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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Eileen Clegg, Founder and Principal of Visual Insight
Episode: 103
Air Date: July 17, 2015


Audio MP3


Eileen Clegg, MA, FRSA, is founder of the company Visual Insight, working with top leadership for Fortune 50 companies on vision, talent, transformation, and diversity Using large-scale graphics, digital storytelling and collaboration methods based on years of field research in Silicon Valley, she helps organizations leverage individuals’ creativity, knowledge and intuition.

Her Visual Insight clients include top leadership of IBM, Telenor (Youth Summit for the Nobel Peace Prize), Microsoft, Federal Health Futures (a consortium of all of federal health agencies), NetApp, Kaiser Permanente, Art Center College of Design, O’Reilly Media, Pfizer, Gilead BioSciences, American Society of Training and Development, and the Gates Foundation’s Model Secondary Schools Program. Eileen was a daily newspaper journalist for many years (Santa Rosa Press Democrat) before joining Institute for the Future in 1999, where large-scale graphics were used in futures forecasting.

She developed her unique visual practice in 2001.

She has written and illustrated numerous books on women’s issues, collaboration, leadership and technology, including: Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories from the Everyday Lives of Women (New Harbinger 1999), Goodbye Good Girl (New Harbinger, 1998). The Corporate University Workbook (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer 2005), Evolving Collective Intelligence with Dr. Doug Engelbart and Valerie Landau (NextNow NextPress 2008), based on five years of conversations with Dr. Engelbart.

She has been a visual documentor of seminal thinking in learning and technology including contributions to Creating a Learning Culture, and numerous large timeline murals showing patterns and trends in learning, technology, and the role of women in society.


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Begin transcript

John Sumser:            Good morning and welcome to the HRExaminer Radio Show. I’m your host John Sumser. We’re coming to you as we almost always do from beautiful Occidental, California. Where the marine layer has been sucked in over the hill. Occidental’s the gateway to the Russian River Watershed. The way that it works is the grapes are sort of covered in fog for a certain amount of time during the year. When the desert gets hot it pulls the fog off the ocean and onto the tops of the grapes. It’s a foggy morning and we’re happy because it’s good for the grapes. Today we’ve got a wonderful guest. Eileen Klegg is the CEO and founder of Visual Insight. Visual Insight is a company devoted to the facilitation of ideas and conversations with visual expression. I’ll let her tell you more about it, but it’s a really interesting way to get your meeting up and running. Eileen, how are you this morning?

Eileen Klegg:             I’m very well. I loved your description of the beautiful coastline, helps me feel relaxed.

John Sumser:            Yeah, so one of the things that you wouldn’t know about Eileen is that you could probably stretch a string over the mountain from our offices to her offices. She’s right on the coast in Bodega Bay, California. Introduce yourself Eileen. Tell people who you are.

Eileen Klegg:             Well as you said, and as you know because we’ve worked together, is I founded the company Visual Insight. What we do is create live visuals during meetings, as well as digital graphics afterwards. We work with top leadership of global companies, and think tanks, and some nonprofits, generally when they’re in the process of transformation. We use visuals as part of that.

John Sumser:            That doesn’t really talk about what you do, so we’ll get to that in a second. Using visuals in conversations doesn’t cover the amazing process that Eileen goes through when she is in the role of documenting the meeting. Imagine that on some aspect of the meeting area here’s Eileen and here is this emerging picture that’s Eileen’s channeling of the content and dynamics of the meeting into a bigger than life size image that captures the thought. It’s a fascinating process to see. How did you get here? You didn’t wake up when you were a young woman and go, “What I really want to do is draw pictures for a living.”

Eileen Klegg:             Exactly, I mean I was a writer for many years, as you know. Actually thank you for the reflection of what I do. Often finding words to describe a visual process is a challenge in itself, but it’s really more visual story telling than graphic recording. I came out of journalism and I always love telling the story of how I started this work. Many years as a writer I decided to leave journalism, daily news journalism, to go to work for a think tank, Institute for the Future. I was a researcher and writer there on learning and education. I learned about this process at the time called graphic recording. Where people use big murals to arrange information, and in this think tank, Futures Environment, that enabled us to start seeing patterns of information that helped with futures forecasting.

The visual was a way, and as we’re seeing more and more, to aggregate and organize information to actually help you see ideas that otherwise might just get lost in the words and old ways of thinking. I was really privileged to work with David Sibbet, who’s one of the leaders in graphic recording. I started experimenting  with doing visuals myself, very new activity for me. I hadn’t really done any kind of drawings since childhood. What I found was that I could actually use this for the research. I thought, “Well maybe I could actually do this in a room, like David.” I took a course from his organization, The Grove, and actually the teacher she was polite about it, but she said something along the lines of, “I don’t think you should quit your day job.” As it turned out I wasn’t really able to think about images and words at the same time. As a journalist I was really thinking about the story, and the words themselves, and the visuals were just illustrations that were kind of a background. It kind of seemed to merge more somatically, and from sort of a sense of feeling and intuition, so the visuals would kind of appear. Then I would fill in the story.

