Business leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs who are using visual tools are creating a differentiator that pays big dividends

Design-centric companies yield 21 percent higher returns than their competitors, according to the 2015 Design Value Index Study. Their not so secret arsenal? Design thinkers and design teams who are trained in visualization.

Another group, according to IBM Global CEO study 2017 are the Reinventors lead the pack in Digital Transformation. The visual tool that gives them their competitive edge? User journey maps (visual maps that outline a detailed user experience over time). 

Add to that the 150 thousand business people who use Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder, Swiss business theorist and entrepreneur, every year. What differentiates them? Business Model Canvas, which Osterwalder calls the cartography of business, and its companion book, Value Proposition Design, both visual business tools.

Some of the most innovative leaders either think like designers or work very closely with them--Steve Jobs (Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla), Indra Nooyi (former Pepsi), Brian Chesky (AirBNB), Mary Barra (GM).

There are still many business leaders who are uncomfortable with visualization and they have a big problem--applying left brain tools to think with your right brain. 

Why? Think of it like this. As an innovator, you're in the business of right brain. But if you're not visualizing and only using text-centric tools, you're using your right brain with left brain tools. Have you ever traveled to Europe and plugged in your 120V hairdryer into a 220V outlet and fried it? That is what's happening here. 

The good news is visualization is a skill you can get better at with practice and visual business tools are accessible and easy to learn--ranging from journey maps, films, and animation, models and mock-ups, and afore-mentioned Business Canvas Model.

Here are why visualization tools can help you become a better business leader:

What you can visualize you can make happen.

Visualization is one of the key principles of Design Quotient (DQ), your ability to think like a designer, with agility and clarity, in the face of constant change and uncertainty. The power of visualization is that what you can see you can make happen. Visualization is the language of imagination and dreams. It helps you paint a picture of the future based on what you know today.

Once you understand that, you understand the power of visualizing ideas. You won't know if something works until you visualize it. Once you map, draw and model an idea for the future, you have something you can evaluate, share, get feedback on, improve or leave behind and start again. 

My favorite design saying, from designer and teacher Bruce Hannah, captures it with a wink--"Mock it up before you fock it up."

Images are easier to understand and remember. 

According to John Medina, developmental molecular biologist and best selling author of Brain Rules, your brain is better at recognizing and remembering visual input. This is called "Pictorial superiority effect." Ideas that are visualized are remembered 65 percent better than ideas presented orally which only have a recall rate of 10%. Text is less efficient than images because your brain decodes each letter into its own visual cue. As Medina says, "reading creates a bottleneck of comprehension." 

If you're innovating, you want people to remember your ideas over a long period of time, the time it takes to invest, develop and test your ideas. Now knowing the brain science behind memory, what do you think will help your ideas to be memorable? You got it. If you want your ideas to be remembered visualize them.

"If we don't make it visual and tangible it's difficult to understand each other and collaborate productively. Making it visual creates a shared language."--Alex Osterwalder

Visualize to make ideas memorable.

Visualize to reveal preconceptions

When we draw something from memory, we often draw our preconception of it. This can be revealing. According to a New York Times article, when researchers asked people to draw "an effective leader," both women and men drew a man. The drawings revealed unconscious assumptions. Similarly, when asked to draw a house, almost everyone draws the same drawing. We go with our stereotypes. It is important to capture these biases early in innovation work, to either use them intentionally or to break them.

"When we 'process information through the lens of stereotype' our interpretation may be 'consistent with stereotyped expectations rather than objective reality.'"--Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Next time you want to reveal biases, draw.

Visualize in your own style

There's a myth about drawing. That you need talent for it. Let's put that to bed.

I start all my ideation sessions with a drawing exercise--I get people to draw each other in three minutes--and after working with thousands of people, I know you are all very capable of it. So before you tell yourself you cannot draw and therefore you cannot visualize, remember that we've learned to draw since were old enough to hold a crayon. And like riding a bicycle, it comes back.

We can all draw, just like we can all write. We all have different handwriting styles, from chicken scratch to calligraphy level, similarly, we all have different drawing styles. There are also different ways you can visualize an idea. Mapping is one. Photos are another. Films are a good tool too. Models and mock-ups are tools for visualization too--you can cut and paste some paper, bend some wire, tie two things with a string. Its there and easy to do, you just have to try it. 

Visualization is one of the key pillars of your Design Quotient, your ability to think like a designer in a world of complex and constant change. It's foundational to agile, empathic, problem-solving cultures.