showcases to transforming physical space design.
A couple of my favorite examples conveyed by Kotter and Cohen were these powerful ones:
- To spur a customer-focused cultural transformation, a company replaced the photographs of past CEOs that had lined the entrance hallway in the corporate office with pictures of customers’ stores;
- To obtain buy-in from senior executives to champion a strategic sourcing initiative, the procurement manager piled the boardroom conference table with each of the 424 different gloves used in all the company’s many factories currently purchased from a wide variety of different vendors.
Why are pictures (or any visual images) worth a thousand words? Because they convey vast amounts of complex information instantaneously. Images make a compelling case, often (seemingly) effortlessly, eloquently, and unequivocally. Visual management, as the total quality management, six sigma, and lean professionals often point out, focuses attention on what’s important and tells an immediately comprehensible short and simple story. We as change leaders are really “sales people” – passionately advocating for a new and better future.
For innately left-brainers like me, incorporating visuals can help us connect with our right-brained colleagues, resulting in a holistic, whole brain approach. We can reach people with a variety of informational needs and learning styles – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
Images prompt interaction, not passive reception. Visuals are dynamic, not static. They cut through the clutter, grab attention, and incite interest. Ask yourself – and perhaps a colleague: what does the CQ image above “say” to you? What do you “see”? What does it make you “feel” or “think”? What jumps out for you that may not be immediately obvious for others? Such loosely structured, open dialogue, often produces new insights and innovative paths forward.
What can you as a change leader do? A recent client example portrays some of countless ways you can put images of CQ front and center to help your team imagine change intelligent needs and opportunities real-time when and where it counts.
A steel producer I’ve been consulting with has been the market leader in its niche for many years. The CEO brought me on board to work with “leaders at all levels,” explaining that “I fear we’re becoming complacent. We’re catching wind of new competitors with new technologies, raw materials, and product lines. Our people are becoming resistant to new ideas. I’m hearing comments like, ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ ‘it ain’t broke so don’t fix it,’ and ‘we’re on top of our game – they should be doing what we’re doing – why should we change?'”
During our early meetings we shared visual images and told actual stories (many experienced first-hand by team members themselves) about how some of those comments sounded and smelled a lot like the integrated steel mills of the past – who got their lunch eaten through decades of plant closings, restructurings, and downsizings of the American steel industry. As quality guru W. Edwards Deming remarked, “it is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Plant leadership “got” the message about the bottom-line business need to “change or die.” Yet in many ways, “getting it” is easy – “sticking it” is the hard part.
We experimented with a variety of visual management mechanisms to ensure change intelligent conversations were taking place every day. To share a few:
- Daily team huddles and monthly staff meeting agendas started with “CQ moments” immediately after “safety moments,” usually incorporating a catchy graphic or relevant video clip of some kind. These ranged from “ripped from media headlines” national news stories to home-grown show-and-tell examples of a peer “soldiers in the trenches” role modeling out-of-the-box invention, such as a really great IPhone video made by the operations manager and his son at their local hardware store role playing an “aha moment” that resulted in a fix to a nagging maintenance problem in the plant.
- Decision-making sessions ended with “line-of-sight” communications plans that explicitly incorporated “heart, head and hands” messages- using logos for each and simple, easily memorable-to-talk-about images instead of words. That is, specifics for the leaders on how to share agreements that motivated their people emotionally, engaged them intellectually, and equipped them behaviorally to want it, get it, and be able to execute in tangible, concrete ways.
- Some leaders even wore the “CQ Triangle” depicting their Change Leader Style on their hard hats! Others had their CQ Profile page from their CQ Assessment results posted on their office/cubicle/pulpit entrance ways.
As Joe McCormack shares in the brilliant new book Brief, “people you deal with everyday are on the receiving end of over explained, underprepared, and complicated communication……We are transitioning from a text-based world to a visual one……Visuals attract attention and capture imagination…..giving individuals a simple and more powerful tool to wrestle with information and put order to chaos.”
If seeing is believing – what can you as a change leader do, today, where you are at, to help people see (and then feel, and ultimately act) differently?