Well what I found overtime was that the images actually made a certain kind of alternative sense. These would be really sort of an interesting frame and would raise questions. There was a lot of ambiguity in the images. I developed my own quirky approach and decided just to go with it. I actually had written a book a few years earlier about creativity in women. At that time I was a writer, and I actually didn’t use the techniques that I wrote about interviewing all these creative women. Once I started my own practice of using my own creativity, in my own way, I was actually able to practice finding a way to use the alternative sense of intuition part of a certain kind of logic. I started using this technique, not professionally, but just as a way to help with thinking. What happened was I lost my job. For the first time in my adult life I did not, remember the big crash of 2001 John, and just everything tumbled, Silicon Valley. Here I was without a job, given up journalism, so I volunteered for a learning organization that was working with children in developing countries to bring them what they called learning objects at the time. This was in the early 2000’s, the very beginning of being able to share the best of learning with anybody. You know from children in Vietnam who were running the internet on bicycles, and you know this is very exciting.

I kind of put aside my “woe is me” and volunteered for this organization. I thought, “Well it’s a good time to practice the visuals.” I did my sort of quirky activity on the walls. I was really really lucky to work with Jay Cross, one of the leaders in learning. He actually was able to perceive that these intuitive images were very helpful to thinking. He brought me into a conference at Darden Business School, called Creating a Learning Culture. There people also saw that the more ambiguous approach of visuals could help them move into this new world that was the beginning of really how we’re going to use the internet for deep learning. It worked, and somehow people saw that, and I was able to develop this really kind of unusual quirky style. I was at that point launched in my consultancy, and began to use that professionally, and working with many amazing organizations.

John Sumser:            The business of being a journalist is really caught up in accuracy, and evidence-based argument, and understanding how to clearly, and effectively, and simply prove a point. It’s quite a transition to go from that kind of approach to something that’s happening to a more reflective approach. How do you reconcile those two things? Are they the same thing really?

Eileen Klegg:             Well, they really go together. In journalism I learned to set aside my own opinions and listen for an objective story, and tell the story with as many juicy quotes as possible, but to really step back and say, “What’s the emerging story here?” That was a core competence that I brought to this. Yes, it’s a discipline to frame information, and as you know as a writer, you’re an excellent writer, that you’re framing so that you have levels of abstraction that enable people to get the main point and then move into progressive details. Really good writing is a matter of helping people learn.

The work with the visuals is similar, except that the frame is a visual image, a landscape, a room, many different backgrounds. That’s the replacement for a semantic structure. It works on a different part of the brain, so people are able to see that this literal big picture, the big ideas show up in the most commanding images in the mural. For example, you might have the main idea in the sun, or where people are going at the top of a mountain. These are ways that help people kind of come into information in a way where it’s more of a physical representational of our actual world. It really acts very differently on the human brain.

I think that that’s one of the benefit of visuals, is the physical nature, and the simple matter that big concepts show up big, smaller concepts show up small, and you show the interrelationships. Here’s the part that I think is most important. We tend to focus on events, on people, on activities. That is just one layer, the obvious layer. What these visuals help us do is to focus on what’s in between those, the flows, the relationships. It’s kind of a foreground background issue. In using more intuitive images for the background, what we’re doing is we’re introducing kind of the invisible world between people. Which really is where the action is, but doing that in a way that doesn’t try to narrow it down with words into something we already understand.

Let’s get back to who I work with and how I’m doing this. Working with people who are making big plays and major transformations. They’re trying hard to keep people from nailing it down with power-point, writing that report. In a way the visuals help hold back the tide of logic and conclusions, allowing people to take more time in those spaces of ambiguity, the places where people are uncomfortable, because they don’t have the answers. When I’m successful in my work, when we are in this profession, we find that people start talking in visual language.

John Sumser:            Well that’s interesting.

Eileen Klegg:             Yeah, they’ll start talking about, “Well what if we left that cliff, and what would be the bridge to get to the other cliff?” They start speaking and using the words of the visual, and that enables them to have new conversations.

John Sumser:            What a great thing. You’ve recently gone back to school and picked up a Master’s degree. Tell me about that a little bit, and how that informs the work. I think that’s an interesting piece of your puzzle.

Eileen Klegg:             Well thank you, and you’ve always been really encouraging about taking the academic. As you say, “We need the rigor. We need the academics. We need the language. That’s the world we’re in.” Here I’ve been working in this very intuitive world. When you use words like intuition, and imagination, feelings, spirit, you know some people just, you watch a shade come down over their eyes. I really wanted to have some background in what is going on here. Because I know it’s powerful. I’ve seen the results. Actually I think all my jobs, maybe ninety-nine percent, come from people saying, “Bring her in to have her do that thing she does.” It’s not something that really is a clear value proposition until somebody’s experienced it. Because I’ve seen how important this is in helping teams and helping organizations to get to the next level. It’s almost like I feel like I owe something to this amazing process to understand it better, and as a journalist, to be able to speak about it in a more coherent way to people who might not be open. That was the idea. I need to go get some academic background to explain this better. I looked at many amazing programs in creativity, organizational development. I settled on one which sounds unusual, but it’s Depth, D-E-P-T-H Psychology. I spell it because sometimes people think I’m saying Death Psychology, but Depth Psychology.

