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Visual Explorer™: April 2007

April 29, 2007

Future scenario creation

Adapted from The Leaders Edge.

Summary: Scenarios are possible futures, deliberately explored. Used by organizations to navigate through complexity toward a preferred future, scenarios are an increasingly common leadership tool. Creating scenarios of possible futures is a way to help with preparedness, strategic planning or visioning (Schwartz, 1991). Typically scenario creation has an imaginative aspect in which people (leaders, managers, employees, citizens) literally make images and tell stories about alternative versions of the future. Scenario creation also has a dialogical aspect, such that the scenarios are put into the middle of deep and probing conversations. Finally, scenario creation involves “serious play” (Palus & Horth, 2002) such that the creation and exploration of the scenarios is playful and creative, and yet is grounded in serious inquiry. Visual Explorer has features that support these imaginative, dialogical, and playful aspects of future scenario creation.

  • Imagining alternative futures for smarter planning
  • Tapping into personal experiences and passions
  • Paying careful attention to details and to big pictures
  • Putting something tangible in the middle of an otherwise abstract conversation
  • People frame and illustrate their thoughts with each other
  • Surfaces individual and shared assumptions
  • Images bridge differing context and cultures
  • Create new metaphors and shared images

  • Tangible images that can be reused in paper and digital forms
  • Get people out of their “stuck” perspectives
Arie De Geus, former Royal Dutch Shell strategist, observes that the average life span of a company is less than that of the average person. The reason, he believes, has to do with perception: People will not see that which is foreign to their experience or which calls forth unpleasant emotions. In business, this trait gets expressed as the corporate one-track mind: companies plan only one path into the future and then see only signals relevant to that path. Donna G., a team leader at Chemstar, talks about getting stuck in a rut that she calls “the same set of eyes”:
This company is famous for collecting more data. My team would collect the data and look at it with the same set of eyes all the time and ask the same questions and get the same answers. We learned to look at the same data in a different manner. Once we learned that, it opened up other avenues to looking at different sets of data that they wouldn’t even have considered before.

Example: Movie Making as a future scenario technique
An effective imaging technique for exploring future scenarios is one we call movie-making. The “movie” made is a wall-sized collage of images and words that tell an imaginative story about where an organization might be headed, or how certain challenges might worsen or resolve “once upon a time in a place not too far from here.” Movie-making produces searching dialogue in a group faced with a complex challenge.
A movie in this case is fiction with important truths embedded. Each movie explores its theme in an imaginitive, fictive way, yet capturing true ideas and valuable intuitions for further dialogue and testing.
Typically when we work with a group, one or several themes in their challenge become apparent over the course of our discussions. For a movie-making exercise, we lay out the themes, split the group into sub-groups of 4-8 people, and give each sub-group a theme (or have them select one) for their movie.
Visual Explorer can first be used as a lead-in to the movie-making exercise, to help determine the themes of the movies. Groups might explore one or several framing questions in a VE dialogue, such as: What are the big trends that will determine our future? What are we missing or overlooking or forgetting as we try to see the future? What might this organization be like in 10 years?
From this initial VE session list and prioritize key themes that will influence the future of the organization. Use these to plot the movies.
Long wide paper for each group (roughly 3 meters long; 1 meter high)
Scissors, tape, glue sticks
Magazines, variety, lots of images or graphics
Set of Visual Explorer images
Pens, pencils, paints
Each sub-group combine words and images on a roll of white paper to create a “movie.” Use some words but mostly images and illustrations, in a narrative sequence over time, moving from left to right. You may re-use the VE images from the theming exercise.
Your movie should have three parts to the plot: First: “Once upon a time, there was an organization something like us … Second: Then one day something happened, a catastrophe, an invention, a revolution, or … Third: This is how it all turned out, for better or worse.”
Show the movie to the rest of the group. Then, use it as a springboard for dialogue exploring your theme.
Use large amounts of white paper—doublewide, 3 meters long.
If you get stuck creating a plot, start arranging images on the roll of paper. Play with the visual ideas, and the pieces of paper, and explain it all later. (This is the technique of collage; see also collide and stick.)
If you have conflict as you wrestle with the content of the movie, then invent characters to represent the different ideas and put them ALL in the movie. Let the characters work out your conflict.
\Movies need not be about probable events. In fact, we find that the process works best when the group is instructed to build the plot around something “unexpected or even catastrophic.” These days it is probable that something unexpected will happen.
In debriefing the movie, ensure that the period from “and then one day…” is explored carefully so the movie doesn’t simply jump from the stuck point to “…and they all lived happily ever after.” Ask: What practical, new processes and events occurred that contributed to our progress from being stuck to finding a meaningful outcome?
Robin W., a VP of software development, explains how she used movie-making with a large, diverse group of people:
I used movie making to explore a critical issue facing our division. All the attendees at the meeting are leaders of functional groups. Some are my direct reports; the rest are supervisors who report to my direct reports. I created two groups of four each…. We covered the walls with big, white rolls of paper. I also provided images from magazines, markers, ribbon, glue sticks, stickers, string, and other craft stuff. I instructed them to work fast and make their movies "as provocative as hell." And they did!
One group created a "movie" that went something like this: Once upon a time there are four friends who work at a computer software company which looks like … this … then one day, December 31, 1999 to be exact, they commit the perfect crime. They break into the company directory and payroll system and change all the employee titles and salaries. Boss becomes Subordinate, and all Subordinates become Bosses. This creates an interesting series of situations … in which everyone sees issues and problems from a totally different perspective, and they are better able to solve problems because of these new perspectives. The closing frame is the words "Live the Dream."
This movie stimulated a powerful dialogue on these points:
· The need to see issues from more than one perspective;
· The importance of acknowledging the perspective of corporate management;
· The importance of acknowledging our clients' needs;
· The importance of acknowledging our staffs' needs and balancing them with what our clients need;
· The need to "shield" our clients from our internal problems and issues;
· The need to help staff see their clients' perspectives;
· The need to improve communication of needs and expectations.

