Friday, May 11, 2012

Need to get your head around a problem? Try plotting it!

Seeing the problem

If your organization is “moving at the speed of thought,” (as it seems many are these days) it can be really challenging to make plans, devise strategies. solve problems. Really, it can be hard to even figure out where the plans and strategies need to take you or what all the factors of the problems are.

How often do you hear, “I need some time to get my head around that,” or the like?

What we need is to see where we are and where we want to go. We need to visualize.

That’s where I find Dan Roam’s work so helpful. You’ve probably heard of Roam’s books, including Back of the Napkin and (my favorite) Unfolding the Napkin. In them, Roam presents a methodology for brainstorming and solving business problems by drawing simple pictures.

An example big problem

I recently had an opportunity to put some of Roam’s methods to the test. One of my clients, a growing software and services company, is transforming their customer training. They’ve outgrown the current model of purely instructor-led classes and need to move to a university-model, featuring e-learning, virtual ILT, social learning and other options.

As you can imagine, this presents lots of questions. Where do we use e-learning vs. ILT? How detailed should the curriculum be? Will we need customized training and coaching offerings? Where do the product help and user guides fit in? What about social learning? How do we deliver it all? What will it cost?

That’s a lot to get our heads around.

Finding the coordinates

To help my client see all of these factors so they could begin to make decisions, I decided to use Roam’s methods. One of the brightest points I recalled from his books is that, when you are faced with a problem with lots of factors like this, it helps to figure out the coordinate system. In other words, what are the critical dimensions? Use these as the axes of a plot.

This process can take some trial and error, as you play around with different factors to see if they “map well.”

In this case, I settled on two as the most important dimensions for my client’s customer training:

First, What are the instructional methods? I call these learning enablers. I listed them as
  • Explain concepts
  • Demonstrate tasks
  • Guided practice
  • Individual coaching
These enablers became the y axis on my plot. I realized they should be cumulative. A learning offering (such as a course or e-learning module) might explain only, or explain plus show, or include these plus practice. As such, they created zones on the plot, and the y axis could be described as “learning enablers” with a scale from simplest (explain only) to strongest (all methods including coaching).

(Please click the plot images to see them clearly.)


With the y axis in place, I thought about the other important factors for the x axis. After some trial and error, I settled on the degree of customer time and commitment to achieve learning goals.

Given the delivery options we were considering, this translated into a second set of zones based on how far removed the learning opportunities would be from a user working with the software:

  • Level 1, would be the product user assistance, actually embedded in the user interface
  • Level 2 might be a customer portal or LMS, one or two clicks removed, where videos and other e-learning could be hosted.
 After mapping out these levels, I realized they also aligned with the company’s cost to provide the learning and might also factor in to the prices charged to the customers. So I labeled the x axis as “customer cost and time commitment,” with a scale of low to high.

Completing the plot

Now that I had the coordinates, it was a simple matter to plot all of the different learning products we had been discussing.

For example, the product help system was the simplest and least robust solution, offering only the Explain enabler. It was also the easiest to get to and lowest cost, being embedded in the software.

Other options, such as self-paced learning guides and e-learning modules, offered more learning enablers, and required more investment of effort (and potentially money).

When I had added all these offerings, I saw that what I had was a complete, proposed learning roadmap for the company. I added the title “Learning Roadmap” and I was done.

A tool for problem solving

Notice I said proposed roadmap. This plot did not solve all the issues. It was never meant to. Rather, its purpose was to clearly visualize all of the issues, so stakeholders could understand, discuss and resolve them.

For that purpose, it was quite successful.

I definitely recommend you pick up Dan Roam’s books, especially Unfolding the Napkin.

And the next time you have a problem that’s hard to “get your head around,” try plotting it out.