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Letters to a Young Manager

Draw a Picture, #3
LTYM > Strategy

Dear Adam,
I could feel the challenges you are facing from the senior management team in your last letter. Getting the assignment to develop and present a new strategic plan for technology is a big deal. Getting beyond the day-to-day issues and thinking about the long-view is even bigger. You can do it!

Where does my confidence come from? This story reaches back to school again but states a simple truth for solving even the biggest problems.

Eleventh grade math in the New York school system was trigonometry: angles, sines, cosines and tangents. Carol Heitner was our teacher. A short woman with short hair and a short temper. If you talked in her class, you were the target of an eraser flung with amazing speed. She was a good shot. The chalk dust cloud that hung in the air emphasized the point.

Mrs. Heitner gave weekly quizzes every Friday. The thing about her tests was that they were not just about what we learned that week, but could cover anything from the beginning of the year. As the year wore on, we became trig mavens. Starting in the late spring, we took old Regents exams --the NY State finals-- for practice. By June we had taken a dozen Regents exams. We didn't just know the stuff; we dreamed it.

One of things she taught us was to frame the problem by drawing a picture. Whether is was on the blackboard or a on piece of paper one-on-one, she would always tackle the problem by drawing a graph, a figure or train track with the two trains leaving at different speeds. Near the end of my freshman year at college, I was struggling with calculus. So I went to see her in the middle of May, just before finals. I wrote out a differential problem that was bothering me. She smacked my arm, admonishing me to "draw a picture!"

Each year, Mrs. Heitner's classes had the highest Regent's average. She was proud of it. It was the one big test where I won all the marbles: scoring a 100 on the state-wide exam and a step closer to a Regents honors diploma. It didn't start that way on that designated day in June. After the exams were scored, she chided me for forgetting to label a graph correctly and losing 2 points from a perfect score. I protested, "But I did add the label!" She went back and looked, and sure enough, I had completed the graph with all the notes required. The ninety-eight became a hundred.

I've long since forgotten the formulas of trigonometry, and the differential equations of calculus have dropped off the horizon, but I remember those words as if it were yesterday. "Draw a picture." There is something about making a picture, without the words and numbers yet, that appeals to another part of the brain. It's a wonderful way to get out of the usual boxes, achieve breakthroughs in thinking, and solve problems. More importantly, it can be the key to strategic thinking: draw a circle that represents all the things you are about as a company, fill in the circles with some drawings or icons to represent these things. Draw another circle that represents all the things you will become. And another for the things you are not. Now talk about the drawing and add some words. Get the picture?!

Good luck and let me know what you draw :-)
Sincerely yours,


When it comes to strategy, a picture is worth a thousand words

Discussion Questions:

1) Can you draw a one-page picture to represent your company's or department's strategy?
2) Meet with a small group to discuss your strategy ideas. Ask a member of the group to draw a mind-map of the discussion. Does this help?

For Further Reading:

See "Draw Another Picture," Letter #46

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