Michael Porter is famous. Never heard of him? If you’re a strategy wonk you have — likewise an entrepreneur, a business school grad, or a business leader. Ohh, that Michael Porter. The Michael Porter who is most cited author in business and economics. The Bishop William Lawrence Harvard University Professor Porter. The father of modern strategy. He published his seminal work, Competitive Strategy, when he was 33 years old in 1980. It’s now in its 60th printing in English and translated into nineteen languages.
His real genius was that he was able to reduce the concepts and ideas contained in his 397 page, 2lb, 1200 plus word tome into one simple picture, with 5 boxes, 5 arrows and a few words. It’s on page 4, blandly titled Figure 1.1, Forces Driving Industry Competition.
I wonder if he hadn’t drawn those boxes and arrows if we would have ever heard of Michael Porter? It’s one thing to come up with a brilliant idea or a great new concept. It’s entirely another for people to grok it. There’s a name for this ability — to sum up a complex, abstract idea and let people see and grasp it, to ‘containerize’ it in a picture that can be scribbled on the back of a napkin and be recognized instantly. I’m just not sure what it is. It goes beyond visual literacy, it’s visual brilliance. It doesn’t need to be beautifully rendered (as you can see from Porter’s example) so it probably doesn’t have the word design in it. If you know, please tell me.*
Other examples come to mind. I wonder how much you could knock off the $5billion market cap of my Alma Mater Gartner without Magic Quadrants and Hype Cycles. Would Simon Sinek be as highly reviewed as he is without his sketch of the golden circle? Would Republican tax policy be different without the Laffer Curve?
*To be clear, I’m not talking about visual graphing or charting techniques like Playfair’s trade-balance time-series chart, or Pie charts or Tufte’s sparklines. They’re a different category of genius, different in that they can be more universally applied. The shape is of the data, not the concept itself.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.