When making movies within organizations, keep a few things to keep in mind.
Group Hesitancy. Before the process begins people might be concerned that movie-making will be too “touchy-feely.” These concerns almost always fade during the dialogue, as real business issues get explored in depth and detail. In fact, increased “touch” and “feel” about complex issues are a key objective of the exercise.
Opposition Within a Group. Having something in the middle of the group—the movies—allows opposing ideas a common focus. The dialogue that follows the making of the movies is the real point of this exercise. If groups experience conflict as they make the movie, suggest they craft their conflict into opposing characters, put them into the movie, and see how it comes out.
Analytical Overdrive. When groups start designing movies, their conversation often begins in abstractions and analysis. You can facilitate the imaging process by encouraging them to go up to the wall and physically start sketching out the ideas. At the wall, people usually becomes more intuitive, imaginative, and playful.
Valuable Metaphors. Metaphors created in these movies usually contain insights about the state of the organization, where its headed, and the means to get there. Your group can take away these metaphors and use them to craft and communicate your mission, vision, and values.
Unpolished Drafts. Keep in mind that movies are more like unpolished drafts than finished scripts. They tend to be non-linear and less integrated than a traditional story. These qualities are actually helpful to the ensuing dialogue since they invite revision and further “what ifs.”
Finish with Convergence. Harvest the best ideas. Plan next steps and responsibilities.

Additional Resources:
de Geus, A. “Strategy and Learning,” Reflections, 1(1), 1999.
Mieszkowski, K. “Wild Cards: Report from the Futurist.” Fast Company, issues 13, p. 30. February, 1998.
Palus, C.J., & D.M. Horth. The Leader's Edge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
Peterson, J.L. Out of the Blue: How to Anticipate Big Future Surprises. The Arlington Institute. 1997.
Schwartz, P. The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1991.
van der Heijden, K. Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

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Application: Facing complex challenges & action learning

Complex challenges sprawl in many directions, across many territories. Its hard to see them clearly, and yet it requires many perspectives to see it at all. Too often, technical fixes are applied, ineffectively, before the problem is seen and understood in its totality as well as its detail. Visual Explorer in this context is a tool for paying careful attention to the task or challenge, from many perspectives, including intuitive and emotional apprehension. VE is thus especially useful at the front end of an action learning process, as the challenge is first discovered and explored, and a vision for solution is first established.


