In 2007, as a major U.S. publishing company contemplated going public, it realized it had a problem: no one had ever heard of it. Despite broad market penetration and an impressive breadth to its product line, the company feared that its anonymity would have a devastating effect on its offering price.
So it did what most companies would do and hired consultants to provide some answers. Three months later the consultants did what most consultants do and delivered a ton of data — the executive summary alone ran 60 pages. The firm had interviewed hundreds of current and prospective clients, and there was a good chance that the answers that the publishing company sought lay buried in the PowerPoint slides and supporting documentation that the consultants delivered. But extracting the ounce of gold from the ton of ore looked to be laborious in the extreme.
Another consulting firm was hired and given only a few weeks to make of the data what they could. It was a daunting task, particularly given what they ultimately produced: a single ingenious chart that positioned the company against six major competitors in terms of brand recognition, breadth of offerings, and markets served (see “From the Simple to the Sublime” at the end of this article). That concise snapshot of a complex business landscape proved momentous. The company ultimately made a $17 billion acquisition that overnight gave it household-name status and market dominance. The CEO was so impressed by the role that the chart played in this move that he had it framed and placed on the wall behind his desk, where it remains.
If the chart was good for the publishing company it was a positive bonanza for Dan Roam and his small consulting firm, which produced it. “I call it the million-dollar chart,” Roam says, “because it led to so much more business for us.” It was also one of the success stories that inspired The Back of the Napkin, one of last year’s best-selling business books. The Back of the Napkin is both a manifesto and a how-to manual that demonstrates just how well the art of the deal can be enhanced by, well, art.
In truth, “art” is overstating it, which should come as a relief to anyone who wants to duplicate the success of Roam and his colleagues. “Visualization” is more accurate: if you can draw basic geometric shapes, lines, arrows, and stick figures, you have all the skill you need to put Roam’s ideas into practice and produce a vast array of concept and network models, diagrams, schematics, flow charts, tables, and other representations.
Roam is not the first person to stress the power of pictorial analysis. In 1969, Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking made a compelling case that while perception and reasoning may seem like two distinct mental activities, in fact neither one can occur without the other. More recently, in the business world, the concept of “strategy maps” has been advanced by Robert Kaplan and David Norton (creators of the balanced scorecard) as providing a “visual epiphany” that helps business leaders connect processes to desired outcomes.