November 01, 2023

Dave Gray on visual thinking, gamestorming, the art of the possible, and going towards the fear (AC Ep17)

“If you can draw a picture of the problem, you’re halfway to a solution. If it can’t be drawn, it can’t be done. If you can start to visualize or draw a picture, then you start to have a plan.”

– Dave Gray

Robert Scoble
About Dave Gray

Since the 1980s Dave Gray has focused on developing visual maps and stories that make complex information more actionable and easier to understand. He is founder of visual thinking company XPLANE and the experimental learning community The School of the Possible, and the author of books including Gamestorming, The Connected Company, and Liminal Thinking.

Website: xplaner

LinkedIn: Dave Gray

Twitter: @davegray

Pinterest: davidwgray


What you will learn

  • Opportunities and potential for visual thinkers in both physical and virtual spaces (07:05)
  • Highlighting the importance of collective intelligence in group settings (08:40)
  • Collaborative sketching in generating innovative and integrated ideas (09:36)
  • The concept of infographics and visual explanations for business thinking and communication (10:35)
  • The vital role of visual storytelling in strategic thinking and communication (13:47)
  • Embracing visual metaphors and tools as catalysts for creative thinking (16:40)
  • Clear problem descriptions in uncovering self-evident solutions (19:57)
  • Turning ideas into action; becoming a Possibilitarian (24:43)
  • A new perspective on education through the School of the Possible (30:01)
  • Exploring visual thinking techniques and confronting one’s fears (32:07)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Dave, it is awesome to have you on the show.

Dave Gray: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ross: You are a visual thinking master. I’ve believed in visual thinking all the way along and your work has been a reference point along the way. How did you get there? Did you start thinking visually? Or did you discover it?

Dave: For me, it was a path of growing up. It was a learning process. I was always drawing, somehow trying to process information by making pictures of it. I didn’t fit easily or simply into the education system at the time; maybe we could talk more about that when I was growing up, but I found my way to art school; and graduating art school, as you can imagine, was the beginning of the problem to solve, which was to figure out how I was going to find my place in society. It’s been a long process of an artist figuring out what makes art or the arts relevant and meaningful and how it can be of service to the rest of the world because I’ve never thought of art as something that artists do purely for themselves. For me, creating value and understanding how that works is a really important part of it as well.

Ross: Many artists delve into emotions of various kinds, but yours very much, what I’ve seen, is around thinking. How do we think and how do we lay that out visually?

Dave: I’ve always been a very curious person. I grew up in a family where my dad was an engineer, and my brother is an engineer, in different zones or areas so I was focused on problem-solving from an early age, and figuring things out. Picture-making simply was a superior way for me. Turns out, it’s a fantastic way to explore a lot of complex concepts and ideas. I wouldn’t say that it’s not emotional, because emotion is tied closely to thinking, but in the same way that some people will say writing is thinking, it’s a way of clarifying your thoughts. There’s a difference between having a thought and being able to articulate it clearly. Drawing is a different kind of thinking and is a way of clarifying your thoughts in the same way that writing is or can be.

Ross: In my book “Thriving on Overload” I describe how Jeff Bezos says that if you write six pages on something, you’ve got to think clearly. I say, “Well, actually, if you’ve got some diagrams as well, that’s clear thinking”. You can write things that are very fuzzy, murky, and messy. But if you put things in a diagram, you’ve got to be thinking clearly.

Dave: Jeff Bezos is a brilliant thinker in many ways, someone I have a lot of admiration for. People may have different schools of thought or points of view on him, but I think he’s a brilliant man. He has found a way with Amazon to turn complexity from a disadvantage in organizations into an advantage. I think that he really is a pioneer in organization design in that way.

Ross: Yes, and also a systems thinker implicitly.

Dave: Yes. 

Ross: The first time I came across your work was your book “Gamestorming“. My interpretation of it is using visual thinking to help groups to achieve outcomes. 

