Two weeks ago, Bonnie Stewart invited me to speak to #Ed6170: a faculty summer course in educational leadership sponsored by the University of Prince Edward Island. Bonnie focused her curriculum around leading under complex and changing conditions, because (1) it’s relevant and 2) it’s challenging. In a move that I find particularly admirable, she created assignments that require her students engage with the content through multiple modalities. Among other tasks, they will be making concept maps and infographics.
Bonnie and I went back and forth for several weeks on how I might contribute to the curriculum, and we finally settled on the idea of leading through visualization because it hit on strategies for leading teams through complex problems and contexts while also providing her students with some concrete tips on how to complete their visual assignments.
Creating this presentation required me to connect pedagogy, leadership, and information visualization, so I drew a direct line through constructionism (Papert) to learning communities (Wenger) to reflective practice (Schon) to quantitative data visualization principles (Tufte). It was fun to build the scaffolding for what is intuitive for some people, but not for others. This presentation is about pointing out the obvious. I think simplicity is underestimated. Sometimes, you just have to say things.
The following is a summary. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like the entire slidedeck. I’m always happy to share.
Current trends in leadership
In the past, leadership development involved providing strategies for commanding, controlling, and wielding one’s authority. Power was housed in one’s position at the top. Information flowed in one direction. However, the world is more complex than it used to be. There is more information to know. Conditions change rapidly and therefore what needs to be known in a given situation also changes rapidly. Complex problems require highly creative approaches to problem solving.
The constant influx of data from every direction and the dynamic conditions surrounding us has led to significant changes in the workplace. The focus is no longer on the single person or product; rather it is on relationships: relationships between pieces of information, between people in terms of organizational teams and collaborative partnerships, and between workflows across those partnerships. The emphasis on relationships in the workplace and the world alters how leaders must behave. Influence replaces Authority. Collaboration replaces command and control. Google “modern leaders” and you will not find descriptions of how to be authoritative or “top-down” officials; what you will find are a number of frameworks for transformative, collaborative, creative, inclusive, and design leadership.
The approaches to effective leadership require similar skillsets: transparency and accountability, reflective practice, pattern-identification and connection-building, and flexibility in the face of change. The purpose of this presentation is to introduce information visualization as a strategy for practicing these skills. I will present you with three arguments on why the ability to present data visually is key to modern leadership. I’ll provide examples specific to higher ed teaching and administration and provide design tips so that you can integrate this into your current practice or if you are already doing some of these things, perhaps approach them with a little more intentionality.
Keep the following connection to pedagogical theory in mind: A good visualization makes the abstract concrete. From a constructionist standpoint, making the abstract concrete facilitates deeper learning, because learners are externalizing their thoughts for the purpose of sharing them. Once the thoughts are made explicit, they can be studied, refined, and made sharper through the process.
Power of visualizations: Meeting posts, big pictures, and pathfinders
Meeting posts. Visualizations create a concrete meeting post for collaboration and sharing as well as opportunities for transparency and accountability. I was tasked with creating a comprehensive recruitment plan for my previous workplace, which supports four programs and an annual conference, each with overlapping but distinct audiences. Additionally, the audiences in question transcend organizational boundaries and professional sectors. I needed to develop an outreach plan that was efficient, sustainable, and offered obvious paths for expansion.
Furthermore, I needed to think about the structure and location of the data; what contact info would go in our listserves? Mailchimp? Were would content go so that it would be accessible? How would the data be structured so that we could access lists that lived in different locations without creating duplicate communications? Finally, I needed to find a way to effectively include the rest of the team in the planning, since they are actually more knowledgeable than I on the day-to-day operations and historical knowledge of the institute. I also needed to find some pathway for negotiated accountability for the student workers who would be doing much of the work.
The key to success was the whiteboard hanging behind my desk. This is a simplified version of the visualization I used to create our communication plan. On the left we have the communication platforms – social media, emails, mailings, & media postings by potentially interested parties. In the middle are the programs listed and then on the right side of the board are listed the physical location of the lists and the person responsible for the job.
Tables on whiteboards are so common that we take them for granted. However, they are an extremely powerful collaborative leadership tool. Here’s how a visual meeting post works to promote collaborative leadership.
- When speaking with my director, I focused us on the left side; She shared a significant amount of historical knowledge and cultural nuance as we moved through the concrete list.
- When speaking with my content developers – my social media coordinator and copywriter, we focused on the patterns made by the X’s under the programs. When was it possible to group messages about certain program for certain markets. In developing our social media plan, there needs to be a very different feel, a different photograph for a Facebook post that includes information about Program 2 and the Conference, as compared to a Facebook post that combines Program 3 and the conference. Same with email and mailing content. Having a concrete pattern of X’s helped us brainstorm about the possibilities.
- When speaking with my communications manager, we started with the data location and then moved left. Together, we needed to design the actual databases – how would we prevent duplicate communications when we had people who crossed lists and lists in different database systems? The whiteboard visualization gave us a concrete model to test; we walked through mailing scenarios until we understood what filters would have to exist, what rows would be needed in the excel spreadsheet, in order to prevent duplication.
- When speaking with my student workers, we focused on the last columns, their assignments; we set expectations and deadlines and we could take the opportunity to negotiate, since they know their summer schedules better than I do – I merely presented the work that needed to get done and the team really helped me distribute it in the way in which they were most likely to succeed.
