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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

The Power of Visual Thinking

Mental imagery and visualization can be compelling forces for performance

Published: Monday, September 16, 2013 - 16:51

As Napoleon once said, a picture is worth a thousand words. This isn’t just a trite cliché. Visual thinking is an invaluable skill, if not a leadership art.

In his book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (Basic Books, 1996), Howard Gardner makes the point that visionary leaders rally people around a compelling message by calling up mental images. Creating vivid pictures connects people in a very forceful way, touches hearts and minds, connects the right brain with the left, adds clarity to the path, and provides meaningful navigation that helps chart the way forward.

Take the case of how the city of Hollywood regained its long-lost glory.

Kerry Morrison was the underdog candidate in the late 1990s for the executive directorship of the Hollywood Business Improvement District, a sorely needed urban-renewal effort devoted to reversing the nearly half-century decline of the landmark community. The board had all but decided on another candidate.

Then Kerry walked into the room and proceeded to paint a vivid and brutally realistic picture of just how bad Hollywood appeared to outsiders.

Doing business every day in Hollywood, the board was too close to the problem and couldn’t quite see the depth of the crisis with objective clarity. It took an outsider with a keen eye for the truth and an artist’s ability to render a compelling image.

Kerry had nothing to lose. So she told it like it was. She described her drive to Hollywood that day: How all the debris blown up against the blocks of chain-link fence lining subway construction sites rattled her. How the urban street denizens made her feel nervous walking from the remote parking lot to the interview. How the blight of decaying buildings hid what had once been the most magnificent boulevard in Los Angeles. How she couldn’t find a decent place for a quick lunch among the myriad iron-gated, closed-down stores and boarded-up shops. How the scene was even worse than she remembered from her last visit 15 years earlier. And how she wouldn’t, even for a moment, consider bringing her young children to Hollywood.

As the president of the board listened to her, he sat back in his chair to appraise Kerry. Numb from the other four rather forgettable interviews that day, he knew at that moment he had finally found the perfect champion of an important cause. By painting a stark picture of the present day, the portrait of the future came into focus in a very real way.

Job in hand, Kerry had her charge: Reverse Hollywood’s downward spiral. From a donated windowless office without so much as a phone on the first day of her new job, Kerry set about the Herculean task of implementing the goals articulated by the property owners who had hired her.

You can’t create a masterpiece without being fully immersed. Knowing and accepting that Kerry needed to be viewed as a vital member of the Hollywood community, the Morrison family moved into the area from a secluded suburb, which required her husband to abandon a comfortable commute to work, and their teenage children to leave their friends and integrate themselves into an entirely new, utterly foreign school system.

During the course of the next decade, the original picture changed. Many factors, projects, and leaders contributed to the Hollywood renaissance, but the Business Improvement District was the foundation. Kerry remained the linchpin of the entire effort. Slowly, surely, and with great difficulty, the future came into focus.

First and foremost, the city needed to be clean and safe. It started with just six city blocks, but visible success from the cleanup tripled the project size. Things began to snowball. More and more property owners came on board, which increased the budget significantly. Crime dropped dramatically as Kerry built strong ties to the infamous Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Subway stations opened. Buildings got face lifts. Street corners got new life. Nightlife returned. Golden-era hotels and theaters were renovated and reopened.

Within five years, the evidence was clear that a new reality had taken hold. And when Academy Awards returned to Hollywood after a decades-old absence, Kerry knew that Hollywood had turned a corner.

The role of mental imagery and visualization in driving performance is undisputed. Sustained leadership in most any realm hangs on it. We forget just how important it is to our everyday work, between all the firefighting and busywork. We forget to keep our visual skills and tools sharp through constant use.

But maybe that’s why sometimes no one, including our customers, “gets the picture.”


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.