  • Paying careful attention to details and to big pictures
  • Surfaces individual and shared assumptions
  • Images bridge differing context and cultures
  • Create new metaphors and shared images
  • Playful exploration as a way to get unstuck
  • Calling forth artistry
  • Shared understanding about the issue that can help in establishing a vision, making decisions, creating action steps, and picturing impacts.
  • Surface, engage, and transcend emotional undercurrents

Background: Various kinds of “tiger teams” or action learning teams are formed to grapple with big, sprawling, complex issues or challenges. The leader, and the coach, of such teams is in a position to shift the way a group pays attention to the challenge, and VE can be an effective tool for enabling such shifts.

The coach or leader may suggest a process for engaging the challenge such that maximum input and divergence of views is sought up front. Instructions for a typical VE session apply, with additional emphasis being put on capturing and re-using key insights from the VE session in crafting a long-term solution to the challenge. For example, a session might frame three questions: What does this challenge look and feel like to us now?, and What will a sustainable solution to this challenge look like in the future? And, What will getting from now to the future look like?

: Verizon formed high-potential director-level managers into action learning teams. Each team focused for eight weeks on a complex challenge of their own selection. At the start of this process team members used Visual Explorer to explore their own complex challenge and relate it to those of their peers. In this way the shared aspects of their individual challenges would emerge to become the focus of the action learning teams.

Managers were asked to browse the VE images (all laid face up in the hallway) and select two: one which “stands for, literally, or metaphorically, or emotionally, or intuitively, the way your challenge is now,” and one which stands for “what the path forward with your challenge might be like.”

Participants then gathered in groups of 4-5 to have a dialogue about their challenges, using the images as mediating objects. A volunteer went first and started by describing her first image in detail: What is the image? What are the details? What is mysterious or surprising? And so on. Then that person described the challenge (and not until then), and how it connects with the image. This same volunteer did the same for her second image. Then each person in the group responded to the images the volunteer had just described, first describing what they see in the image—especially if what they see is any different from what the volunteer has just described. Then the respondent made his own connections to the challenge the volunteer has described, using language roughly in the form, “If that were my image, I would connect it to your challenge like this … What I notice in that image, and the associations I have are … .” Overt problem solving, advice, and criticism were not allowed. Finally, the originator of the image “took back” the image by sharing any new insights she thus gained. The process proceeded by each person thus volunteering to place his or her images and challenges likewise in the middle of the dialogue.

The results of this exercise were positive. Comments afterward included:

  • “Before we started I was doubtful about the pictures, but then we were able to talk about our challenges in depth.”
  • “We came up with some metaphors we otherwise would not have. It seemed easy to tell stories to go with the images.”
  • “People in our group tended to see very different things in the same image—and that was okay.”
  • “It was fun. We laughed. The connections we made led to a lot of puns and jokes.”
For example, one participant’s initial challenge is pictured in the image of a houseraising at the top of this post.
This shows the building of a traditional brick structure – not flexible; people working at individual tasks; no collaboration. It has a static feel, with little or no movement. This represents our current environment – traditional products presented in “product centric” way, a standardized approach.

The way forward she represented with these sky divers:

“Taking flight” into the air, with freedom, and a strong sense of movement. Physical touching represents a collaborative approach. There is a feeling of excitement and apprehensive – and tension. This represents a non-standard approach to our largest customers – a requirement for flexibility, but based on strong training, skills, and expertise. We need to build these skills in the organization.


Application: Change leadership & culture transformation

Many organizations are trying to make fundamental changes, even to the point of transforming their culture. Such change requires leadership as well as management and VE, because of its ability to support dialogue in the face of complex challenges, is a useful tool for change leadership. The Change Handbook, 2nd Ed.(2007) lists Visual Explorer among 60 effective methods and tools for whole-system change.

>>see also the Culture Development Cycle


  • Asking new questions / Imagining alternatives / Building on ideas
  • Fun and playful, yet at the same time serious dialogue
  • Clarify and communicate mission, vision, and values
  • Paying careful attention to details and to big pictures
  • Surfaces individual and shared assumptions
  • Create new metaphors and shared images
  • Sharing of perspectives about an issue in a way that leads to synthesis and the construction of new perspectives
  • Mutual understanding of emotions, intuitions, and tacit knowledge that might otherwise be left unspoken and unillustrated
  • Self-disclosure and vulnerability in a safe context.
  • Tapping into personal experiences and passions
  • Get people out of their “stuck” perspectives


An important part of change leadership in large systems is what we call “taking it to the middle.” Taking it to the middle means engaging leaders across all parts of the organization, with special attention to what Barry Oshry calls middle integration. Often this requires getting “the whole system” in a single room, and engaging diverse perspectives, while striving for shared direction, effective alignment, and common commitments.


