Better Ideas, Faster: The Role of Visual Thinking in Internal Consulting

Are you an internal consultant? Whether or not you use the title, if you work on strategic projects that help guide your organization, chances are you are exercising many of the skills of an internal consultant. Visual thinking can be an important addition to this toolset.


What Does an Internal Consultant Do?

Much like an external consultant, an internal consultant works in an advisory capacity with teams. They create strategic vision and planning, lead change, improve the performance of the company, and tackle major initiatives. Internal consultants bring the same specialized management consulting expertise as external consultants, but with added organizational knowledge and expertise.

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While internal consultants have some advantages, they also face challenges. These include trying to wrangle lots of information and inputs from their colleagues, managing diverse expectations, constructing a shared vision, and gaining the trust of the teams they work with. Additionally, internal consultants must help define roles and accountability, and coordinate the efforts of different teams. And importantly, they make sure to disengage from a project or initiative at the right point—not too early, but not too late.

At this year’s AIMC Conference, ThoughtForm principal Norm Goldberg presented the value of visual thinking for internal consultants.


Why Visual Thinking?

Visual thinking is a valuable tool for solving problems because it helps teams uncover insights, reach alignment, and get buy-in from key stakeholders more quickly.

If you’re not familiar with visual thinking, it’s a way to organize, evaluate, and communicate your ideas. Remember, it’s not about quality drawing—stick figure sketches and simple shapes work just as well. Visual thinking is about bringing clarity to an idea using something other than just words and sentences. When it’s used for group facilitation, it often takes the form of whiteboarding, card exercises, canvases, and collaging.

In a recent interview Rian Johnson, director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, said although he’s not an artist, he always creates rough storyboard sketches for his director of photography and other collaborators.

My drawings look like stick figures—ridiculous little chicken-scratch drawings. But my director of photography really likes them because it boils shots down to absolute basics. My storyboards are a wire hanger on which to hang a conversation that actually describes a shot.

Internal consultants and project teams may find visual thinking especially valuable as a way to cut through organizational “noise” and bring a fresh perspective to problem-solving.

ThoughtForm recently completed a project to create and launch an organizational design strategy and process, which we presented at AIMC. In this project, we used a five-step process, and at each step, visual thinking helped the team arrive at a better solution, faster. Internal consultants can follow these steps to improve processes within their own organizations.


Step 1: Team Kick-off

We began with a two-day workshop, involving 20+ stakeholders from across the organization. During the workshop, as different aspects of organizational design were debated and discussed, ThoughtForm took careful notes and asked probing questions so that we could understand the team’s thoughts. While the session was progressing, we put all the key elements of the plan into a single view and created a rough visual of what the team wanted to happen.

Using visual thinking enabled us to:

  • Think through the process from beginning to end.
  • Address the “what” and the “why” right away.
  • Spot the differences in our vocabulary and arrive at a common language.


Step 2: Team Alignment

Over the following weeks, we continued to refine the vision of the organization design strategy and process and reviewed preliminary sketches with the core team over conference calls. Then, ThoughtForm captured the team’s suggestions and incorporated them into revised drawings.

Using visual thinking enabled us to:

  • Discover gaps and inconsistencies that could be corrected.
  • Align the team to a shared vision of goals, outputs, and roles.
  • Made it possible to envision path and outcomes, inspiring the team.


Step 3: Leadership review

Once the project team was satisfied with their plan, we took the visual explanation that had come out of our work, and created communication materials to share the organizational design strategy and process with leadership. As a result of using visual explanations in communication materials, project teams were enabled to establish the premise quickly, spend less time explaining, and more time discussing.

Using visual thinking enabled us to:

  • Bring clarity without oversimplifying the message.
  • Make the future state tangible.
  • Differentiate our effort from others.


Step 4: Client orientation

Once leaders signed off on the approach, it was time to begin implementing the organizational design strategy. Then, ThoughtForm translated the visualization into a detailed playbook. It oriented staff from each business area to the project.

Using visual thinking enabled us to:

  • Create a single, easy to understand focal point for orientation.
  • Build staff confidence.
  • Enable staff to envision their roles.


Step 5: Project session

Once key leaders in the business areas had been oriented, the organization team began evaluating and restructuring teams.

Using visual thinking enabled us to:

  • Keep teams oriented and focused on process.
  • Empowered teams to participate fully and co-create the outcomes they wanted.
  • Define a clear beginning and end for the process.

Visual thinking allowed this organizational design effort to move quickly and cause less disruption than previous efforts, which had often struggled with enterprise-wide alignment and participation.

Learn more about how you can apply visual thinking in your organization. Watch this video on using visual thinking in meetings.