Imagine holding the book you see here in your hands, and knowing that you wrote, illustrated and designed all 262 pages! I got that chance last Friday when Visual Meetings arrived from Wiley & Sons. The process began in December of last year when Richard Narramore called and wondered if I would like to write a book about visualization for groups, following the success of Dan Roam’s book Back of the Napkin. Little did I realize then how fun it would be to deliver this sweeping review of 35 years of leading visual meetings all over the world. I’m writing here to share some of the process I went through for those who might be interested in how books like this come to be. If you want to skip this post and go right to getting the book, then click on this link to a special page on our web site at The Grove—About Visual Meetings. It has all the details. If you want to hear my personal story of this journey read on.
ORIGINS OF THE BOOK
This book is really the fourth generation of a book I first wrote in 1980 called “I See What You Mean: A Workbook Guide to Group Graphics.” It was originally a ring binder with tabs, set in IBM selectric courier type, with press-type chapter titles and even press-type bordering. I holed up in my studio with a graphic artist named Pam McAdoo and produced the first version in about two weeks, and then added many pages in another two-week marathon. I was trained as a journalist and was editor of my college paper at Occidental so I know something about producing quickly.
But my own inner artistry was kicking in by taking on the self-imposed intention of demonstrating what someone could do with available office equipment. I knew by then that Group Graphics, which is what we called our method of conducting visual meetings at the time, was an amazing tool for groups. But there was no understanding that it was even possible and no demand. We needed to create attention by conducting workshops, and this book was the training manual. I wanted to show people that being visual was possible right then with no barriers. As a result of this choice I See What You Mean had the gritty authenticity of containing only material we knew worked. I say “we” because this work has been collaborative from the start. My colleagues Geoff Ball and Sandra Florstedt co-led the first workshop at Fort Mason the year this book appeared, and Geoff was my original inspiration for this work.
What some of you may not know was that this book was also the equivalent of a thesis in the Theory of Process, which I was studying with Arthur M. Young all through that time. The book’s architecture follows the predictable stages of process, and is an intentional translation of all the key aspects of that theory into very accessible tools for facilitators.
CREATING A FACILITATION GUIDE
The second generation of Visual Meetings was a facilitation training manual created for the Mars Corporation in the late 1980s and then revamped for National Semiconductor in 1991 as a support for training an internal team of change consultants. By this time the MacIntosh was available with PageMaker and laserprinters. I purchased what MacAdam Computers (the go-to place for Apple products at the time in San Francisco) said was the first two-page screen in the city. I could see a full spread in Adobe Illustrator.
Much to the consternation of my own design team, I dove in and actually wrote much of this Facilitation Guide right in Illustrator (this is quick for the first draft but creates problems in editing if you are slavishly consistent with style sheets). But I wanted to see the pictures and the words work together in tight integration, much like they do in magazines. In this iteration we evolved all the formats that are now the basis of many of The Grove’s training materials—concentrating on very visual “spreads” where graphics go across two pages, and on what we term “page-at-a-glance” best practice layouts.
My good friend Bob Horn, author of Visual Language and founder of a Boston-based company called Information Mapping, pioneered ways of “chunking” up information visually to greatly improve the usability of computer manuals and I was convinced this was what any good graphic designer should do. I was reinforced in that thinking by Joan Browning, who taught me professional graphic design when we merged firms in 1991. She led me to see that determining different functions for all the pieces in a communication and then carefully matching graphics and fonts could produce highly accessible material. Both were talking about what we now know is the field of information design or information architecture.
The facilitation guide for Mars was about three inches thick and spiral bound. The folks we certified internally to use it affectionately called it “the brick.” It was very successful in its intended purpose and still in use by some of them.
WRITING GRAPHIC FACILITATION
The third generation of Visual Meetings was the result of deciding that each chapter in “the brick” really needed to be a separate book. I began with the Principles of Facilitation, which outlines about a dozen principles for each of the four flows of activity a facilitator has to manage (We name these Attention, Energy, Information and Operations). Next was Best Practices for Facilitation. It has over 260 best practices keyed to the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model and is a key sourcebook for anyone serious about facilitation.
The next book I wrote was Graphic Facilitation: Transforming Group Process with Power Of Visual Listening. It was written as a comprehensive guide for anyone wanting to become a professional graphic facilitator and is as comprehensive a treatment as you will find (IMHO). In it I went back and brought forward all the things I’d learned since starting this work in 1972. (All these are available through the Grove store if you click on the links).
Graphic facilitation is the term used by those of us who both lead meetings and create the graphics at the same time, using the displays integrally with the group process. This is an approach that is stunning in strategic planning sessions with management teams and many other group settings. But this is a real performance challenge, not dissimilar to learning to play progressive jazz. It’s possible, and there are a growing number of us who do this successfully for a living, but not for everyone.
The approach includes being able to create presentations charts on flip charts and large, blank sheets, graphic recording when someone else facilitates, and facilitating, usually on the fly within well designed processes. Put these all together and you get graphic facilitation.
All these guides are what now support The Grove’s Principles of Graphic Facilitation training, an outgrowth of the Group Graphics trainings of long ago. This process is as well tested as any methodology can be. A testimony is the fact that nearly every one of my consulting staff over the years has gone on and created their own successful practices and firms. It began with Jennifer Hammond Landau and Howell Thomas—who are still practicing. Then in the 1990s Suzanne Otter, Diana Arsenian, Christina Merkely, Kayla Kirsch and Deirdre Crowley all worked at The Grove . They all have successful practices. And finally my assistant Sunni Brown, a bright public policy student from Texas, helped me with the Graphic Facilitation book, agreed to be the model as the curious learner, and has gone on to create her own Brightspot Consulting as a very creative graphic recorder. She is currently the co-author of Gamestorming with Dave Gray. Talk about a learner.