The use of VE in change leadership and large-scale culture transformation requires substantial preparation and experience. VE is merely a tool in such contexts, always used as a part of a larger leadership strategy and extensive tool kit. The use of VE in change contexts should generally follow the steps taken for creating dialogue, but adapted for large groups, across many gatherings.


A Hospital in Kinston North Carolina practices change leadership in support of transforming the organizational culture. A multi-day whole system retreat was held with the senior leadership team and broad and deep representation of middle management. The purpose of the retreat was to “take it to the middle”—for senior management to fully engage the middle and the whole of the organization in leading change amidst significant challenges.

On the 2nd day of the retreat an Open Space Forum (per Harrison Owen) was run, in which the 40 or so attendees clustered into groups around 10 self-nominated issues. For example one issue was “becoming the employer of choice in our community.” After some initial discussion of the topic, each of the groups then did a VE session. Everyone was given several broad options for framing questions as they selected an image: What’s most puzzling or troubling about this issue? What does it look like to you? Or simply, What stands out? Each participant completed a worksheet in which he or she stated the issue, reflected on the framing questions, and then after picking an image, described the image and its connection to the issue. After the VE session, each group continued its open space conversations by writing up insights and action steps. The VE sessions proved helpful in coalescing these insights across sometimes conflicting perspectives.

Afterwards, a slide show was distributed that combined key words from the participants overlaid on the VE images they chose. Flip charts of insights and steps that each group produced were photographed and included in the slide show. At the top and bottom of this post are two images from a group who talked about “becoming the employer of choice in our community.”


Introduction to Visual Explorer

Charles J. Palus
David Magellan Horth
Center for Creative Leadership

>>view an intro slide show

Visual Explorer: A Pictorial Introduction

Visual Explorer (VE) is a tool for groups seeking to explore complex topics. It’s a way to make sense of complexity as the foundation of effective action. Visual Explorer is based on the insight that visual images can enhance thinking, relating, meaning-making, and communicating. Our own research has demonstrated the power of putting visual images in the middle of difficult conversations, as a way to create dialogue, and as a way to make shared sense of complex challenges.

The VE tool itself is a set of several hundred images, chosen for their ability to support constructive conversations in a wide variety of situations. The images are deliberately diverse and global in subject, context, and aesthetics, sampling the spectra of the human condition. Subjects range from food to space travel, from birth to death, from organization to complexity and chaos. The images invite examination—they are visually interesting in some way; and they invite connection—they carry ideas and relationships.

Visual Explorer is based on research at CCL done as part of the Leading Creatively Project. Insights from that project, and the deeper context for VE, are available in the book The Leader’s Edge (Palus & Horth, 2002). This research identified six creative leadership competencies—paying attention, personalizing, imaging, serious play, collaborative inquiry, and crafting—essential for facing and solving complex challenges. Thus Visual Explorer is a tool to enhance the whole suite of these competencies—for example, paying attention in service of inquiry—and to do creative, collective, effective work. A variety of articles are available that explore aspects of the theory and practice of what we generally refer to as mediated dialogue—putting images and artifacts in the middle of conversations and deeper dialogues (Palus & Drath, 2001).

In general VE is helpful in:
  • Seeking patterns in complex issues and making connections
  • Seeking a variety of perspectives
  • Asking new questions
  • Eliciting stories and creating metaphors
  • Tapping into personal experiences and passions
  • Articulating what has been unspoken
  • Relating with each other through dialogue
What Does Visual Explorer Do?

The underlying objective in using VE is for group members to collectively explore a complex topic from a variety of perspectives. The goal is typically to build shared understanding and prepare for taking more effective action. VE is thus just one part of a larger process of addressing a challenge. It doesn’t by itself create decisions or actions, but rather helps groups understand the context and the perspectives that surround the decisions. One of the strengths of the tool is its versatility. Although its original applications were with groups of managers and leaders in organizational settings, it has also been effectively used in a wide variety of settings, for example in education (K – adult), marketing focus groups, and in one on one coaching.

