We talked about sketching chart ideas on paper before, but Dan Roam takes visual problem solving to the next level in his book The back of the Napkin. This book was an interesting read for me not only because of the presentation concepts discussed, but also because The back of the napkin aims to provide a complete framework to solve business problems. (The key frameworks can be downloaded here for free). I think the book did really well on the presentation front, the goal of a generic strategic problem solving kit is not really reached. Dan does a great job convincing us that we should use our drawing/visual thinking skills that most of us have been neglecting since we started formal education. On top of that he provides practical guidelines to get going
  • Have the courage to use a more informal drawing style (away from the computer) to get to the essence of problems, focus not on form but on content
  • Help us think about what type of drawings are best to be used in which situations (who, what, when, why, etc.) and to what audiences (the visionary CEO, the detailed operations manager)
As a problem solving tool kit, he provides useful tools but falls short of providing a generic solution framework for all business problems (which impossible anyway I think).
  • Dan takes the "S-type"/"sensing" approach to problem solving, spread out all data, put in on the walls, digest it all to see the bigger picture. A way of data processing very similar to the human brain sizing up a new environment. This is actually a useful and fresh approach compared to for example strategy firms such as McKinsey, that apply a very targeted data gathering approach focussed on key questions/issues that have been identified earlier. 
  • Another take away for me were diagrams that try to summarize all relationships in a problem. Plot a variable on the x axis, one on the y axis, start adding bubbles in different sizes and different colors to analyze 5-6 dimensions in one diagram. Useful for solving problems, less for communicating results to a "cold" audience that is confronted with the material for the first time.
  • I do think however that the book does not provide a simple step-by-step guide to solve problems, you need guidance for this. Running problem solving brainstormings around a white board requires a strong moderator, and picking the right diagrams requires experience. Hiring Dan's firm would probably do the trick, but the novice will find it difficult to apply the techniques after having read the just the book.
As a presentation tool, Dan's ideas are highly valuable in a smaller group setting, where everyone can gather around a white board while the presentor draws the story "live" in front of the audience without any help of PowerPoint. For the big audience however, this approach is high risk.

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