Visual Explorer is an innovative tool developed by the Center for Creative Leadership that supports collaboration and creative conversations in a wide variety of business situations. It consists of a card deck of evocative images and a facilitator’s guide that explains how to use the tool. Visual Explorer is based on a sizable body of research and practice that shows the power of images and objects to enable effective dialogue about complex issues. It produces insights via random combinations of images from the card deck and one or more framing questions.
As ideas and situations become more complex, words alone are not sufficient to convey our meaning and intent in any given situation. The images contained in Visual Explorer help by providing a visual vocabulary that helps us to express ourselves via metaphor, intuition and emotion. This process can help teams or groups to build consensus and agreement.
In the context of this tool, dialogue means a way of having conversations in which people attempt to get at the roots of what they assume and believe. Getting clarity on these submerged issues tends to lead to better decisions and more effective action. It also helps to build a shared sense of ownership among members of the group.
When dealing with uncomfortable or controversial issues, Visual Explorer helps the group to circumvent problems by enabling group members to project their ideas onto the image, rather than onto a particular person in the group. People can momentarily disconnect from their own values, assumptions and points of view yet stay engaged in the conversation – a key to creative problem solving. As a result, the developers have found that people are less constrained by language and their entrenched opinions, and are better able to perceive, handle and create ideas.
One card I viewed at random from the deck depicts a group of people rafting in the midst of some large white-water rapids. This image could be interpreted any number of ways, including the importance of teamwork during rocky economic times, the uncertainty of today’s business world and how fast change is taking place.
Another image depicts an Indian man standing waist deep in water, praying, while a boat sits on the shore behind him, propped up on its side with a series of bamboo poles. You can easily use your imagination to come up with stories and metaphors related to fishing, faith and more.
The cards are made of a high quality laminated card stock, which means they should be durable. They come in a very nice plastic case with a Velcro closure, which protects them when you’re not using them.
Visual Explorer doesn’t provide you with a ready-made list of framing questions that you can use in your setting. Rather, the facilitator’s guide gives you clear guidelines on how to create your own effective framing questions – those that elicit open, insightful and honest communication. Good framing questions speak directly and honestly to the issues the participants care about, and encourage them to share their unique perspectives and experiences.
The developers recommend allowing at least one hour to work through a five-step Visual Explorer process:
The facilitator’s guide outlines a surprising diversity of uses for the Visual Explorer tool:
As you can see, this isn’t just a brainstorming tool.
A key to Visual Explorer’s success has been its verstatility; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to use it. Although it was originally created to meet the needs of managers and leaders in organizational settings, it has been used successfully in a wide variety of settings. According to its developers, the Visual Explorer should be used when a situation is complex and has unknown elements and hidden assumptions embedded in it.
The facilitator’s guide that comes with Visual Explorer is among the clearest, best organized and easiest to follow documents of its type that I have ever experienced. It first introduces you to the Visual Explorer and explains what you can use it for and why you would want to do so. It then walks you step by step through how to use it in a variety of settings.
At least three-quarters of the guide is devoted to application case histories, which explain how to use Visual Explorer for activities such as facing complex challenges, strategic leadership, creative problem solving, creating scenarios of the future, appreciative inquiry and individual and team coaching. Each application story first explains how to facilitate a session focused upon it, and then shares a real-world example of it in action and the results achieved with it. Selected application studies also contain additional resources and tips on how to get the most out of it. The facilitator’s guide also contains several helpful worksheets and a list of frequently-asked questions about Visual Explorer.
Considering how open-ended this tool is, the facilitator’s guide represents a key part of this tool’s value. It succeeds in instructing, guiding and inspiring you to put the Visual Explorer to use on your thorniest challenges.
Visual Explorer is available in three different sizes:
Visual Explorer Facilitator’s Letter-size Set: This kit contains two decks of 108 8-1/2 x 11 inch images plus a facilitators guide (US$380).
Visual Explorer Post Card Facilitator’s Set: This kit contains three decks of 6 x 4 inch, post card-sized set image decks containing 72 cards each. This size is ideal for working alone or in areas with limited space (US$340).
Visual Explorer Playing Card Set: This kit contains four playing card-sized set image decks with 54 images per deck plus a facilitator’s guide. This size is the most portable ($US320).
I like the Visual Explorer. The cards are of high quality, which means they should be durable tools that you and your team can use to open dialogue and explore new ideas. I like the fact that it isn’t just another card deck that hellps you to generate ideas; rather, its primary focus is on facilitating discussion between people, building bridges between differing opinions and yes, even developing new ideas. And, as you may have gathered, I’m a big fan of the level of thinking, organization and presentation that went into the facilitator’s guide. A tool is only as good as the instructions that teach people how to use it. The Visual Explorer’s facilitator’s guide is first class all the way.
If you and your team are facing some difficult issues, or need to develop consensus on your organization’s future direction, or if you simply want to improve team communication and collaboration, then you may want to consider investing in this high quality toolset.