This leads to several key points about what VE is, and what it is not.
  • VE is not in itself a “team exercise,” game, or simulation. There is no single right way to use it. Rather it is a flexible tool most often used to facilitate (not replace) a good conversation.
  • Much of the power of the tool lies in the images themselves, and the ways they support the projection and construction of meaning. The images in the VE set evoke human experience on a variety of dimensions, including cultural and other dimension of diversity, nature, design, emotions, systems, aesthetics, and so on. Thus the VE tool can be adapted (as experience has shown) to help people engage in settings across a variety of human experiences.
  • VE does not typically require a trained facilitator. It is often self-facilitated by a leader or member of a team. Of course most situations can benefit from prior experience and skill at facilitation. VE is somewhat self-correcting and forgiving, such that the default process tends to be a positive one—a good conversation supported by meaningful imagery.


Frequently asked questions

Who can conduct a Visual Explorer session? Will I be able to conduct the VE session by myself? What if I lack experience?

VE does not typically require a trained facilitator. It is often self-facilitated by a leader or member of a team. Of course most situations can benefit from prior experience and skill at facilitation. VE is somewhat self-correcting and forgiving, such that the default process tends to be a positive one—a good conversation supported by meaningful imagery.
The VE facilitator’s job is simple and unobtrusive: to support dialogue among the group. It usually requires only a beginner’s level of facilitation skill. He or she can even participate as a member of the group. To run a VE session is necessary to understand the five general steps in the context of your own situation.
Beyond that the facilitator need only make sure to have any special skills that match the purpose of the VE session. For example, to conduct strategic planning the group needs a facilitator with some experience in leading a strategic planning session. Situations that may lead to conflict need a facilitator who can handle conflict. Experienced change agents are needed when VE is used in a long-term change initiative, and so on.
Does Visual Explorer really work?
VE is effective in a wide variety of situations in part because it’s so simple. It doesn’t get in the way of the group’s conversations or perspective seeking. But its unobtrusiveness and simplicity can be misleading. A dose of skepticism is to be expected and can even prove useful in any process that seeks, as a VE session does, to question assumptions. As long as the group’s selected topic is relevant and carries a sense of urgency, so that the dialogue is about things that matter most, almost every participant experiences some value from taking part in the VE process.
What do you tell participants when setting up the exercise?
Address the two main questions the group will have: “Why are we doing this activity?” And, “What are the instructions?”
Why are we doing this activity? It is best to say this simply and not over-explain or over-sell the process. For example “We are doing this to have an open and honest conversation about (the topic). We want to explore (these questions).” For groups that are skeptical of VE it is best to give a brief, clear rationale based on addressing some shared issue, with VE as merely one tool for looking at the issue. Don’t position VE as some kind of magic bullet.
What are the instructions? These vary according to the group and the specific application. Specific instructions and options are given in the User’s Guide, but must be adapted to the context.
What do you tell people who are skeptical of the value of VE?
For groups that are skeptical of VE it is best to give a brief, clear rationale based on addressing some shared issue, with VE as merely one tool for looking at the issue. Don’t position VE as some kind of magic bullet.
Is VE a game, or is it a simulation?
VE is not a “team exercise,” game, or simulation. There is no single right way to use it. Rather it is a flexible tool most often used to facilitate (not replace) a good conversation.
I work with engineers and scientists. They don’t like this touchy feely stuff. How will VE work with them?

Scientists using VE have often recognized this combined effect of image, intuition, and metaphor as related to scientific creativity. People naturally think in pictures. Images are the meeting place of art and science. Once again, it is usually the depth of dialogue achieved in VE that convinces people of the value.

I work with executives. They don’t like this touchy feely stuff. How will VE work with them?
VE in fact has a serious feel to it. It is not an exercise but rather adapts well to the purposes at hand. Executives don’t like it if it distracts them from their real work. They like it when it helps them grasp their challenges and create new options. Once again, it is usually the depth of dialogue achieved in VE that convinces people of the value
Can we do this faster?
Do not shortcut the sharing of images during the VE session if dialogue is the goal. Paying careful attention to each others’ (and one’s own) images is important for getting past the “surface” (literally as well as interpersonally). Likewise, several of the options suggested in the instructions—provocative framing questions, journaling, music, no talking during image selection, re-using the images—are meant to lead to a more powerful dialogue.