VISUAL MEETINGS IS BORN
Over the years I’ve learned that really good publications are team efforts, and each one of the books I’ve created has involved more and more people who help refine the approaches and designs. In this fourth case I experienced being guided by a professional East Coast editor, Richard Narramore. His experience at Pfieffer publishing reference books in organizational development led him to our website and our work.
I mention East Coast because there is a real cultural difference in the United States between the coasts. In general the Eastern seaboard has not been as quick to catch on the designerly ways of knowing that are ubiquitous in the West Coast. What we take for granted out here is news to some people in New York. But Richard has a passion for making ideas accessible and making books successful and was adroit at responding to my many tables of contents, and gently weaning me from some of the more flagrant west coastisms.
I’ve learned that business books don’t really have a market unless a couple of conditions are met.
- You need to have a large network of people who will buy whatever you write.
- You are a speaker that can sell bushels of books to give away at big meetings.
- You are already a well-known author.
- You have defied gravity by self publishing and proving that you have a market, and then the big publishers will talk with you.
I really only met the first criteria, and a bit of the fourth. That was because many of you are already owners of Grove products and know about their quality and integrity and would trust what I create. The Grove has a very robust mailing list and that, I must say, was critical to Wiley’s interest. Having something to say only gets you in the door.
Richard’s point of view is that the title and cover have to be right and the table of contents and first chapter have to be right, and the rest of the book will probably take care of itself if you know what you are writing about. So he really worked with me in December and January on those things and out of this came the title Visual Meetings, and the concept of organizing the book around the full cycle of learning (I wasn’t about to give up on Process Theory at this point).
My drafts of a first chapter took three or four rounds. In an initial one I wrote about one of my favorite meetings, a spring retreat I conduct every year in Baltimore for their Leadership program. But the example was really about something that requires a very experienced person to pull off. It wasn’t the right pitch and voice for the manager and HR person who isn’t big on drawing, but has to run meetings and wants them to work and maybe wants to be visual. I finally connected back with those meetings that were seminal in my own development, and the experience with Apple Computer was for sure. So that leads off the book.
I was actually amazed at how easily the rest flowed once we had the architecture and central voice and image established. I remember holing up in on a trip to Bangkok in a hotel (before the riots) and having both my MacBook Pro and my Wacom tablet there. I created about 10 chapters that long weekend with very long days. I came back and most of my free time in March was spent writing. But it turned out to be a joy. In connecting with the elements that anyone can use, and telling stories and creating illustrations that made the possibilities really clear, I felt like I was finally delivering this work up to the next generation, to which I dedicated the book. I also realized that the graphic facilitation work on large sheets was just a facet of a whole range of visualization strategies, in which the simple sticky note figured hugely. Writing these chapters about how to really do sticky note work was new ground, and wasn’t really covered in the earlier books. Neither was all the experimentation and success The Grove has had creating templates that provide light scaffolding for visual planning.
THE ONE THIRD RULE
I anticipated that this book would follow the one-third rule I’ve come to believe in, and it did. The one-third rule is my observation that it takes about a third of time to create the first draft of a book. It takes another third to rewrite everything so it all works together. And it takes another third to polish and correct the book. This latter process took several months. Because I took on the task of actually designing the book in InDesign as a way of authoring in visual format and getting a tight integration of word and image– I did introduce a lot of inconsistencies that had to be fixed in the picture department. Everything needed to be 300 dpi duotones in Photoshop it turned out. The 96 dpi illustrations just weren’t sharp enough. You probably don’t want to know about all this, but I did spend a good number of hours just fine tuning the drawings with the help of our Director of Design, Bobby Pardini. This is the kind of boring stuff that is in phase three. Thanks for Wiley they handled the indexing.
TEACHING THE BABY TO WALK
I should add a fourth third to my rule, since we are now entering the all important part of getting enough sales in the first run that the book is considered successful enough to warrant attention from the distributors. We are very happy that Barnes and Noble has chosen the book to be featured in its August .com site and will be featured all month on its new release tables through the country. This is a BIG deal according to Wiley. They don’t often do this. I should probably pay Dan Roam some royalties because I suspect it’s the success of his book that is generating this interest and not the merits of Visual Meetings alone.
It is interesting on Amazon to see that Gamestorming and Business Model Generation are both coming out coincident with Visual Meetings. Each is making a very complete case for visualization in business, all coming from different angles. When I set out on this path years ago, I thought of process leadership and group graphics as a performance art very much like music. I’ve even called it “conceptual jazz.” In this spirit I has always felt that a new field needs lots of voices and styles to be a true field, and that the existence of these books all of a sudden is an indication that we have finally reached critical mass.
I make a good argument for why in Visual Meetings. These practices are actually very old, and have been the friends of designers and architects since those professions began—but the intersection with new technologies has begun to launch a revolution for anyone who runs meetings and leads group processes.
I’m about to head into the 15th annual meeting of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners. These are the people who are on this wave and making a living at it. I’m going to share in a historical retrospective, and at the end, thanks to Wiley, comp everyone a copy of Visual Meetings. It couldn’t be a better birthday present for this new creation. It will begin its own life now, and I will begin to turn my creativity to the new ideas that are hatching (and believe me they are!!!)