We are working on a chapter and a story for The Change Handbook, 3rd Edition on the topic of Visual Explorer as a tool for change, and its role and impacts in Africa. Below is an excerpt. Look for the book this fall!
Visual Explorer is a way to enhance the depth and power of conversations using a set of diverse and interesting photographic images.
As a species, we have known for a long time that art is an important means of social expression and communication. From cave paintings to cathedrals, human beings have made art and put it in the middle of the conversations that exchange ideas, make meaning, and sustain culture. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
Early in our use of Visual Explorer we noticed this apparently universal quality in the power of photographs to foster reflection and dialogue. Mediated dialogue—this whole notion of putting something tangible and artful in the middle of a conversation—is a way to engage and span social boundaries. Images can communicate thoughts and feelings despite differences in language, history, and culture.
We began to test these ideas, and study the use of Visual Explorer in particular and mediated dialogue more generally in a wide variety of contexts around the world.
Steadman Harrison III, co-founder of the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tells this story about one of the earliest experiences of using Visual Explorer in Africa.
We were in Nakuru, deep in the Rift Valley of rural Kenya, as part of a leadership development initiative called Leadership Beyond Boundaries. It was the second training that I had ever delivered on my own. The large colorful Visual Explorer pictures line the walls of the room for our Leadership Workshop. I am really proud to say that our work engages everybody equally. I just finish that statement when in walks Enos Awili, a delegate from the Persons with Disabilities National Council of Kenya–a blind man. Visual Explorer is the first session. I have this gut-wrenching feeling that I am about to exclude this blind man from our visually-based activity.
My mind races. What can I do to be sensitive to this gentleman’s needs?
As we begin I ask him to describe his key organizational challenge as well as the ideal future state of his organization, the two questions I asked the group to consider. The task is to find an image in response to each question. I then take Enos around the room briefly describing each picture. To my surprise this doesn’t take long. When we come across the picture of ‘a donkey with its feet tied together’ he exclaims that this is the picture he was looking for. And when I describe ‘the bird with outstretched wings having just caught a fish’ he said that this is his future organization. I watch Enos’s sheer delight as each member of his small group describes his two pictures in great detail, as well as their own. This man is in tears by the end. He shares what a gift it is to be a part of this conversation about the challenges facing the disabled people of East Africa, and the hope that he has for to a day when people in need have the resources to soar like eagles.
We believe that the underlying dynamics of Visual Explorer – careful attention, reflection and dialogue using metaphors and visual sense-making, all wrapped in story-telling and inquiry – are more or less universal aspects of deep communication and meaning-making. Visual Explorer is being used successfully in diverse contexts in every part of the world.
Our most sustained test of this belief has been in East Africa. In 2008 CCL opened our office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It continues to thrive in pursuit of our mission of democratizing leadership development for global societal impact. We have been asking questions such as: “Are Western concepts of leadership development valid? What does the idea of leadership mean in these contexts? What kinds of human development are engaging, useful, and effective?”
We strive to work in dialogue rather than to impose our assumptions. Visual Explorer is one of our best methods for engaging people in dialogue. It has the advantage of not requiring English or even literacy.
Our first programs in East Africa – and we still do this – begin by asking participants what they think effective leadership is in their worlds. They are typically surprised when we ask them to then choose an image that represents what effective leadership means to them, and then to use the images to talk with one another, comparing and contrasting their selected images, and really exploring together what leadership means to them. The ensuing conversations are almost always open and insightful, drawing on the personal meanings of each individual as projected onto the selected images. Participants immediately get to know each other. They feel more comfortable knowing that they have each have contributed to the conversation and they each have something important to say. It helps that the process is fun and frequently evokes laughter. People relax and become lighter. .
The tone in the room shifts after we do Visual Explorer. The group is more relaxed, attentive, collaborative and engaged. Now we are ready to learn about leadership and how we might develop as individuals, groups, organizations, and as whole societies.
In the longer version of this story we look at how Visual Explorer and the process of mediated dialogue has helped to empower leadership development at scale in East and Central Africa.
 Palus, C. J., & Horth, D. M. (2002). The leader’s edge: Six creative competencies for navigating complex challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.