April 28, 2007

Examples of Visual Explorer applications

Here are three cases that illustrate how VE is used.

Verizon leadership development

We used the VE tool with a group of high-potential employees at Verizon who were about to step into the executive ranks. They were invited to a leadership workshop to address a critical challenge the company faced: how to accelerate the cycle time for developing and introducing new products to the market. We asked each of the participants to choose an image that in some way provided a metaphor for the issues they were wrestling with in their part of the organization.

Our specific instructions to them were to “select an image that in some way speaks to you about your own challenge as a leader and manager. If you can’t find an image that seems to fit, perhaps there’s an image that you’re drawn to or perhaps is picking you.”

With the images selected, we began a dialogue about them in small groups, allowing each person to gain insights about his or her own challenge from the observations and interpretations of others. Used the same images they had just used, we had them explore the connection of their own challenges to the overarching challenge of time-to-market. With that group and others, a critical step in sharing the images and developing meaningful dialogue around them requires that as people share their observations of a picture not selected by them, they must take temporary ownership of it—as if
they had selected the picture and “own” the challenge described by the person who selected it. The facilitation language we use includes such statements as, “If this were my picture, I would notice….” Or, “The connection I would make is….” We encourage the participants in the dialogue to always stay in the first person, using “I, me, my” language. That enables the person who originally selected the picture to remain engaged, yet detached from the image and the thoughts, knowledge, and experiences it represents, while new perspectives and ideas are offered by others.

With the aid of Compendium, a computer- based dialogue facilitation tool developed by Verizon, NASA, and the Open University, we convened the broader group to explore and reframe the time-to-market
challenge into the specific strategy development, alignment, and execution issues the company faced in its turbulent business environment. The images formed a touchstone for rapid recall and continuing dialogue about a strategy model the team developed. An image of two viaducts winding into the distance was used to convey the team’s high-potential, collective thoughts on strategy. One image of a massive number of bicycles of the same model and another of a large old tree with a complex root system were used to convey the group’s thoughts about strategic alignment. An image of a complex clover-leaf road system was used to capture their thoughts about maintaining strategic alignment.

The model the team developed and the pictures they selected were presented to a senior executive who visited the workshop, serving as a multi-dimensional tool for facilitating a deep and meaningful dialogue about the role of the senior executive and the workshop participants in developing and implementing emergent product strategies. In that way, not only had the group of high-potential executives developed a model for thinking about the original challenge, they had developed their strategic thinking capabilities in a way that helped them effectively engage with a senior executive whose main role was strategy development. The process enabled the participants to make a useful contribution to the strategy development process for the organization and to develop a clearer handle on their own role in its development and execution.
See also:

Exploration for Development: Developing Leadership by Making Shared Sense of Complex Challenges
Consulting Psychology Journal, 55 (1), 26-40
Charles J. Palus, David Horth, Mary Lynn Pully, and Albert M. Selvin

Sensemaking Techniques in Support of Leadership Development
Knowledge Management, 7(1)
Inside Knowledge Magazine
Albert M. Selvin and Charles J. Palus

An insurance firm

A large, U.S.-based insurance and financial institution has been using Visual Explorer as a tool for teambuilding within work groups. Katie Davis, a consultant and trainer with the company, has found that visual images are a great tool for building trust and alignment when teams come together to resolve problems and tackle opportunities. “It’s not unusual for individuals in a workgroup– even those that have been together for a long time–to be ill-at-ease with each other,” says Davis. “Using photos and images brings safety. You’re not talking about me. Instead, you’re talking about a picture. That’s safer for folks and inspires confidence.” Photos can also level the playing field and give everyone a voice, Davis points out. “When you have a discussion in a group, typically there are the people who jump in and dominate and there are the people you never hear from,” says Davis. “Using this format creates the expectation that everyone will share.”

says images are also useful to help teams define and develop a shared understanding of a concept. She likes to ask members of a group to select a picture that represents a quality of their dream team—transferring the characteristics that people describe on paper and then hanging the papers on the wall. “We then distill those and get down to the five or six core values that are held by the team,” she says. “It’s also a powerful tool to help define what a word such as honesty means and to build a common understanding.”

points to one work group that used images to define what accountability meant to them. Participants prepared a summary of their session, as Davis asked each team to do, and came back to the information time and time again as they addressed real-world challenges. They began to call each other on not living up to the principles they established as a team and to use their shared experience to resolve business issues. They also agreed to share accountability and take on more work so that the company could save money by not filling an open position in their work group. “Nothing I could’ve done with them could have gotten them to that point without the image tool,” Davis says.

