Meaning Guide
Visual language training example

Requisite visual variety …

Most of our consultancy work sits somewhere in the overlap between systems thinking and visual thinking, and in this article I want to share an example of how these two worlds could be interacting with each other.

Visual thinking and Systems thinking

There are so many systems principles I wish someone had sat down and explained to me at the start of my career, but if I had to pick out one, it would probably be Ashby’s law of requisite variety. Stafford Beer called it the managerial equivalent of the law of gravity, and when you really get it, it is a bit of a Newtonian paradigm shift – suddenly a whole load of things make sense that didn’t make sense before.

Ashby’s law can be quite hard to get your head round if you’ve never heard of it before, but here’s a quick summary:

The world (as we perceive it) is made up of zillions of complex interacting systems. How complex is each system? Well, one way of defining that would be to count the number of states each system could be in, which is what Ashby calls the system’s variety. It’s a theoretical notion, because you can’t really count the number of states that anything but the most trivial of systems could be in, but that’s not the point. The point is that you can compare them. Two people have more variety than one person. A 16-bit computer processor has more variety than an 8-bit processor.

Now, Ashby’s law says that ‘only variety can destroy variety’. In other words, if you want to be able to exert control over something (i.e. reduce the number of states that it can be in), you need to be able to match that number of states yourself. You can only reliably manage something to the extent that you can match its complexity.

The problem is that, most of the time, you can’t! The whole reason why you need to manage something is because it is more complex than you are: You are one person managing a team of twelve. You are one marketing director trying to understand the dynamics of an entire market segment. You are the CEO trying to persuade ten thousand people to go in the same direction. You are a consultant running a workshop with a group of stakeholders who all see the world in completely different ways. Because variety is always stacked against you, in order to control any kind of system, you either have to increase your own variety or do something to decrease the variety of the system. I just spent a weekend alone with my three children, all under-10. It was a bit chaotic. But that’s not just because I was outnumbered 3:1; it’s also a function of how well I can exert authority, how organised I am to know what to prioritise, how clearly I can articulate these priorities, and so on. My wife is generally better at all these things, so when she’s home, the parental variety in the house doesn’t just double, it probably (at least!) quadruples. The children come back under control, because we have set the household up to (most of the time!) match their variety.

Now apply this principle to work, and you can see that all of management – from strategy formulation to ISO55000 system definitions to group facilitation techniques to watercooler conversations basically all boil down to finding neat ways to either increase your own variety or decrease the variety of the system you’re trying to control, because only variety can destroy variety.

That’s the variety bit, now what about the visual bit? Well, I’ve just come back from this year’s IRM European Business Analysis conference in London, which was great, and I was particularly interested to see just how many sessions there were on visual practice. I think this is fantastic, because it shows how visual language is moving more and more into the mainstream. For my own session, I wanted to talk about meaning rather than visuals (which seems to be more and more the case these days), so I spoke on the management of business jargon in situations of high complexity, with pictures as just one of the solutions: Pictures are a great way of demystifying jargon, but in our experience, the value actually arises more from the sorts of questions you have to ask if you want the visuals to be meaningful to a general population.

And in my experience, these sorts of questions about meaning and language are much more pervasive in the world of systems (it’s pretty central, for example in the whole area called ‘second-order’ cynernetics) than it is in the world of visual thinking. So I really do think that there’s a level of theory that’s missing that could link the two together. When I ask people why they want to improve their visual facilitation skills, it’s usually because (a) they want to be more like someone else they know who draws at work and (b) it seems to work.

But why does it seem to work?

Well let’s bring these two threads together to give a more robust theoretical answer: Using visuals well massively increases the variety you can deploy in pretty much any situation. When you draw something on a whiteboard, and everyone in the room rolls their shoulders and says “aaaaaah now I see”, you have just destroyed the variety of perspectives that existed in the room before you stood up.

Or put it another way: If you don’t use visual language consciously, you are missing out on a huge amount of variety reduction potential that is essentially free. Here’s an example of one of the slides from the BA conference. It was a really good session, but as a visual practitioner, I found myself getting distracted from the content by the consistent use of the same three colours to boundary elements on each slide:

Now whether you are conscious of it or not, your brain has immediately picked up on the fact that there is one grey thing here, two red things and two blue things. But what is the meaning of grey, red and blue? What’s the connection between the two red things and the two blue things? As you brain also quickly establishes (partly because it’s the norm for business presentations), the answer is of course nothing. They’re simply the corporate brand colours.

Now what if these colours actually had meaning? How much variety could be destroyed essentially for free? What if slide-creators were taught how to apply visual grammar such that distinctions in colour, form, font, outline, weight, position etc. actually corresponded to the conceptual distinctions in the content? Given that half of the brainpower in the room is dedicated to visual cognition, how much more variety could be destroyed?

So here’s the simple take-away: What is your level of ‘visual variety’? How much variety can you deploy in the way you visualise concepts? And I absolutely do not mean “how well can you draw?”!! For many people, visual training is simply seen as a means to get them over their fear of putting pen to paper. Which is important, but you don’t have to learn to draw like Leonardo – in fact, you don’t even have to learn how to draw anything – to take advantage of visual variety; to ask yourself if you are using icons in a consistent way, to ask what distinctions of colour in your presentations could mean, to ask whether the salience of form matches the significance of the concepts you’re representing.

If this all still sounds a bit vague and theoretical, Here’s a really really simple example of visual variety: How many colours of pen do you carry? (Or, if you’re a tablet user, how many times do you switch ink? Given how significant colour is to visual cognition (even for colour-blind people, as colour isn’t just about hue), by just carrying around another colour of pen (I recommend black and red as a bare minimum if this is all new to you), you’ve just doubled visual variety. You’ve given yourself a way to visually link categories across linear notes by drawing lines between them, to visually delineate conceptual distinctions using coloured boxes, and you’re training yourself to think about the meaning of colour every time you pick up a whiteboard marker in a workshop.

This is just one example of the sorts of ideas that could arise in this intersection between systems and visual theory. But it is a bit of a hinterland – if you’re interested in joining us in exploring it, then do subscribe and get in touch! We’re really keen to build and support new forums where representatives of the two worlds can come together, in order to see what sort of practical tools and methodology might result.

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