Strike An (Optic) Nerve

From the beginning, the intent of this column has been to help managers think about and explain agency issues from a “visual” perspective. In the spirit of empowerment, this month’s column follows the ancient parable’s instruction to teach people how to fish rather than simply giving them a fish.

The variety of techniques used to “draw” each month’s tools actually can be grouped into a few common categories.

The “Circular” Logic Of Venn Diagrams

In 1880, John Venn published an article describing his method of overlapping circles (see Figure 1) to show how two or more factors–which he termed sets–interact (Edwards). This method is easy to construct (place a coffee mug on a piece of paper and trace around the bottom edge), and just as easily understood. (Note: Venn diagrams normally are limited to three circles, but four can be used for diagrammatic purposes.)

For example, as shown in Figure 1, the left circle may represent all participants in agency programs, and the right circle can represent the people residing in the agency’s political subdivision. The circles’ overlapping area contains those people who are both participants and residents–the taxpayers who support the agency. The size of each circle can be scaled to indicate actual numbers (of people, in this case), and the amount of overlap is varied according to the level of interaction. In Figure 1, therefore, the number of participants is smaller than the number of citizens, but very few of the participants also live within the agency’s political boundary.

X, Y and Z: Cartesian Space

Rene Descartes (who used the Latin version of his name: Cartesius) is credited with developing a coordinate system consisting of numbered axes–horizontal (x) and vertical (y)–that divided a space into four squares or quadrants. Two versions of this method commonly are used.

The first (Figure 2) features the “zero” point (called the origin), located where the axes cross, which splits both the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes into a positive half and a negative half. This creates quadrants, allowing the aspect a manager is measuring to be expressed as really desirable (+, +), or really negative (-, -), or as two other less desirable options (+, – or -, +). For example, if agency staff members are performing according to standards–and patrons appreciate it–that is considered a “+, +” condition, also known as a win-win. Conversely, if they are performing poorly, and patrons are complaining, a “-, -” lose-lose situation exists.

The second version (Figure 3) uses only the positive halves of x and y to show how one variable affects a second, which also can be used to indicate trends. For example, if an agency increases its promotional budget, it expects to see an increase in the number of participants. Since neither a budget nor the number of participants can be less than zero, there is no need for “negative” space in such a tool. The line connecting the initial conditions with the new conditions depicts the change between the two points–a trend.

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  5. The People We Serve
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