Transferable concepts from this example:
- The whiteboard is too obvious to hide. This was hanging in a physical shared location that everyone accessed everyday. They couldn’t help but see it. You can have these in online spaces too, like a homepage that you have to click through to get to anything else. However, the point is that successful meeting points are never hard to find.
- The whiteboard is easy to erase and change. Our communication plan went through multiple iterations prior to its final iteration – imagine how tiresome and potentially confusing that would have been if we had been moving through multiple document versions and saves. If you have a version that you think you should save, take a picture.
- The whiteboard is accessible. Anyone can write on the whiteboard. There are no administrative privileges or tech skills necessary.
- Whiteboards support multivariate approaches. There are a variety of ways you can convey additional layers of information if necessary: hashed lines, sticky notes, color coding…In our case, each program has a “signature color” so it makes sense to color code anything and everything to the signature color to help people recognize it instantly.
Big Pictures. For the amount of work that gets done in my previous workplace, it is very efficiently staffed with a director, an associate director, two program coordinators, and six rotating student workers. There were a lot of moving parts involved. I noticed that a significant number of deadlines were being missed or forgotten because of miscommunication or a failure understand expectations.
I had experienced this phenomenon before, as a physician. When you work in environments where conditions change quickly, tasks are complex, and staff come and go, it is easy to lose track of the big picture. This is why the most dangerous time for a patient in the hospital is immediately after a shift change: because it is difficult to transfer information from one shift to the next. Obviously healthcare technologists are working on this problem, but one of the most basic and universal components to the solution is what’s typically called “the board.”
Anyone who has spent anytime in a hospital or watching medical dramas on television should be familiar with this sort of board. It’s a meeting post where all the rooms and patients are listed, along with their essential information and the people who are assigned to taking care of them. At every shift change – or anytime the team needs to get refocused – a staff member will ”run the board” to make sure everyone is on the same page about priorities and personal responsibility.
So, given that the team did not seem to be on the same page, I adapted the concept of the OR board for our office.
One Friday afternoon, I gathered the students and program coordinators. I asked each one to tell me the story of their program from the beginning to the end of the program cycle. I used sticky notes to mark all the deadlines and tape to mark the end of the fiscal year and winter break, as these are very real, hard deadlines for a lot of things. It took a couple of days to get everyone’s input and as we did, questions were raised and either tabled for our strategic planning retreat or answered. Several students had light bulb moments in which they literally exclaimed “OH! THAT’S WHY I’M DOING THAT!” One program coordinator finally understood why she hates January a lot more than July.
Then, once the staff was on the same page, I grabbed our director – she made some corrections and then I asked her to change it to her dream scenario and she changed some things around.
Design points illustrated in this story:
- The sticky notes are qualitatively different than the whiteboard in the previous example; sticky notes can be made and then saved to the side if you don’t know where they belong yet. There were several instances in which a student knew there was an event that needed to occur but couldn’t tell me exactly when – I had to wait for the program coordinator to contribute to get it right. There are times when not having to erase things can be helpful.
- By having a concrete visualization, you can have an asynchronous conversation, deciding where and when you bring people to the meeting post. By having the students contribute, then the coordinators, then the director, we were able to unveil and correct some misconceptions; everyone was able to pick up on any logistical problems, and the director was able to set new goals in a public and documented fashion.
Pathfinding. Finally, visualization support reflective practice. I’m not going to go too far into defining reflective practice, because I think you already know what it is. But here’s a visualization if you need one.
Reflective practice is an intentional process in which you look back at events, ask questions about what could have gone better, evaluate your performance, and then make changes so that you can continue to improve. However, sometimes we need help identifying what needs to be fixed. One approach is critical incident analysis, which is also something I learned in medical practice although you’ll find it across disciplines. Briefly, a critical incident analysis is an approach to dealing with challenges in everyday practice. Reflective practitioners pose problems about their practice, refusing to accept ‘what is’. So they explore incidents which occur in day-to-day work in order to understand them better and find alternative ways of reacting and responding to them.
A fishbone diagram, also called a cause and effect diagram is a visualization tool for categorizing the potential causes of a problem in order to identify causes. The basic idea is to have your team identify and create a problem statement and then brainstorm on the major categories of things that could have contributed to the problem. Once you have your categories identified, you can focus on specific possibilities related to each category.
And finally, almost like a juicy postscript:
1. Content first
A visual is only as good as the content you present. Your impact is only as good as your documentation. Identify yourself. Cite your sources. Credit your artwork. Make it easy to check your work.
2. Tell a story with your designs
Write the story first, as you would for any article. Lay out your narrative or argument in a logical, compelling order. This infographic, for example, has the same components you would find in a newspaper or journal article.
3. Write in data paragraphs
Edward Tufte defines data paragraphs as a cohesive set of numbers, words, and graphics. Consider what each element is bringing to the understanding of the information. Graphics, just like words or numbers should never be randomly placed on a page.
4. Simplicity is discipline
In matters of design, more is rarely better. Directly label your information when possible (instead of using a key). Limit your color palettes to three to five colors. Limit your fonts to one or two fonts. Limit unnecessary punctuation.
5. Make a color palette & pre-select your fonts. It will save you time.