I recently had the career highlight of giving a talk about my book to the Boeing Managers' Association up in Tukwila, WA. As a lifelong airplane fanatic and nearly lifelong pilot, having the undivided attention of one hundred people who build the big airplanes is as good as it gets.
I don't normally show family photos in a business presentation, but this time I had no choice: what better way to illustrate how I got my start in visual thinking and 3D "situational awareness"?
Having thus established my bona fides, I shared an example of how good visual information displays help people make good decisions -- especially when too much information is coming in. (This was an example I'd been waiting for years to share, and with Boeing I knew I had the right audience.)
The example is this. Seventy years ago, it took a crew of five looking at 200 instruments to guide an aircraft across an ocean.
Today, it takes a crew of one looking at two screens to do the same thing. (Not that anyone flies with a crew of one, but they could.)
The most interesting thing here is that the crew today requires exactly the same information as sixty years ago: speed, altitude, orientation, direction, distance, and fuel remaining. What's changed is our technological ability to collect, synthesize, and display that data.
Why not apply the same concepts to other tasks that require the quick analysis and synthesis of vast amounts of data? Financial analysis comes to my mind. With all the computing horsepower we have available today, why do most spreadsheets look exactly the way they did 200 years ago?
Why do we have to pay thousands of dollars a month for a Bloomberg terminal? And where's the financial services equivalent of the pilot's PFD (Primary Flight Display)?
I'm convinced anyone trying to come up with a better spreadsheet should take flying lessons. Nothing forces you to think about better data displays than trying to land in the rain.
Who knows: if the gang at Bear Stearns (not to mention everyone who touched our latest 'special financial instruments') had a better display of where they were going, we could have avoided this latest crash.
After all, there hasn't been a single commercial aviation fatality in the US in three years. Wouldn't it be nice to say the same thing about the mortgage industry?
The founding of Southwest Airlines on the back of a cocktail napkin is my favorite "solving a problem with a picture" story. It goes like this:
Way back in 1967, Texas businessman Rollin King's WILD GOOSE AIRLINES (a small charter flying operation that shuttled sportsmen around the Lone Star state) failed financially, so he hired ex-NY lawyer Herb Kelleher to close the books. Afterward they retired to San Antonio's swankiest bar, The St. Anthony's Club, for a commemorative drink.
What they drank remains a mystery, but what is known is that at some point King picked up a napkin and said, "Herb, I have an idea for another airline; one that connects just the main metro areas of Texas..." He drew three dots on that napkin to represent Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, then connected them with three lines to form a simple triangle.
Presto: Southwest Airlines was born. From that humble napkin emerged the most profitable airline in history.
(It's evident why the Southwest model was so innovative when you compare it to the route maps of the existing airlines of the day: the traditional hub-and-spoke models meant that a simple connection between these three Texas cities wasn't possible.)
Nice story. But what's even better is that I flew Southwest recently for the first time and guess what I saw on the cocktail napkins the flight attendants handed out?
That's right: the new Southwest route map. Southwest is the only airline that prints their map on their napkins. I've got to believe that's an homage to their heritage.