The Power of Visualization to Solve Problems

Can’t wrap your head around a particularly tough problem? It may be time to get visual. Move the problem out of your head and onto a whiteboard where you can tackle it more systematically and collaboratively. Tom Wujec, the master of Wicked Problem Solving, explains why visualization is so important and how you can put it to use with your team.

Written by Tom Wujec • 12 August 2021


Image by Firmbee on Unsplash

Try this little experiment: here’s a list of 49 of the 50 U.S. states. Which state is missing?


Here’s the same test—only using a map. Which state is missing?



Which test was easier? Which took less time?

This experiment illustrates the importance of visualization in problem-solving. It’s so important, in fact, that visualization is at the heart of Wicked Problem Solving (WPS), a methodology for solving problems that are complex and notoriously difficult to solve. Working with PMI, we have captured these techniques in Wicked Problem Solving Practitioner, an online course and toolkit specifically designed to help project professionals and other changemakers apply WPS thinking to the practical problems we face.

Why is visualization so important? Quite simply because the world has gotten way too complicated. The challenges we face—from climate change to wholesale business transformation—are massively complex. They’re interconnected, highly fluid and full of ambiguity. Our normal mental models aren’t up to the task of thinking them through. Visualization helps us uoff-load/u these cognitive tasks to a physical space where we can work on them more systematically and collaboratively.

A good visualization does several things at once:

  • It helps express and clarify ideas. Before you can visualize an idea, you must have thought it through.
  • It helps organize information. There’s a whole visual toolkit—from simple lines and circles to more complex diagrams and matrices—to help frame a problem. Our thought experiment at the top of the article illustrates this point. It was clearly more effective to present the missing-state information in the form of a map rather than as a list.
  • It helps us collaborate and communicate. Through visualization, we create a shared reference point that helps teams focus, share ideas and problem solve.

It’s not surprising that visualization is so effective in problem-solving. Fully 80 percent of our brain is dedicated to visualization, and we process visual information differently than auditory or other perceptual data. Visual stimuli, in fact, can be distributed to up to 35 different areas of the brain, so we can process it in parallel rather than sequentially.

What makes for a good visualization? First, it should accentuate what’s important in a situation and deemphasize what’s not. When looking at a visualization, you should be able to pick up on the most salient points right from the start. Second, it should be understandable and clear. And, finally, it should be capable of being manipulated, i.e., it should allow people to engage with it in some way. A good visualization should lead people to an “a-ha” moment—to finding their way from the current state to a desired future state.

When visualizing information, it’s important to understand what job you want the visualization to do. Do you need it to help sequence or prioritize a set of actions? Sort through a range of strategic options? Understand the dynamics of a situation—for example, who has the ultimate decision-making ability in a particular situation?

Each of these objectives lends itself to a different visualization technique. And there is no one visual that serves all purposes. That’s why in Wicked Problem Solving Practitioner, we illustrate various styles of visualizations and explain the different purposes they serve.

When visualizing a problem, start by thinking through the various audiences and challenges involved—both in the current state and a desired future state. Then you can “make a scene” by visualizing different elements of the situation, using nodes for the people involved, links to capture their connections and relationships and territories to express areas of meaning.

Visualizing or externalizing the situation can help you think through the problem more clearly. You may begin to see differences in the roles played by various individuals and understand the dynamics of their interactions more clearly. You’ll be able to add detail and begin to see levels of nuance that weren’t apparent at the start. What you’re doing, in effect, is turning thoughts into images so you can bring more analytic and critical thinking to the challenge. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

You also don’t need any specialized tools to get started with visualizing problems. I recommend a good notebook without lines and markers that feel good in your hand. You can also, of course, use a tablet PC or other electronic device.

The only other requirement is a mental one: to be aware of and eliminate our natural bias to try and solve all problems in our heads. Instead, get the problem out of your head and onto a whiteboard or flip chart page. Don’t be concerned about what it looks like. The measure of success here isn’t artistic value. It’s the degree to which the visualization helps you think through the problem, communicate and collaborate with your team, and, ultimately, arrive at a solution that moves your business or your organization forward.

Tom Wujec headshot

Tom Wujec
Executive Facilitator & Founder | The Wujec Group Inc

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