05 July 2012

Book Review: The Back of the Napkin


Yes, I know this book was published in 2008, and it's been sitting on my "to read" pile almost that long.

Fortunately, the Association Chat book club got me to bump it to the top of the pile, and I finally read it last month.

The book's subtitle is: solving problems and selling ideas with pictures, and teaching you to do that is author Dan Roam's ostensible goal. 

Short version: it's a great concept, but I'm not quite sure how to implement it.

Longer take:

According to Roam, there are three types of people: black pen types (who LOVE to draw ideas), yellow pen types (who are quick to jump in to edit and add), and red pen types ("I can't draw"). Confession: I am definitely a red pen type. 

On the other hand, I also LOVE visual representations of information. I love infographics. I'm always the one urging colleagues to use fewer words and more pictures to share information with senior leadership. I think every organization's board status report should be a series of 5-10 key metrics that are tracked over time and shared in graphs or charts. I'm the person who infamously talked a panel  for the 2009 ASAE Annual Meeting into doing a presentation with NO words on the slides (that didn't go over all that well).

So what I'm saying is that, while I am a red pen, I'm also someone eager to be persuaded that representing problems visually can help us solve them and to learn how to do it.

I'm just not sure that this book can get most of us there.

It's not that Roam doesn't provide plenty of information and explanation. He spends almost 150 pages explaining six key ways of seeing and five key ways of showing, then placing all that into a grid (page 141 if you have the book handy) that can tell you, based on the type of framework you need and a short series of either/or questions, which type of picture you're going to need to explain what's going on and spot a solution.

The second half of the book uses a single case study to work readers through the ways of seeing and showing, the framework, and the questions to get to, in chapter 15, a not-immediately-obvious solution and description of how one would present that solution to a team of executives.

But I still don't feel like I would be able to apply the techniques he describes successfully the next time I'm faced with what looks like an intractable problem at the office.

Maybe I just need more practice. I have, in my last two positions and since hearing Roam speak at ASAE's Great Ideas Conference a few years ago, insisted on having a white board in my workspace. I even use it sometimes. And once in a while, it doesn't even feel forced.

The book does, however, make a GREAT case for hiring Roam to help your organization solve big, hairy problems, assuming you can afford him. And maybe that's really the point.

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