How Visual Metaphors Are Powerful Tools for Change

This is one facilitator’s perspective on the power of a visual metaphor to help a group gain clarity during difficult change work.

Ariston and fellow ROOTS team member Carrie Brunk work on one of the illustration drafts during the retreat. Image: Shannon Turner, Alternate ROOTS.
Fellow ROOTS team member Carrie Brunk and Ariston work on one of the illustration drafts during the retreat. Image: John Shibley.

Editor’s note: John Shibley is an EmcArts process facilitator working with Alternate ROOTS in the Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies. In this post, he shares his own perspective on a recent moment where an artist’s creative process directly informed the group’s thinking around their challenge. Read the accompanying post from Ariston Jacks, the artist on Alternate ROOTS’s team and more about how organizations can learn from artists

Artistic practice as part of a team’s process

When putting together innovation teams for our Innovation Lab programs, EmcArts often asks the team leaders to consider including an artist. If I had to generalize, I’d say that artists on the teams I have worked with in these programs seem less inhibited by convention and doing “what they are supposed to do,” and find that the barriers we encounter throughout the Innovation Lab work are compelling stimulants to their creativity. Recently, I had the experience of observing an artist and team member exercising their artistry to the group’s clear benefit.

The artist I mention is Ariston Jacks, a member of Alternate ROOTS’s team in the Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies. Ariston is a visual artist — a painter and photographer. At one point during a meeting at our Innovation Lab retreat, one of the members quickly sketched a map of the ways that people participate in Alternate ROOTS, and the way those people are in relationship with another. It showed members, the organization’s Executive Committee, and the small task groups that were formally chartered, or arose spontaneously, to advance Alternate ROOTS’s mission. The team asked Ariston if he would create a more finished, polished version of this map, and a few hours later, he presented his work back to the group.

The final version of Alternate ROOTS's Luminaries Graph, which Ariston constructed in conjunction with the Innovation Lab team. Image: Alternate ROOTS/Ariston Jacks.
The final version of Alternate ROOTS’s Luminaries Graph, which Ariston constructed in conjunction with the Innovation Lab team. Image: Alternate ROOTS/Ariston Jacks.

What happened next was really interesting. Now that Ariston had made a more formal version of the map, team members began to see things in it that they had not before. The relationship between formal and informal groups, and their distance from the Executive Committee, seem to imply something important. By looking at the second version of this relationship map, it became apparent what was missing from the picture: staff. The group talked about how the map might be changed to more closely reflect the way that they understood the organizational and social dynamics, and all the while Ariston stood next to the sketch, listening.

The next day the group looked at Ariston’s next sketch, which incorporated the group’s comments from the previous day. The same kind of realizations happened again. Ariston’s updated map help the group further clarify how they understood the social dynamics of the organization, and he turned again to translating their impression into a graphic metaphor of these dynamics.

Click on the images below to see each of Ariston’s drafts of the organizational map, with the final version on the far right.

ROOTS-EMC 1 thumb ROOTS-EMC 2 thumb ROOTS-EMC 3 thumb ROOTS-EMC 4 thumb ROOTS-EMC 5 thumb

Artistic interpretation WITH, not TO, the group

For many decades I have watched “graphic facilitators” working to create pictures at meetings I’ve attended, and I cannot remember a single image that any graphic facilitator has created that has had any enduring explanatory power for me, or for anyone else attending the meetings. What happened in this group explains why. When graphic facilitators work, they apply their imagination to the content that the group is creating or encountering — they don’t actually facilitate anything. Instead, they create a very personal interpretation of what is occurring, and do not, as far as I have seen, test and refine this interpretation with the the group to see if it captures their understanding. Graphic facilitation always feels to me like something artists do TO groups.

By contrast, Ariston used his artistry to do something WITH the group, using his talent with color and design to help the group construct, through several drafts, a graphic metaphor that enabled them to explain something to themselves. He put his skills in the service of the group’s imagination, not his own.

Ariston had not previously heard of the term “graphic facilitator,” and I suggested to him that a more appropriate title for what he was doing was “convening illustration” — working with a team to build a picture of their understanding of something, and along the way helping them to refine that understanding through his art.

Read Ariston Jacks’s perspective on working with the Alternate ROOTS team here.

The full depiction of Alternate ROOTS's ideas and work from their Innovation Lab retreat, as illustrated by Ariston Jacks. Click to enlarge. Image: Alternate ROOTS.
The full depiction of Alternate ROOTS’s ideas and work from their Innovation Lab retreat, as illustrated by Ariston Jacks. Click to enlarge. Image: Alternate ROOTS.
About
John is a lead facilitator for EmcArts' Innovation Lab programs. John also leads EmcArts' effort to integrate systems thinking into community planning for adaptive change in the arts. He has more than 25 years of experience leading complex organizational improvement efforts in a variety of industries and settings.