A 1911 newspaper article in which newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, speaking about journalism and publicity, said “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” We have come to agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, or worth 51,786 lines of code, or 7,845,567 bits of information. We all use pictures, charts, and graphs to quickly relay information. We PMs use Gantt Charts to relay time-lines, pert charts to show sequence and relationship, work flows to show movement, histograms to represent a population, and now even Memes to relay information.
Dr. Melvin L Prueitt, my father, was a brilliant visionary physicist who wallpapered his work shop with all his patent certificates, was in the Triple Nines Society, in the 100 Who’s Who of American scientists, and was one of the father creators of computer graphics. In the ‘60’s he faced a problem of how to analyze all the data from the nuclear test shots. The data would be printed out on tri-fold computer paper and stacked in piles 5+ feet tall. He would joke, at the time, that if the printers could keep up with the data stream from their instruments the paper would come shooting out of the printer so fast that it would burn up in the atmosphere. I tried picturing that in my head as a kid, “Wow, what a dangerous job my dad had” I often thought. All this data would take the scientists years to pour over and analyze. So, my father decided to plot it in graphical form. Two dimensions would not work, it was not enough. He developed some Fortran computer programs that would model it in 3 dimensions and put the data on movie film. He developed the first hidden line removal programs and then color to help these moving charts relay their information. Finally, the scientists could view and even fly through the data in a moving model. They also used computer graphics to plot radio telescope data, chemical reactions, and neutron beam paths.
This data became more art than science as he expanded its use and its artistic representation. He went on to do album covers, movies for Disney, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, and his own new form of artwork.
Even though these new forms of data representation helped, they could also confuse. How much information in a picture or chart is too much and how much is too little? Have your network diagrams become so busy that they no longer present a clear understanding, but instead distract from the intended representation? Here is a sample of the new Health Care System Chart:
What does it tell you? If the chart is too busy will anyone even look at it? How can we break it down and simplify the chart so that the intended audience can digest it effectively?
Before you make a chart apply the following guidelines:
- Understand your audience and their capacity to digest information.
- How are they used to seeing data (don’t spring a new type of chart on them unless you must)? Create the chart in forms that are familiar to them.
- Note the goal of the information you want to share.
- Is it informational?
- Is it a flow or process – linear – cyclical?
- Is it to solicit action?
- Does it give direction?
- Does it represent a problem or variation?
- Discover the simplest method of representing the information.
After doing this then proceed to see how best to visualize the data through organization, grouping, color, and symbols that are meaningful to your audience. For example, we have all seen Product Management Life-Cycle charts. There are hundreds of differing representations of the same principles or methodology on the intranet. Which one is right for your organization? I am sure that many of you have built your own or modified an existing one to match your organizational need and capacity to understand. I have designed several of my own product lifecycle charts, some cyclical and some with a waterfall-ish look. The example below I designed for one of my father’s research companies. I was under a lot of pressure to create the right chart for the man who was the super guru all things charts and plotting of data. I am sure if he were to create this chart it would have been a virtual 3D tour needing VR goggles. What was more important to me than the flash and style was the information I needed to convey to them. See, in his organization there was confusion on the roles of what the business side needed to do and what the technical side should do. So, I created swim lanes of Business Strategy, Business Tactical Activities, and Production / Technology Strategy, Production / Technology Tactical Activities. The Columns represented the phases of the product development from definition through create, to launch and sustain. This chart was perfect for them to help clarify actions, roles, flow, and responsibility. Could I have used a typical Product Lifecycle chart from off the internet? Sure. Would it have had the same impact? No. This chart incorporated activities that they were already accustomed to performing so their capacity to digest and adopt the information was greater than if I used an “off-the-shelf” chart. I also used terms that parts of the audience could relate to. Many of the technicians were NASCAR fans, and so to help them understand the cyclical nature of a product life cycle, I used a NASCAR reference.
As PMs, I often jokingly refer to our PMO as “Charts Are Us,” because a big part of our responsibility is relaying information. Not just information, but pertinent information. Even when we all look at the same picture, we all take away a different experience based on our background, experience, and understanding. The more complex the chart is, the greater chance there is for misinterpretation. If it is too simple it may not covey the whole story. We as PM’s must become artists in the world of charts. We must paint a delicate balance of information in structure, display, color, and yes, feel. Just as an aficionado of art in a museum says as she stands back from a masterpiece, “what is this piece saying to me?” We need to be cognoscente of what our chart will say to our audience. Does it say the same thing to our stakeholders, as it does to our project controllers, or HR reps and executives? If not, we need alter it or tailor other reports to those specific audiences. No matter the form the data must be consistent.
Communication is one of our base areas of expertise and what is better than a thousand words is one good chart, picture, or graph. Let your inner artist flow.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Stan D. Prueitt
Stan D. Prueitt, a performance consultant in Process Improvement, Organizational Design, Human Design, and Project Management; holds motivational seminars, life coach workshops, Lean Six Sigma certifications, and performance seminars across the country. Stan draws upon his colorful past experiences and associations to blend simplicity, common sense, eternal principles, humor, energy, and wisdom into a strait forward approach to self and team improvement. His mentors and Martial Arts Masters have forged Stan into a wealth of experience and knowledge of which he freely shares. Students of his seminars leave with recharged spiritual batteries, focused purpose, energy for new opportunity, new understanding, and a tool set to become an effective change-agent in their own lives or organizations.
While currently leading enterprise integration and organization and process performance initiatives for the LDS Church Educational Department, Stan still finds time to consult to private and municipal organizations on the side. Previously he was not only a Director of Project Management at the Los Alamos National Laboratory but also one of the leaders in the Lean Six Sigma program. Stan led a team to restructure the organization to focus on process centricity, performance, enterprise project management, and to move the overall maturity of the organization from level 1 to level 5 of the enterprise maturity model.
As a true efficiency expert Stan wears many hats, he is a published author of 4 books, co-founder of two publicly traded renewable energy research firms, president of Thunder Ridge Wildlife Refuge, holder of one US patent and inventor of two classified weapons program inventions, adventure TV show host, Lean Six Sigma master black belt, Lean Six Sigma and Performance Management instructor, master instructor and holder of six black belts in the Martial Arts, owner of USLLC Tactical Marital Arts training center, professional off-road race driver, entrepreneur of two successful franchise chains, radio show host, project manager for research projects, motivational speaker, certified law enforcement officer, husband and loving father of five.
LinkedIn Profile - CLICK HERE