Dave: Yes, the original title of “Gamestorming” was the “Visual Thinking Playbook.” But “Gamestorming” is about taking ideas. It’s a recipe book, a cookbook for having better meetings using things like sticky notes, whiteboards, and markers. It offers a suite of ideas and tools for how to work with a group to use space to think better. Since COVID, the last five years or so, virtual tools have come a long, long way. When I said space, I meant in a physical room but now there are a ton of things that you can do and a lot of great tools for working together visually and in virtual space as well. It’s an exciting time for a visual thinker, I’ll say that.

Ross: This goes to the point that it’s not just visual thinking, it’s visual communication. I’ve got these things in my head, and I can either put them out into some visuals, or we can together create those visuals, so that is this form of communicating or finding a common language.

Dave: It’s also the fact that we all have a set of beliefs and a world of thoughts in our heads, and when we work with other people on a team, there’s a challenge of getting all those thoughts together, and getting aligned about what do you think, what do I think, what do these three or four other people think. Visual thinking is a way not only to get your own thoughts out but to get them out in a way that you can think with other people. I’ve heard a phrase that I like, which is “the smartest person in the room is the room.” What that means is that there is no one smartest person in the room; intelligence is a collective thing that comes out of finding ways to share our thinking and integrate it.

In the same way, if you think about something, you might find it useful to sit down and make a PowerPoint, or write down your thoughts, or scribble or sketch on a piece of paper; if you can find a structured way to do that with a group where you can sketch together, you can formulate your ideas together while they’re still in that fuzzy zone where sketching happens, while the ideas are still forming, then you’re going to find a lot more powerful and interesting ideas and you can also integrate them in ways that can be really powerful too.

Ross: Have you worked with boards or executive teams, like small groups on big strategic issues and using these tools?

Dave: In fact, that’s where they came from. I’ve alluded to the problem of being someone coming out of art school and trying to figure out how to make their way in the world. The way that I did that was, first I did infographics for newspapers. By infographics I mean everything from a map or a chart to a visual explanation of a complex story or phenomenon. I had an idea that this could be a very powerful tool for business thinking. I started a company that became a design consultancy focused on helping organizations think better by thinking more visually. I would say for 30 years or so, I did that. I worked with executive teams, boards, and sales teams. When you have a startup, you have a new idea, you have something that’s going to transform society, and you have to tell that story.

Then when a technology company buys the startup or when the startup is successful, you have a selling story, again, a similar story, but now you have to tell that story not just to investors and early customers, but you’ve got to tell it to customers who are in larger organizations, who are buying something that they need to know they can count on. Then once the technology company buys it, they have to sell that to their customers. There’s storytelling in selling all along the way from investors to all the way up through the layers of business and out to consumers and through the factory. I’ve had the privilege to work with people in almost every industry, a lot of technology work. Of course, technology, as you can imagine, permeates through every industry these days; there’s no industry it doesn’t touch; so through focusing on explaining new technology and its impact…That was the name of my company, “Explain”, so I did a lot of visual explaining.

Ross: One of the things that I’ve always been focusing on is how we align the thinking of, particularly, boards and executives. I don’t know if you’ve come across the work of Colin Eden at Strathclyde University; he uses concept maps, essentially system thinking. He basically draws out the implicit mental model or system that each of the executives has of the world and then brings those together so that we have a common systems model or concept map of the world in which they’re operating. I think that bringing in systems thinking has to be done visually, of course.

Dave: There is a limit to how much you can hold in your head. I would draw a distinction between exploring and explaining. Sometimes when you’re doing strategic thinking, you have to do exploratory work. You don’t know what the strategy is, you have to think about it and figure it out. That’s the early-stage work. Then, even once you have figured something out, there’s a whole other level of visualization or storytelling that goes into explaining it because a good strategy has to be a good story. If people don’t understand the story of the strategy, then they don’t understand the strategy. That goes for internal people and external people.

Part of it is the work that might go into systems mapping and concept mapping. But then there’s a whole other layer of it that comes in when you have to tell a story. People are so visual these days; they’re very sophisticated in their perceptions. They’re used to seeing TV shows and movies. To tell a story visually is to make it tangible and real for people. When a strategy is not a story, you know it, because it may be bullet points, it may be logical, but it doesn’t resonate, and it doesn’t get traction when it’s abstract and people can’t apply it or figure out how to apply it to their daily work or their lives.

Ross: I’ve been delighted seeing you create or distill the set of visual frameworks, there’s a library of visual elements for communication, and I’d love to hear about that.

Dave: Yes, we’re in a podcast; people are going to have to use their imaginations here, but that’s wonderful too because imagination is a great tool. In 30 years of scribbling, sketching, and working in boardrooms with management teams to try to visualize not just their strategies, but their problems, the approaches that they might have for figuring out how to deal with those problems, the processes, the structures, the stories and so forth, I started to notice certain patterns coming up over and over. The original frameworks… the project started with me starting to go, “Oh, these are interesting”.

This concept of a maze, a problem as a maze or a problem as a puzzle kept coming up quite a bit. Visualizing something, a solution as a solar system. There are certain things that come up. I started collecting and capturing these. Very recently, I’ve been having a lot of fun publishing them, making them work, and operate, and exploring how they could work as a toolkit for visual thinking and not necessarily skipping the fuzzy, sketchy whiteboard stage of that thinking, but maybe getting more quickly from it.

My brother is a scientist, and he said once to me, “Science is always ahead of language.” I think the same is true of business strategy and technology. The concepts emerge before we have the language to talk about them often. Because they’re so new, they’re combinations of old things or different things, drawing can be a way to make that stuff more real, tangible, and understandable. I said to you earlier when we were preparing for this, even after 30 years of working with visual frameworks, I have as many questions about them as I have answers. I still have a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity for exploring this toolkit. But it does seem to have some very powerful effect on helping people think better, helping them get from that fuzzy space where you don’t have the words to something to having something that is more tangible, real, and that you’re able to talk about. It does seem to accelerate that process. It’s also interesting when you have the team start to use them in their conversations because there are all kinds of ideas that you might not have words for, and then you see a picture, and then you could start to describe it.

I had an experience with a guy, a technologist at a major bank. I was teaching visual thinking to the technology team in this bank, and he was struggling. I had asked him to draw a picture of the problem. Because if you can draw a picture of the problem, you’re halfway to a solution. If it can’t be drawn, it can’t be done. If you can start to visualize or draw a picture, then you start to have a plan. He was really struggling, and I said, “Okay, why don’t you try employing some lateral thinking? Maybe you’re just thinking too much about this as if you’re a technologist. How would you think about this problem if you were a chef, or if you were a sailor on a ship?” He goes, “Okay, that helps. Let me work on that.” Ten or fifteen minutes later in this workshop, he had drawn, on a flip chart, this picture. It wasn’t so much the picture as the story. He was able to articulate.

I can tell you, I still remember the story he told me because it was clear. He said, “We’re like a kitchen. We’re the technology team in this bank. We’re like a kitchen; people come back to the kitchen, and they start ordering things. We’re making everything custom. We have to go to the grocery store every time to buy all this special stuff because someone just ordered squid. We don’t have any squid, or we don’t have anything to cook it with. We don’t have the right tools. But 90% of the time, or at least 80%, people have similar needs, so we should just have a menu. We could be a restaurant. Like a restaurant, if we just have a menu, and we have 80% of the things covered that people usually want on the menu, then if what they need isn’t on the menu, of course, they can order off the menu, but let’s give them a structure, a menu to order from.”

