Book Review – The Back of the Napkin

The Back of the Napkin | Dan Roam | Penguin Portfolio

What first caught my eye about this book was its subtitle, Solving Problems and Selling Ideas [tweetmeme source="leanisgood" service=""]with Pictures. Dan Roam believes that almost all problems can be solved, communicated, and solutions sold through a process of seeing and drawing picture.  I thought I’d read the book because these things makes sense to me from a lean standpoint (genchi gembutsu, vsm, and A3 process).

I also read the book because I hate long powerpoint presentations made up of a bunch of slides consisting of bullet points, countless chart, and the occasional awkward, out of place clipart.  This book suggests some alternatives.

The book is easy to read, most pages have some pictures illustrating the author’s point.  It can be read in three or four sittings of an hour or two each.  The author describes a process for visually thinking through and communicating problems and ideas.

Roam gives pretty good examples throughout the book he uses both real world examples from his work as well as simple made up examples that are simple enough that most readers will understand the author’s message without being lost in the details of the actual problem.

The book is a little more than a how to think and communicate visually.  Roam has apparently done some research visual thinking.  He makes light reference to how we see stuff and process it cognitively and precognitively.  He includes a plain language appendix that summarizes what he has learned about what we see and how we see it.

I thought the book was a good read.  I am thinking about buying a copy for my library (I borrowed the copy that I read from the public one.)  If you have an interest in visually thinking through problems and ideas as well as ways to communicate them in simpler, more visual ways then this might be a good read for you too.  I’ll give the author one paragraph to make his pitch (from chapter 1):

What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered?  What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even a bit more fun?  There is..  It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.

Roam’s process of visual thinking is a four step process: looking, seeing, imagining, and finally showing.  Looking is a semipassive process of collecting and screening information.  By looking you should be able to understand the big picture of your problem.

Seeing is a the active side of the visual input coin.  In seeing you focus on selecting and clumping.  When you see you select inputs which warrant more detailed inspection.  You should begin to recognize patterns in the see phase.  Roam says that we see things in terms of who/what, how much, where and when.  Based on some combination of these we can can see the how.  Then we begin to make guesses as to the why.

Imagining comes after you have collected and select the relevant information.  The imagine phase typically takes one of two forms: seeing with our eyes closed (what a lot of people call imagination) or seeing what is not there.  It is this phase that Roam comes up with a really interesting exercise that he calls SQVID.  This is really about asking five questions about how I want to show the problem.  We should think about showing while we are imagining (I didn’t get it at first either, but it makes sense if you read the book).  Here is a table that represents the five questions:

Simple Quality Vision Individual Change
Elaborate Quantity Execution Compare Status Quo

You can ask ask yourself how you can show your problem simply and how you can show your problem elaborately.  Also, ask yourself how to best show your problem to the intended audience using this diagram.  You would repeat this for each column SQVID diagram above.  The D in SQVID is for delta or change, the other letters just come from the first letters of the top row.  Roam associates the top row with right-brain or “warm” and the bottom with left-brain or “cool”.  Warm is simple, visionary, and qualitative whereas cool is complex, quantitative, execution oriented.  (You can see the author’s .pdf of the diagram here.)

Finally showing is making everything clear for your audience.  Roam offers a set of ‘frameworks’ to help you show your ideas.  You can use his <6><6> rule for working through how you are going to show your idea.  He suggests that you should select a framework based on the what was most important from you see phase using this table (nice .pdf here):

SEE (Select most important) SHOW (Framework type)
Who/What Portrait
How much Chart
Where Map
When Timeline
How Flowchart
Why Multiple-variable plot

Roam sums up his visual thinking approach with what he calls his codex.  It is a matrix with SQVID across the top and the framework type down the left column (see it here.)  The way you use it is you go down the right column to the desired framework then slide across until you find the most most relevant version of that framework.  It is a pretty interesting way of looking at things.

The four step process is not linear, you may have to stay in a look – see loop for awhile before you can begin to imagine for instance.

Roam then runs through an example of each type of problems (Who/what, How much, etc.)

The author then closes with a chapter on selling your ideas where he basically suggests that you make your idea visual by using the visual thinking codex then “look” aloud, “see” aloud, and “imagine” aloud.  Basically walk the audience through how you came up with your picture.

All told,  a worthy read from someone who shares a lot of our lean practitioner paradigms (he might not know it but he does.)  Should be interesting for people who value the A3 process.


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3 Responses

  1. Great overview. I have looked at this book myself but did not get a chance to pick it up. I definetely will after reading this. I worked with some kids from Case Western Reserve Chemical Engineering department and they had a class on freehand drawing that included a small section on idea development. The professor told the students that really important deals and collaborations occur in bars and you need to be able to express your ideas vividly and accurately. It looks like Roam has taken this beyon that concept. Thanks

    • I’ve found the bar idea generation concept is a “high risk / high reward” situation. Some of my best and absolutely worst ideas were generated in bars……luckily some can’t ever be recalled!!!!

  2. […] Book Review: The Back of the Napkin dal blog Lean Is Good di Bruce Baker: Un articolo da leggere su visual thinking con alcune risorse interessanti (traduzione automatica) […]

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