Have You Ever Been Lost? Guiding Graphics Help Navigate Complexity and Uncertainty

Man stepping on guiding graphic that enables somone to Communicate with FINESSE
Guiding graphics are important for longer-term problems involving complexity and uncertainty.

Making decisions in situations with high levels of complexity and uncertainty is iterative. The decision maker must understand the process and inter-relationships associated with the various components if communication is to be effective. In practice, a guiding graphic is needed to demonstrate the iterative nature of the work and the progress. The benefits of this type of graphic on smaller and less complex projects should not be overlooked.

Management consultants and graphic artists have made a farce of guiding graphics.

Technical communicators should remember to avoid what Edward Tufte calls chartjunk--visual images with no meaning and graphics that distract from the underlying data and information. Avoid at all costs depictions of circular processes, overlapping circles, and boxes and triangles that nest in multiple dimensions without going anywhere. The internet and sales material are full of examples. The useless graphics are developed by people without much technical depth and who are usually selling shiny objects.

The guiding graphic that should be associated with the communication of a technical project should depict a logical flow and at least some primary endpoint. Above all, decision makers need to know that the process of addressing a complex problem is moving toward some type of finality. The visual feel should be more of a bubble diagram rather than a flow chart primarily because it should produce a feeling of warmth and confidence in the process rather than require a deep and time-consuming technical understanding by the decision makers. Connecting lines should be minimized since we look for general flow and not technical precision. If there is a potential graphic where the colors can be somewhat overdone, it is the guiding graphic.

The guiding graphic should also include points or references to specific milestones where decision makers will be involved. Decision makers, with few exceptions, care little about how the technical “sausage” is made or about the details of how hard the technical analysts are working. They care when and where their input is needed and what kind of decisions will be required at those milestones. In short, the guiding graphic is most about them. The guiding graphic is not about the data and information either. And it is certainly not about you as the technical professional or the corporate marking person helping you put together the slides.


The illustration "Step, Step, Leap!" and excerpts from this article are taken from JD Solomon's book, “Communicating Reliability, Risk and Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand.” The second edition will be released in June 2022. Sign-up for updates at Communicating with FINESSE.