Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: The Back of the Napkin

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Over my past several visits to bookstores and Amazon, I’d found two books of especial interest: The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam, and Visual Meetings, by David Sibbet. After reading a few reviews and taking a closer look at them, I decided to read The Back of the Napkin first, and hold off reading Visual Meetings.

Despite spending a good part of my career in consulting and executive education, I struggle with creating compelling visuals to convey key messages. Many people have difficulty with the drawing involved; for me, I tend to think by writing and less through pictures. However, now that I have started a company, I will have to convey our message more visually to potential customers, advisers and even my business partners as we settle on the right product and model. Mr. Roam’s book gave me a helpful framework for stretching my own thinking through creating visual representations, and tools for how to improve how I convey insight through visual messages.

His overarching framework is one of Look—See—Imagine—Show. Looking involves scanning the world for all relevant data points. Seeing means organizing and reorganizing data to uncover the underlying problem. Imagining refers to seeing the invisible, the missing and manipulating patterns to stretch thinking, and identifying solutions. Only after completing these three steps should you proceed to showing, the act of drawing the issues and solutions in order to tell your story.

Mr. Roam also includes tools for readers. His SQVID and <6><6> models (which combine into a third tool, the Codex) are practical, helpful and simple. Throughout the book, he provides numerous examples of both the power of visual thinking and how to do it. Part III takes the reader through an in-depth example of how visual thinking can help solve tough business challenges. Those examples bring the book to life, by showing his framework and tools in action.

He offers other good tips for improving your visual thinking, including drawing by hand before using a computer. His reasoning makes sense – audiences like hand drawings, they dread overhead projections; you can erase and change hand drawings easily; hand drawings help you tell your story as you draw.

Finally, he includes three appendices. One offers his top 11 points on visual thinking and drawing. The second digs into the science of visual thinking, for interested readers. The last compiles various resources for additional support. Here, he includes additional books and software suggestions. I was happy to see Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information listed.

After finishing the book, I decided to take his approach out for a spin. As a fledging business, we have numerous problems to solve. In this case, I needed to create a strategy for our next six months. Usually, I would open a new Word document and begin writing. This time, I began by drawing – first us, and what we knew about our company and product, and what we didn’t know. Next, I drew our customers and partners, again highlighting what we knew about them and what we don’t know, as they relate to our products. The act of drawing customers revealed a potential customer we haven’t considered yet; that identification may not yield results now or ever, but I probably would not have even considered it if I hadn’t tried this exercise. Drawing those two pictures gave me a great sense of what we know about ourselves and our product, where we think the product should go and what decisions still remain. It also showed me, in a pretty compelling way, what key data we need to know about customers in order to market effectively to them. I have not yet completed the strategy, but putting the background issues on paper made me consider new ideas, and helped me structure my approach to and the content of the strategy.

In conclusion, Mr. Roam has produced a fine contribution to problem solving and even to creative thinking in business. His book now has an honored place next to Mr. Tufte’s books in my library as an indispensible resource.


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  1. […] The busiest day of the year was November 15th with 103 views. The most popular post that day was Review: The Back of the Napkin. […]

  2. […] The Back of the Napkin – Dan […]

  3. […] reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between this book and Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin. They have similar looks and feels, and advocate a visual – and visually compelling – path to […]

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