Working the Whiteboard: A Common Trap

I want to tell you a story.

Several years ago I worked for a software company, and our company signed a major partnership with another software company. Both of our companies provided software to call centers, and shortly after the deal was announced I found myself in a conference room with my counterpart from the other company. We were there to introduce ourselves, make sure we each understood what the other company did, and decide how we would help each other in the market.

He started his corporate introduction first, and proceeded to draw a diagram on a whiteboard that seems to be a common diagram across any technology segment. His drawing started with a big box in the middle of the whiteboard, and around it he drew a series of smaller boxes and databases, each one representing a different part of a large call-center infrastructure and each one connected to the big box in the middle. After several minutes of drawing, and as he finished his intricate diagram, he labeled the big box in the middle with his company name, and one of the small boxes in its periphery with my company’s name.

He then said “this is how we view the world”, and sat down.

I stood up, took the marker, and simply erased and replaced our respective names in the two boxes, sat down, and said “this is how we view the world”.

As I recall, he didn’t share my amusement.

What I learned:

  • It is not unusual for a company puts themselves in the middle of a diagram. And really, what could be more human? We’re self-absorbed creatures, so it’s understandable that our reference points would be similarly myopic in our careers.
  • Starting with yourself in the center, instead of the customer, doesn’t keep “the main thing the main thing”, as the saying goes. Great people can empathize and get outside themselves to truly understand another’s perspective. This is also true of great companies.
  • Even though my counterpart didn’t share my enthusiasm for my amended diagram, I was making a statement that true for our industry: we all think the world revolves around our product. Poking fun at that every now and again keeps us all grounded.

visual innovatorAll that is a lead-in for this article, which talks about the skills of visual-thinking innovators. Although the link between this substantive article and my little story is admittedly tenuous, I’ve long been struck by the way in which a picture “tells a thousand words”. Interestingly, I think people who sell – and I’m not talking just about salespeople – should spend less time with one visual presentation crutch (powerpoint – see here for other thoughts on that) and confidently stride to the white board, grab a marker, and start drawing.

Just don’t start with yourself at the center.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • jamesoliverjr

    Center = The Customer. For me, this is always true.

    • Michael

      Right on James! It gets a bit more challenging to stay on that sort of focus in the B2B world, where the customer is often a few steps removed from the technology, but it’s always the best place to start.