As Napolean once said, a picture is worth a thousand words.
This isn’t just a trite cliche. Visual thinking is a valuable skill and a strategy. In his book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, 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 valuable navigation that help chart the way to the future.
Take the case of how the city of Hollywood, California regained its long-lost glory.
Kerry Morrison was the underdog candidate 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. That is, until Kerry walked into the room in the late 1990s and painted a realistic picture of how 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 to find a quick lunch among the iron-gated closed-down stores and boarded-up shops. How the scene was even worse than she had remembered from her last visit fifteen years earlier. And how she wouldn’t even fleetingly 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 forgettable interviews that day, he knew at that moment he had finally found the perfect champion of an important cause. By painting a vivid picture of the current situation, the portrait of the future came into focus, and Kerry’s charge would be to reverse the decline of Hollywood and to build a better tomorrow.
Over the course of the next ten years, the original picture would change. Many factors, projects, and leaders contributed to the Hollywood renaissance, but the Business Improvement District was the foundation. Kerry was the linchpin of it. Slowly and with great difficulty, the masterpiece of realism drove daily progress.
First and foremost, creating the future meant making the city 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 facelifts. 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.
In 2002 the Academy Awards returned to Hollywood after a decades-old absence, and Kerry knew that Hollywood had reached its tipping point. It’s easy to forget or overlook just how important the art of visualization is to our everyday work between the firefighting and busywork. It’s easy to 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.”
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.