This article is drawn from an interview with The Grove’s founder and president David Sibbet. He discusses visual facilitation and his recently-published VISUAL LEADERS: New Tools for Visioning, Management, & Organization Change, the third book in Sibbet’s three-part series on Visual Leadership.


GROVE: Congratulations on your book release! Can you say a word about the context for your writing Visual Leaders?

DS: I wrote this book for leaders and managers who want to raise their own and their organization’s visual IQ. Organizations and teams are increasingly working visually. Facilitative visual practices are cutting-edge for team-building, strategy formation, and implementation.

These ways of working spark innovation through applied design thinking. They create safe environments from which organizational change can emerge.

The Starting Point: Mental Models and Metaphors

GROVE: In Visual Leaders you emphasize metaphors and mental models as one of seven key tools for leaders. In fact, you call these “tool number one”. Can you elaborate on why?

DS: Visual Leaders includes a focus on being aware of your own thinking – what I call cognitive visualization – as well as learning how to enable people to work visually. Communicating as a leader is a lot about understanding mental models, the frames of reference that people use to make sense of complexity. Visual leaders who become aware of their own mental filters are more adept at communicating with their teams.

It is important to think through the metaphors that are commonly used in leaders’ communications. Metaphors don’t work if people haven’t had experience with them. That is the big challenge of cross-cultural communications: the experiences that have informed people are so different.

With images and metaphors, at times you get curious blindsides. For example, a team with a couple of football players on it may they think they can explain everything with football metaphors, while some in the group just raise their eyebrows quizzically whenever they hear anything to do with sports.

So be sure that whatever metaphor you choose is a good fit with your context and will be widely comprehended.

Visual Facilitation Practice: Many Facets

GROVE: How do you define the term visual facilitation, particularly in the context of working in organizations?

DS: “Visual facilitation” refers to the growing practice of using interactive visual methodologies to facilitate strategic planning, strategy implementation, team-building, group problem-solving, and the many types of group work. These strategies have long been used by designers, but only recently have been applied to group process in general.

The field of visual facilitation goes by many different names, such as: • visual practice • working interactively • graphic facilitation • process design • experience design • imagineering.

High-Impact Areas for Engaging Visual Processes

GROVE: Where do you see visual practice making the biggest impact in organizations?

DS: In my opinion, the power areas for using visualization in organizations are: getting clear on goals, making sense of data, and supporting implementation. These are areas in which people almost have to work visually to get really good results.

Four Areas Where Visualization Makes All the Difference

GROVE: Can you offer a few key take-aways about visual facilitation and organizational leadership?

DS: ONE: People need to respond to and play with new ideas to create real knowledge. Watching a slide presentation does not support that kind of learning. Working interactively with visualization does.

TWO: Visuals are a terrific support to decision-making at the commitment stage. A particularly useful tool is the decision funnel, which layers a number of activities so you move increasingly toward convergent thinking.

THREE: When it comes to implementation, there’s nothing like visual methods to help groups track progress over time. Placing some kind of project action plan in a highly visible area – displaying what is being done by when and by whom – is at the heart of process improvement for groups.

FOUR: The dialogue that occurs when you are using templates to explore your markets or your capabilities actually builds alignment among all of the leaders who co-construct the display. Then when they go out and tell the story, they’re telling the same story. This broadens the impact of visual facilitation beyond just the leaders who are physically present at the meeting.

At the Heart of Visual Practice: Design Thinking and Deep Listening

GROVE: Your career has drawn uniquely from your talents in art and journalism. Can you speak to how these two threads come together in your lifework of visual facilitative practice with organizations?

DS: I have been good at graphics all my life, and I have been doing visual facilitation for 35 years. My training as a reporter helps me listen for headlines, subheads, leads, and paragraphs.

On the West Coast, those of us who were professionalizing facilitation in the ’70s were inspired more by designers than psychologists. Design teams always work visually.

So the idea was with me from the beginning to create “studio time” where collaborating, getting together and making things up is the goal. Add disciplined graphic recording to applied design thinking and you get The Grove’s approach.

The act of writing down what people say is an important act of acknowledgment, as important as the content itself. People participate more vigorously when their input is acknowledged in this direct and visible way.

With most people, when they’re talking, there’s something that’s jumps out as a headline for what they’re trying to communicate about. With practice you begin to learn how to pull forward the key words, the main ideas that people are speaking to. Once on paper, the group as a whole can explore to find new patterns.

Visualization Leads to New Ways of Thinking

GROVE: Can you speak briefly about the relationship between visualization and cognition?

DS: The relationship between visualization and cognition is direct. The act of perceiving is an act of seeing patterns through the filters that we have available to us.

Much can be gained by learning to work like designers—using prototypes, interaction, and visualization throughout. There is tremendous subtlety in the challenge of visualizing something, especially systemic things such as end-to-end processes, scenarios, and infrastructures.

Actually, the activity of drawing is as much a process of thinking as it is of producing an artifact of that process. For me the hugely interesting thing is how these visual methods lead to fresh ways of thinking, creating the possibility of different responses.

To me that is the true magic of this whole way of working.

About David Sibbet’s Three-Volume Visual Leadership Series

A revolution is happening in data visualization, graphic design, visual facilitation, and cognitive science. The Visual Leadership Series can help you and your organization benefit from this in highly creative ways, even if you are someone who is not skilled in drawing and designing.

VISUAL LEADERS: New Tools for Visioning, Management, & Organization Change – Describes how to apply visual meetings and visual teams practices to your organization’s work. Seven essential tools for effective visual leadership are identified. The book includes visual frameworks and plans to help lead an organization through change, plus strategies for boosting your visual IQ.

VISUAL TEAMS: Graphic Tools for Commitment, Innovation, & High Performance – A highly illustrated primer for achieving results on any kind of team. It explores how a team can use visual meeting methods across the whole arc of its work, not only in meetings but also in between. The book also addresses the predictable challenges of creating and sustaining team performance, providing descriptions, cases, and practices that bring the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model® to life.

VISUAL MEETINGS: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity – Describes techniques that anyone can use to be visual, even people who aren’t skilled at drawing. It illustrates how to use graphic recording, sticky notes, and idea mapping in meetings, and is loaded with practical and detailed descriptions of how to conduct different visualization activities.

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