Sitting in a San Antonio bar with a business partner in 1967, the entrepreneur Herb Kelleher grabbed a (now-legendary) cocktail napkin and sketched out a simple triangle while posing this question: What if we were to create a small, local airline that connected these three cities? With that sketch, the idea for Southwest Airlines was born.
The next time you are trying to generate ideas, brainstorm a solution, or explain a complex idea to someone, why not use a cocktail napkin — or a scrap of paper, or a flipchart or whiteboard — and sketch it out!
Even if you don’t think you can draw, it’s not about artistic ability . . . it’s about getting ideas out of your head and down on paper so they can be shared succinctly with someone else.
Once, a new coaching client of mine, a regional vice president at an international pharmaceuticals company, was wrestling with a costly, complex, and incredibly challenging business dilemma that had been distracting him and keeping him up at night for months.
On my first meeting with him, I solved his problem in less than five minutes –- simply by means of a napkin sketch.
It’s not that I’m so brilliant — in fact, I really didn’t fully understand all the complexities of his situation (that actually might have worked to my advantage) — and I can barely draw. But my napkin sketching ability saved the day.
In one of the European countries for which he was responsible, he had two regional sales directors, one for the East and one for the West.
The guy who ran the West was very senior and experienced, but near retirement and not all that ambitious. The guy who ran the East was young, hungry, energetic, and looking for a challenge. The problem, though, was that the East was a more mature, settled market with little growth opportunity. So the newer guy felt handcuffed and frustrated. The West was where all the potential action was, but the guy nearing retirement was not interested, energized, or motivated enough to conquer that untapped territory.
So what was my client to do? Neither of these regional directors was interested in relocating, and for logistical regions, constant travel was not an option. He was stuck. He had two unhappy employees on his hands. And he was losing millions of dollars in potential business with each passing day.
Just to make sure I understood the problem, I sketched out my perception of the situation simply by drawing an oval country with a vertical line splitting it down the middle, separating it into East and West.
Instinctively I said, “This may be a stupid idea, and I’m sure you already thought of it, but what if you did this. . . . ”
At which point (and maybe you’ve figured it out by now as it’s so obvious it’s almost embarrassing) I drew a line ACROSS the country and said, “What if, instead of East and West, you divide the regions into North and South?”
Problem solved. A solution that was so simple and obvious wasn’t that obvious to my client until it was drawn out on paper. Only then were we able to see the multimillion-dollar solution right before our very eyes.
Of course, napkin sketching and figuring things out on the “back of an envelope” have been around for ages, and the idea of drawing things out goes back to caveman days. But it’s only in recent years that the concept of napkin sketching has really taken off as a practical and recognized business skill.
The guru who is primarily responsible for popularizing its use in the business world is Dan Roam, who has written two terrific books — The Back of the Napkin and Unfolding the Napkin -– on how anyone can learn to solve problems and communicate ideas on a simple piece of paper.
So, when trying to communicate in a situation where words alone won’t work, think about creating a napkin sketch. It’s a great visual way to make the abstract concrete, the intangible tangible, and the unfamiliar familiar.
Ask yourself: Could you explain your job using a napkin sketch? Can you draw a picture that would simplify the complexity of your company’s business model to a potential customer or investor? Or illustrate a step-by-step process to explain it to a new employee? Would you be able to map out directions from your office to your house using few or no words? On a job interview, would you be able to visually communicate your career history (the who, what, when, where, why, and how) in a quick drawing?
Try it — you just might find that a picture truly is worth a million words.
And, once again, don’t let the “I can’t draw” syndrome stop you from picking up a pen, pencil, or marker. When my company is brought in to facilitate workshops on visual thinking, communicating, and problem solving, we often start out by asking, “How many people here can draw?” Typically we get only 10% of businesspeople raising their hands. But if you were to ask a group of kindergarteners the same question, you’d get positive responses closer to 100%.
So, over the decades, have we lost our ability to draw, or just our confidence?
To answer that question, pick up a pen, grab a napkin, and show us what you can do.