The Leadership for a Changing World initiative at New York University

>>more about visual tools for social change at Social change leadership

Sonia Ospina, a professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, has used visual images successfully in her classes and seminars and in her work with the Leadership for a Changing World program—a partnership of the Ford Foundation, the Advocacy Institute, and the Wagner School that is designed to recognize and support outstanding leaders in not-for-profit organizations.

“The Leadership for a Changing World initiative brings together community leaders from across the United States four times a year to share their experiences in grassroots organizations and to learn from each other,” says Ospina. “We used Visual Explorer in an introductory session when we brought our first group together, serving as a way to start a conversation among the participants about their work and to express something important about their community leadership–who they are and what’s important to them. I found that it helped us move well beyond a traditional introduction and brought much more substance to our dialogue.”

Ospina has also used the tool as an icebreaker in her classes at NYU, asking students to pick an image to help them introduce themselves and the work they do. She has used it in large plenary sessions to draw out common themes. She has found that the approach transcends cultural barriers. “I used images in a workshop for individuals involved in the social services delivery system in Ecuador,” she says. “I found that it was very cross-cultural in its impact, and the participants loved the idea of choosing among the various possibilities. It allowed them to jump deeper, faster. By the end of the exercise, people learned about each other in a way that made them feel they really knew each other more.”


Application: Enabling dialogue & skilled conversations

Dialogue is a kind of skilled conversation that invites shared meaning making, and deeper inquiry. Visual Explorer is a tool for putting images in the middle of a dialogue as a way of surfacing and exploring assumptions and perspectives.

The benefits of Visual Explorer in creating more effective dialogue include:
  • Asking new questions
  • Imagining alternatives
  • Building on ideas
  • Fun and playful, yet at the same time serious dialogue
  • Tapping into personal experiences and passions
  • Paying careful attention to details and to big pictures
  • Surfaces individual and shared assumptions
  • Images bridge differing context and cultures
  • Create new metaphors and shared images
  • Make conversations both artful and analytical


It can be difficult, but rewarding, to practice dialogue—to slow down and reflect with each other, and create shared understanding in the midst of action (Kahane, 2004). We have found that an effective avenue to dialogue is “putting something in the middle”—in other words, using tangible objects (e.g., artifacts, prototypes, images) as way to focus attention and reflection. This broader principal of the mediatiation of dialogue by sensible, meaningful objects is called mediated dialogue
(Palus & Drath, 2001).

VE supports dialogue by providing a safe and reliable way for people to “project” their emotions, intuitions, opinions, insights, and hunches. Talking about the image, and thus the projections and the ideas, is somehow safer and easier than a purely verbal statement of one's thoughts. Putting an opinion "out there" onto the image helps take it as an object, to be held and examined.


The instructions for a typical session apply, but several cautions are in order if deeper dialogue is the goal:

• A skilled facilitator of dialogue is necessary if the conditions are difficult or risky. Prior experience with VE is helpful.

• Dialogue is a process over time that can’t be limited to an hour-long session. What happens before and after the VE session will determine the quality of the longer term relationships. A basic level of trust must be present (although a VE session sometimes increases trust.) Often VE is merely the lead-in experience, or practice field, to enable deeper levels of dialogue. Subsequent activities can be designed to aid this deepening.

• Do not shortcut the sharing of images during the VE session if dialogue is the goal. Paying careful attention to each others’ (and one’s own) images is important for getting past the “surface” (literally as well as interpersonally). Likewise, several of the options suggested in the instructions—provocative framing questions, journaling, music, no talking during image selection, re-using the images—are meant to lead to a more powerful dialogue.

• Be aware that VE can surface strong emotions, and powerful insights. The facilitator should allow for enough time, a safe space, and adequate exploration and follow-up, to do justice to the powerful experience created for at least some of the participants.

Here are several examples of dialogue facilitated with Visual Explorer at various levels of depth.


April 01, 2007

VE2 Images

Here's a sampling of the next generation VE images.
Click here for a browser for the full set.