Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures

February Event Review: “Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures” with Dan Roam, Founder and President of Digital Roam Inc.

by Dan Galatin

February 2013

Dan Roam, Founder and President of Digital Roam Inc., presented at the February 6th meeting of the SVPMA.  Dan discussed and demonstrated how we can quickly and easily visualize the essentials of any problem we need to solve, no matter how complex, by following a few simple guidelines.

Dan contended that we can say more by using fewer words and more pictures.  We can break seemingly complex problems down into simpler, more manageable visual components, which are more convincing and compelling than traditional verbal communications.  Even something as complex as the design of the Boeing 787 has been communicated pictorially across production teams spread across 15 countries.  It’s also common for successful authors like J.K. Rowling and Joseph Heller to visually “map” out their books to keep track of complex plotlines.  In business, the person at the whiteboard drawing pictures is usually the one running the meeting.

Seventy-five percent of all our neurons are focused on processing vision.  Whoever best describes a problem is the one most likely to solve it.  In other words, whoever draws the best picture gets the funding!  The Laffer curve (literally drawn on the back of a napkin) became the foundation of supply-side economics largely because its visual simplicity appealed to Ronald Reagan.  Over millions of years, the human brain has evolved so that the left brain focuses on analyzing details and the right brain focuses on the “big picture.”  Traditionally, intelligence is considered almost exclusively to consist of “left-brain” functionality.  Mr. Roam argues that we need to also develop the other part of our cognition.  Even our memories are stored as images.

Our visual processing consists of six different pathways that allow us to make sense of a complex world.  You can visually represent any idea using a combination of six elements that correspond to these pathways:

  1. Who and What: the physical objects that make up the idea
  2. How Much: the quantities involved, represented visually – for example, in a bar chart or pie chart
  3. Where: the distances between objects, represented by a map or a schematic diagram depicting spatial relationships
  4. When: the relationship of the objects in time, represented by a timeline
  5. How: a description of how all the objects interact, represented by a flowchart that maps out cause and effect
  6. Why: the underlying rule or moral that describes what we have learned, represented by a “visual equation”

Dan urged the audience to use this technique the next time they need to break down a complex problem into its constituent parts.

Dan Galatin has over 20 years of combined experience in product management and software engineering.  He is currently a Senior Product Manager at Keynote Systems and can be contacted at

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