DevLearn Keynote: Dan Roam – Back of the Napkin

by Kevin Jones on November 13, 2008

Back of the Napkin is #5 from Amazon on business books of the year.

Dan: His premise: We can solve our problem in pictures.  When you try to solve in pictures you can solve anything.  What Problems can we solve with pictures?  ANY!  If we are able to articulate it, we can do the same and solve it with pictures you can draw.  Other questions: What pictuers will we use and who is ‘we’?

If you are visual enough to have walked through the door and find a sit and sit down, you can do this.  3/4 of the processing of our brain is visual – so it is pretty important.

Go to a Kindergarten class and ask, how many can draw? (all) How many can read and write? (few)  Go to a group of 16 year olds and it switches.  We somehow lose that thought that we cannot draw.

If you can map out (with simple pictures) using pictures you will (guaranteed) start finding more insights than you have before.  You now have the most powerful way to communicate an idea.

Does it work in an online environment?  YES!

“Whoever is best describe the problem is the one most likely to solve it.” Then, “Whoever draws the best picture fets the funding.”  Hmmm. Whoever is able to articulate it the best leads.

Problem: 1967 Wanting to fly from Houston to Dallas.  But there is not a connecting flight.  Herb grabs a napkin and said, what if we just connected the three major metro areas in Texas.  BAM!  Southwest Airlines in born.  It is the only profitable airline in the US and the only one that has been profitable since its inception.  Explain something that may be complex, not in a simplistic day, but in a CLEAR way.

NOTE TO SELF: Draw more while I think.

Arthur Laffer - an economist in the 1970 was sitting with two other guys and he drew a chart about taxes.  It looks like a bell curve.  At what point does the government collect the greatest amount of revenue.  The napkin served as the basis of the Reagan era.  Decrease taxes and income increases.

%25 of us are those who would jump up to the board to draw (that’s me – Black Pen).

50% can identify in someone’s picture the parts that are most important (Yellow Pen)

25% think it is all trash.  They may have the most understanding, but they won’t jump up (Red Pen).

We must get the participation of all of the people (including Red Pen) is to make them mad!  Then they will finally jump up and correct you.  That’s great!

Why do we let PPT cripple us and make us lazy?  It is unfortunate.  From a cognitive perspective, the worst way is to cram a PPT with information.  They won’t get it.  It is definately not the way to do it.

People simply get pictures.  (This in from @writetechnology: Flickr’s beginnings)

How to do in a connected world.  Use powerpoint and do the onscreen application.  Go into presentation mode.  At the bottom there are icons.  Pick the pen.  Draw.  Use it over an online meeting.  Everyone sees it in real time.

How to do all this?

Grab a napkin, draw a circle and call it “me.”  Then a bigger circle and call it “My Problem.”  The brain is now imagining “Where are we going next?”  It gets the people’s brains engaged.

“Bill Gates: The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.  To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact.  But complexity blocks all three of these steps.”  Then he shows the userbar picture of complexity (can’t find it right now, sorry).

“What is the point of data if you can’t draw information from the data?” (Allusion from Tim’s keynote.)  (Did I use that word correctly?)

Not that what you come up with will be a huge insight, but that it is framed in a way that it can finally make sense.

Look at Tree Maps for visualization purposes.

When he went through a problem with Microsoft using this, they didn’t get caught up in the details, in what colors were used or what font was used.

Our abilities with a pen and paper is infinitely better than any program because we play by our rules, not by the software’s rules.

The more “human” your picture, the more human the response.

A little bit of Neurobiology: What are your eyes doing right now?  Pulling in zillions points of data and translating them and giving meaning.  Vision is a serial and parallel process.  Part of the brain translates the “WHAT” part – the objects that make up our world.  Part of the brain translates “WHERE”.   At the same time there is the “HOW MANY”.  Here we make gross numerical generalizations.  We visually recognize the passage of time from seeing the change of an object – the “WHEN.”  That tells me “HOW” the world works.  Combine all of that and make all of those rules, we start to make assumptions of “WHY.”  “That is how the world works” we say.

There are six things we see – the 6 Ws.

W – Draw this…

  • Who/What – Portrait
  • How Much – Chart
  • Where – Map
  • When – Timeline
  • How  – Flowchart
  • Why – Multi Variable

These are the only six pictures we need (or combined).


Circular pictures are difficult to grasp,  Go linear and then loop back – easier to understand.  Huh!

“Any problem is like a big layer cake.  There are more flavors inside than anybody expects.”

Good stuff, Dan!  Thanks for a great Keynote.

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