Visual Thinking Versus Typical Meetings

Accountability Productivity Teamwork


Key Point: The most creative and productive meetings I have ever participated in usually involve a visual component. Whether it’s on a napkin, white board, plastering a wall with post-it notes, something extra seems to positively emerge when the discussion becomes visual. The CEO I work for embraces visual thinking. When you’re “clicking” with him, the white board or iPad Pro is filled with very visual pictures of a desired future we jointly developed. It got me thinking about why having a visual element is so effective? So a little research journey introduced me to both visual thinking and NeuroLeadership

Visual Thinking is drawing in order to make sense of the world. When we visualize something, it becomes more concrete. Complex concepts become easier to understand. Visual Thinking has been widespread in science and mathematics for many years. Along with NeuroLeadership, and design thinking, visual thinking is emerging as one of the best practices in leading-edge organizations.  

A great article by David Gray, the founder of xPlaner, a company that teaches people how to apply visual thinking and NeuroLeadership, references the SCARF model developed by David Rock, author of Your Brain at WorkQuiet Leadership, and Coaching with the Brain in Mind

“Some social needs are as important to the brain as air, food and water. If these social needs are not being met, the brain reacts in the same way as it would if you were literally starving or gasping for air.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

Status: People need to feel important, recognized, needed by others.

Certainty: People need to feel confident that they know what’s ahead, that they can predict the future with reasonable certainty.

Autonomy: People need to feel like they have control of their life, their work, and their destiny.

Relatedness: People need to feel like they belong, to trust the group they are in will look out for them.

Fairness: People need to feel like they are being treated fairly, that the ‘rules of the game’ give them a ‘fair chance.’”

Gray suggests that typical business meeting triggers anxiety and emotional distress, activating the fight-or-flight response and causing people to shut down, while visual thinking sessions address and resolve many of those issues:

“Status: In a typical meeting, status and hierarchy create distance between people. Sitting around a table increases the sense of direct threat.

A Visual Thinking session flattens the hierarchy. As soon as people start drawing, it’s ideas and insights that matter, not status. Also, because people are focused on the shared picture as opposed to each other, status takes a back seat to creating something together.

Certainty: In a typical meeting, abstract language, diagrams and complex PowerPoint slides create a sense of uncertainty about the future. It’s difficult to translate abstract ideas into concrete action. Without a clear picture, people procrastinate or act in ways that are counterproductive.

Visualizing the future makes it more tangible. Drawing a plan is thinking it through. Drawing what ‘good’ looks like, who will do what, and how, makes the future less abstract, and reduces anxiety and uncertainty about next steps, reducing resistance and making it easier to move forward.

Autonomy: In a typical meeting, the boss or presenter is in charge of the agenda and the dialogue. Other participants are reduced to listening and asking questions instead of actively contributing. This reduction in participation leads to reduced commitment and makes it less likely for people to carry the ideas forward after they leave the meeting.

In Visual Thinking sessions, everyone is involved in making ideas and plans more tangible and concrete. This increases people’s sense of control. If everyone participates in creating the picture of what will happen, it is easier for them to take ownership and run with it.

Relatedness: Typical meetings are focused primarily on the exchange of information, not team-building. Most business meetings are dry affairs. It’s blah blah blah, until it’s over. When a group of people works together to create a shared picture of their situation, their vision, and a plan to get there, they are simultaneously building a sense of who they are as a team. Creating a vision together makes it easier to take action after the session is over.

Fairness: In a typical meeting, the extroverts — people who like to talk — often get the lion’s share of the airtime. Introverts, who may have great contributions to make, may not get the time and space they need to share their ideas.”

Character Moves:

  1. Consider making visual meetings versus typical meetings a more regular part of your involvement and contribution process. In fact, if you are aren’t collectively creating pictures, models, and graphics, you may be accepting meetings in their lowest form of “blah, blah, blah.” How effective are they really?
  1. Consider where and when facilitating a meeting in which a “conversation and visual thinking” process is the best medium; where everyone is up and having a “voice.” Find out how leading organizations are applying this.
  1. The best visual thinking sessions ensure there is time for both individual reflection and group discussion. Consider referencing the book “Gamestorming” for more ideas and approaches you might apply. 
  1. Meetings need to get reimagined and reinvented. Consider visual thinking as a process to do that. We need more connected and faster moving organizations. Visual thinking and NeuroLeadership can accelerate us. Learn more about both. 

Visual thinking in the Triangle, 


One Millennial View: I happen to enjoy meetings, but I’ve certainly exited some of them saying “Yeah, that could have been addressed in a two paragraph email.” Now, considering my entire business is visual (for those that don’t know, I work in an online and TV video creation department), I know how crucial “seeing” something is. However, it does take time, and no business wants to or can afford to waste resources on quality, creative production if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. As Gray alludes though, a voice-only platform can be “blah blah blah.” Meetings are great when done well, so how about this solution? If it can just be said in an email – email it. If the meeting involves visual thinking, then we’ll GLADLY put in the work. I’ll even order pizza.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis