The superior power of approximation


I’ve been interested, tangentially, for a while with the rapidly developing discipline of data visualization. I think my interest has been piqued mostly by the cleverness and beauty of the graphics that are generated to express what matters in a mountain of data.

There are so many variants on the form, and more developing daily. I have seen samples that are just great graphics in the Edward Tufte discipline, great interactive and interactively dynamic models, data-based furniture, and even architecture. All of them provide enough fascination to not only get interested in what is represented, but also to dig into the discipline and to become immersed in the art.

As my interest increased, I also realized that I was beginning to learn new things. And as I reviewed these graphic representations, I began to inform my own business discipline, motivate my own actions, and use data forms more in my work with my clients.

But what was most interesting was the feeling my own actions and those of my clients accelerating as a result of the visualizations. That is, the representation of an idea, with the implications of data behind it, engaged discussion, built confidence, and moved action. Once again, the visualization was the motivator, not the data behind it. Sorry, one more time—the visual representation of data, even in the absence of specific data, was a powerful motivator of action in cases where conventional data representations, or no data, clogged the flow of decisions and action before.

I do not mean to imply in this a lack of discipline, a misrepresentation, a telling of untruths, disrespect for data, or lack of professionalism. Every time I approach a subject with a diagrammatic representation of “data,” I am doing it with care, transparency, and a deep interest in the intelligence that provides the insight that generates innovation.

But I am finding that, perhaps in the “Blink” sense, I know enough data to represent it without a table, spreadsheet or database behind it. I find that my clients are apparently seeking a way to see things in a different light, and a clever visually approximate representation of data that we mutually sense and understand is what is valuable to them.

In most cases, the visual representation of an approximation of relative values is the device that moves the team to action. In one recent meeting over very critical market strategy, I saw staff members feverishly paging through data binders while their leadership, discussing very simple diagrams I had prepared based on assumptions, were making decisions and selecting options to take to their board.

It appears that the most important thing in these tough times is to overcome inertia and to get moving. Once in motion, we can all correct our path by further investigation and analysis. Less may be more now, and an approximate visualization of an idea can inform strategy in the most powerful ways.

Postscript 3/22/9: a couple of related ideas?

To dig each other out of the current economic morass, a fundamental integration of the arts and business worlds is urgently needed.

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One thought on “The superior power of approximation

  1. Hello Jim,

    Thanks for the thought-full. Nice “associative and reinforcing” ah-ha’s for me. Thank you.

    I think we have some confluent threads between us. I enjoyed this piece…

    Like: “…overcome inertia and to get moving. Once in motion, we can all correct our path…” easiler to change course when moving tougher when staning still. Seems counterintutive but true. martial arts helps as analogy…. So physics. Momentum can be preserved even in 180 degree shift… makeing U-turn preseves a good deal of the momentum.

    Like a’lot: “..the visual (and multi-sensory if possible) representation of an approximation of relative values is the device that moves the team to action…”

    Take a peak at and

    There is nice synergy here.

    “Meaningful metrics”

    “After decades of being an evolutionary process of incremental improvements, design is now revolutionary”

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