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Create Visuals for Your Work

The core purpose of what you do is the one thing that need not change.

I recently held a meeting for the sole purpose of creating a visualization for the project. This is a project that has been on-going to five years that I just took over and I was struggling to understand the relationships between the teams and the data flow between them. I suggested we have a call with one person from each team to outline this process, since no one person on the project understood it all.

During the meeting, I created a simple flow chart showing the flow of data. I did nothing fancy, just created a box for each team and arrows showing the flow. After about 15 minutes, we had a visual to illustrate the data dependencies each team had. Now I have a graphic to show that takes about 30 seconds to understand. Again, this project has been going on for five years with no one understanding this process until now.

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Abstract to Concrete

The reason graphics are so useful is because of how we interpret the world. We fundamentally observe the world around us and build concepts in our mind to represent them. In other words, we observe that which is concrete and derive the abstract from what we see.

Our mind is extremely powerful at creating concepts but communicating concepts are very difficult. Anyone who's ever read a text book on epistemology has experienced this difficulty. Communicating ideas, such as morality, is nearly impossible for us. Instead, what we do is concretize the concepts by putting them into other mediums such as stories. Complex emotions are easier communicated by music than by explanations.

Once we have concretized the concepts, meaning we have converted the abstract idea into a tangible form that can be shared, we can repeat the cycle. We can observe the now concrete concept and derive even more abstract theories from our observations. As an example, we can conceive the idea of a hero and create a story to communicate what a hero is. Then, as we communicate the idea of the hero, we can observe the story and begin to conceive of more complex ideas such as the anti-hero.

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Concretize Your Work

For the past five years, everyone on the project had been attempting to hold the abstract idea of data pathways in their head and were struggling to build upon that idea. In a brief 15 minutes, I was able to concretize the abstract idea by building a visualization for it. I turned the abstract concept into a flow chart, which is to say something tangible that we can all observe and understand. Instantly we were all able to grasp the data flow which allowed us to answer a question that we had previously not been able to do.

This is the reason charts are as effective as they are. You are perfectly capable of reading through every line of data but having it both consolidated and visualized will lead you to immediately understanding it. Charts and graphs concretize the abstract concept which is the relationship between the values you are analyzing.

Organization charts are the same way. I can understand that work for a CEO and that they have others below them. However it's difficult to draw more conclusions that understanding my chain of command. When I see the concretized visualization of an organization chart, I can quickly see the relationship between my chain of command and that of another employee. I am able to draw more complex conclusions such as my next career goals.

Be Silly With It

I have visualizations for things that are absolutely ridiculous. I have Venn Diagrams showing the relationship between a total of 7 items. I have charts for how many emails I send vs receive. I have pie charts showing who I get IMs from during my work day. These serve no direct purpose for my job duties but viewing them gives me a better understanding of my work.

One benefit is that you can create a visualization and, once seen, never look at it again. Unless the data behind it changes, you usually just need to create it and see it once because your mind will remember a concrete observation much better than an abstract idea.

You may also stumble upon new conclusions that you wouldn't have otherwise thought of. Perhaps you feel overwhelmed at work because you have too many meetings. Maybe you create a visualization for it, not expecting anything. I did this and found that I didn't have too many meetings at all. The problem was that at the top of the hour, when I would typically jump from one meeting to another, is when I would receive the most emails and IMs. My problem had nothing to do with the number of meetings and everything to do with the fact that the transition from one meeting to a next was the most hectic part of my day. This led me to be mentally un-prepared for the upcoming meetings as well as prevented me from closing out whatever tasks I was working on in the meeting I just left. Rather than smoothly moving from one meeting to the next, I was overwhelmed by a handful of poorly timed messages. That is much easier to manage.

You never know what benefit visualization can provide for you but if I can leave you with one thought: If something is important enough to think about, try making it concrete and observing what you made. You might find that you draw conclusions about it much faster.

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