Dyslexia Superpower Toolkit 1: Rich pictures (33/52)

I first mentioned ‘big picture thinking’ in “Time to see Dyslexia as a Superpower?” (3/52) and in “Stimulating Big Picture Thinking” (11/52), which explained how to design a workshop to help develop this skill in environmental scientists. However, I thought it might be useful to explore one specific technique (tool) to help with this – rich pictures.

I first encountered rich pictures in 1998 as part of a lecture given by Professor Peter Checkland on Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). Just Google, “soft systems methodology rich picture” to see lots of examples. I was captivated by SSM not particularly because of rich pictures, it is only one part of the approach, but because as a Managing Director of my own company I use to say, “We don’t have problems, we only have situations and every situation has a solution”. This was a simple way of empowering staff to pause for a moment when they encountered a problem [or situation!] to think about possible solutions before coming to me. It worked!

However, when using SSM to ‘take action to improve’ a situation, I came to value rich pictures as a way of improving my own understanding and engaging stakeholders to see the essence of a problem. Little did I know, that being dyslexic gave me a built-in head-start. Let me explain how it works in practice …

When I encounter a thorny issue, one that seems very difficult to crack, I take a piece of A4 plain paper and start to draw out the situation with the objective of condensing it all on to a single page (in landscape). It now takes me just two attempts – the first drawing to capture all the ingredients and the second to reshuffle items to make it simpler – I also use colour. I try to use as few words as possible. Once I am happy with it, I start to think about possible solutions.

This can be useful for helping me make decisions but the real power of rich pictures comes when you need to share a problem, when there are many views or it would just help to have other peoples opinions.

Something strange happens when you place a rich picture in the centre of a table with a few pens (preferably in different colours). I think because the picture is hand-drawn , people seem happy to add their own drawings, cross out, circle and write on it. It just seems to grow. This is really helpful because you get a better understanding (both what you have got right but also what is missing or contentious) and people feel their opinions matter and are more engaged. It’s important to remember, the rich pictures are just a ‘moment in time’ not a work of art!

I have started to scan rich pictures and email them to everyone after a meeting.

As part of writing this blog, I started to look through some of the more recent rich pictures with a view to sharing a few. However, I realised that they all contained sensitive information that couldn’t really be shared beyond the participants – an interesting observation in itself. So, in order to give you an example, I decided to draw (in 30 minutes) a rich picture of a more public thorny issue … The “e” rush to low pollution transport.

Perhaps you feel a strange urge to add your own highlights, images or words!

Nigel LockettThe Dyslexic Professor
University dyslexia support