You can already start to see clearly what the problem was, and you can very clearly see a solution there. That simply came from saying, “What if you were a chef? How would you think about the problem?” There’s a tremendous power. I don’t know if you would even call that visual thinking. That’s kind of analogical thinking. You’re just thinking an analogy or a metaphor. But that’s a lot of what the visual frameworks do. They allow you to shuffle through a lot of different analogies and metaphors while you’re searching for an idea and the ability to go into a metaphor store, almost like you are buying clothes, like if someone’s going to an optometrist who’s checking your eyes, trying on different lenses, looking at and finding a better fit. In the case of the bank guy, once he had a good description of the problem, the solution was there. That’s often the case. The reason that we’re stuck, or have a problem is that we have the wrong metaphor or the wrong frame and we just haven’t really found the best description of the problem. Once you can find a very clear, simple description of the problem, not always, but sometimes the solution is just self-evident. In his case, it was clearly that; so that’s the power of it.

Ross: Thinking in your visual framework, a lot of them are visual metaphors. Metaphors can be conceptual, metaphors are often expressed visually, like the solar system as you mentioned, for example. These can all be ways you see that, you evoke it, this is a metaphor and you can start to be able to clarify your thinking around that.

Dave: Menus on there, as well.

Ross: Yes, right. That’s great. You call yourself a Possibilitarian?

Dave: I do. 

Ross: If someone else wanted to be a Possibilitarian, how would they go about it? How do you become a Possibilitarian? What is the nature of expanding your thinking to think of the possible. 

Dave: The world is full of Possibilitarians. I first heard the term from a guy named Greg Petroff, a friend of mine who works at Cisco now. He’s been at several companies, including Google. But a Possibilitarian, in my view, is someone who looks at a situation and says, ‘Okay, The art of the possible is the art of what you can do with the situation. If you look at a situation in terms of what you can make out of it, what you can do out of it, then I think you’re a Possibilitarian. There are people who will argue about why things are a certain way, what solution should be or could be, and spend a lot of time talking about it. In my view, the Possibilitarian is the person who says, ‘Well, let’s find a small way to prototype that, test it, see if we can make something happen, find reasonable ways to test those ideas as value propositions, and figure it out’. It’s learning by doing, it’s learning by trial and error, learning by figuring it out, sometimes stumbling around, often making mistakes, but the leap from theory to practice is one that many people never make. A theory doesn’t solve problems.

Ross: It’s not so much about dreaming about the possible as in discovering it. 

Dave: Yes. Picasso once said that research is not the thing, you can spend your whole life searching and never find anything. People aren’t interested so much in what you’re searching for, they’re interested in what you have found. Finding is the thing. Part of it is probably coming from my experience in art school, where what we learned was a process for making, for creating things out of nothing, or out of materials. For me, the creative act is probably one of the things that is fundamental to humankind, and our success as a species. It naturally brings joy into your life when you’re creating new things. There’s a magical quality to creation and a mysterious quality to it. That’s what the Possibilitarian idea to me is about; it’s about what’s the next best step we can take. I think for any person, or any company, or any organization, or any group, there’s always the next best step. The goal always is to try to find that next best step. But we don’t know what the next best step is. We never will know what the perfect next best step will be. We can only take the next best step that we can think of at the time. That’s how we create the future. That’s how we create possibilities.

Ross: Yes. That’s always the way I’ve lived my life. Part of this is the sunk-cost fallacy, as in, you should always say, ‘Here I am today, it doesn’t matter what mistakes I’ve made in the past or what’s happened behind, right now, take one step forward, ignore everything. This is where I am, what’s the next step which can move me towards where I’m going?’ That’s just always been the way I have completely framed my life. 

Dave: Many people spend a lot of cycles thinking about the next best step because it’s scary to actually take the next best step. Whenever you take a step, you’re making a commitment. Every step that you take to commit to something, is saying no to a thousand other possibilities. It can be paralyzing to stand at the edge of the next step in your life, like looking off a cliff or looking at a million pathways of possibility, and to make the decision to make a forward step, it can be terrifying, it can be paralyzing…

Ross: And exciting.

Dave: Yes. But I think without taking that next step, you’re not moving the ball forward, you’re not moving the ball down the field, as we would say, in the US.

Ross: You are working on a School of the Possible or something like that?

Dave: Yes. In the same vein of what’s the next best step for me, having sold my company, and being in a position to think about where I want to go, I’ve always been very passionate, as you can probably tell, about learning and education, and also about creativity in the unknown. The School of the Possible is my current experiment in what’s the next best step for me personally, but also what’s the next step in education and group learning. We’re in the habit of school being something where people know the answers and we go there to find the answers or learn from the experts. But I believe school also can and should be about learning how to learn, learning how to ask questions when we don’t know the answers.

There are so many problems, situations, and challenges out there that we don’t have answers for, but we need to figure out what the next best step is, even in the face of complexity, a lot of confusion, and a lot of unknowns, we still need to be moving forward. The School of the Possible is my experiment in education, in figuring out how do we learn together when we don’t have the answers.

Ross: I look forward to hearing more about that as that progresses. To round out, Dave, I’d like you to offer some distilled wisdom, some advice, some suggestions to people on how it is they can, I would say, think better, but whatever positive direction you can do. How do we think of the possible? How do we think better? How do we live better lives?

Dave: A couple of thoughts I think might be helpful. One is the idea of not necessarily limiting your thinking to what can be put into words, typed, or written on a page, and to explore the idea of visual thinking. I do have a free online class that I could share a link to you where people can go and watch, a few 5, 10 to 20-minute videos to explore that territory. That would be a good jumping-off point. Drawing is thinking just like writing is thinking. If it can’t be drawn, it can’t be done. It’s also a great way to explore and clarify possibilities when you’re still thinking about them. Just like Leonardo da Vinci was able to sketch a lot of ideas that weren’t able to be realized, even with the technology of his time, sketching is a way to start thinking about those things. Even if you’re not going to be designing a helicopter or an airplane 500 years before, it’s a fact, that you might still find that by sketching and scribbling. You come up with ideas and concepts that you wouldn’t ever come up with any other way. That’s one. Start scribbling.

Another one is the idea of fear. We’re wired to seek reward and avoid threat. Every organism in the universe is wired to seek reward and avoid threat. For good reasons, our wiring is biased a little bit towards the avoiding threat part. You’re not going to… A Possibilitarian that gets eaten by a dinosaur is not going to pass on their genes to the next generation. I think that’s why we’re emotionally and hormonally wired to be afraid, to cling to the status quo, the safe zone, and not to step into those more adventurous, or dangerous territories. But the one rule that has served me well over the course of my life is that, when I’m facing a dilemma, or decision, or choice about where to go in the future, and they seem roughly equal, but one feels safer, and the other feels scary, always go toward the fear. Because that’s where growth is, that’s where possibilities are, that’s where the opportunities are.

The fact that you’re even weighing it as a possibility means that it’s a realistic and possible scenario. The fact that you’re feeling fear is probably relative to your wiring, and your tendency to want to seek safety and avoid threat. The world can be a dangerous and scary place. But for the most part, you’re not taking your life into your hands when you take a chance in the business or the creative world. I encourage people to step into, lean into that fear, and take a few steps. You live near the ocean, and you go swimming every day, and you know there are sharks in the ocean. There’s always some danger, but you don’t have to dive into the deepest part of the ocean, you can step in, you can wade in, you can go partway, and you can go halfway. There are a lot of ways to trick yourself into stepping into uncomfortable situations that can be rewarding in terms of personal growth. I encourage people to, when in doubt, go towards the fear.

Ross: I think that following that advice will get people a very, very, very long way.

Dave: Yes, I agree.

Ross: It’s been a true delight talking to you, Dave, thank you very much for your time, your insight, and your wisdom.

Dave: My pleasure. It’s been great talking to you, Ross. Thank you for having me.


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