Depth Psychology is based on the work of Dr. Carl Jung. Jung was interested in symbols, mythology, archetypes, and the power of images to actually create wisdom, healing, health, and deep insight. He had this deep respect for images. They’re not just something to illustrate a previous concept. They actually carry knowledge from the collective unconscious, from our history as human beings. You can call it epigenetics, or DNA, or mystical mythology. There’s many many ways to look at why as humans we share certain visual understandings, and that some concepts resonate with everyone. When you can visually capture that what happens is that a whole group now is engaged at a deeper level. Jung considered symbols a powerful enabler of transformation. He called it the transcendent function. That is when you have two opposites, two very different ways of looking at something that seem unresolved, if you can find the right image you resolve those contradictions and get to a new level. That was exactly what I’d been doing without knowing it, or those of us in our profession. Now we have a way to talk about that. That we are working in these unconscious areas, and kind of harnessing unconscious forces that can, if visualized, can actually create a transformative moment.

John Sumser:            That’s interesting. We hadn’t talked about this before the show, but do you imagine that people who might be your customers or in rooms where you work are more or less receptive to this? Does this work better with some people than other people?

Eileen Klegg:             Well, you know what I’ve seen is that people when they are the top leaders of the best companies, and the biggest companies on the planet. I mean these are people, you know they’re executives. Of course, you know people bring their ways of doing things, and their preconceived ideas. However, the people who are working at that level of change are open. They usually know they need to continue learning and being open to new ideas. I have been so surprised that my very best experiences have been with very traditional organizations and suits and ties. I worked for many years with IBM. They are wonderful. I shouldn’t probably name names, but some of the best, really effective organizations that know how to do big plays in transformation.

For example, I was with one group and using the visuals to talk about a change in their culture. They went off topic, and were talking about issues unrelated actually to the topic they sensibly were supposed to be talking about. What I did in the visual was I put all of this underground. I kind of had a lawn and trees. I made this whole underground area. I also just started making kind of this black circle, because I really didn’t know what’s happening here, and trying to put everything underground or in this black circle. Then they got back to the conversation which had to do with value chain. I ended up with two powerful metaphors. One was everything that was being buried, that they didn’t want to talk about underground. The other was this chain and it was hooked to this black ball and it looked like a ball and chain.

When we did the gallery walk, you know what we do is we create the murals during the discussion. Then they’ll walk through and I’ll just explain, “This is the story that I heard, that the visuals were helping us discuss.” When they saw that they sort of start laughing and there was this kind of audible sigh of relief. Because the unspoken … I think it was the unspoken forces that were weighing them down as a team now had a picture and a place. They could really let go of it. They could see what that was and let that go. That’s an example of people, you know they’re not sort of saying, “We’re going to have this mystical alternative visual experience.” They’re just doing their work, but they’re open to seeing when something surprising happens that startles them, and they’re welcoming of a reflection even if it hurts and is uncomfortable. They know that’s how they’re going to get better. I think that’s how these great companies grow, is having people like that. Those are the people I try to work with. Does that make sense?

John Sumser:            Yeah, so where doesn’t it work?

Eileen Klegg:             Well, I’ve had only a few of these situations where I thought, “Hmm, this probably wasn’t the best use of everybody’s time.” It’s where people already have an idea of exactly what they want to do. They have a solid construction of the outcome before they start. For example, a leader, and I don’t meet many like this who are just there to convey, “Here’s how we do things around here, and here’s what I want you do to. We’ll have someone draw a picture of that so you’ll know more what I want you to do.” The visuals are designed for conversation, interaction, for leaders to learn from one another. It doesn’t work when somebody says, “Right down such and such. Why don’t you put this goal up there? Because that’s where we really want to go.” In other words, they’re using visuals like words, which is we already know what it means, we already know what we want to do. That’s really not helping anybody with engagement or innovation. That’s when it doesn’t work, rarely.

John Sumser:            Over time you must learn some pretty interesting things about groups. You’re in a remarkable position a lot of the time. For your own development, what are you trying to accomplish?

Eileen Klegg:             Well, clearly the Master’s program helped me with that. You’re correct that I’m in a continual learning situation with many great minds and great leaders. I think that my practice now is more reflective. I have coaching to process what I’m learning. After a meeting we take the visuals and go back and synthesize those often into a big picture graphic. You might have eight visuals in one day, come back at the end of the day, and create a very crisp digitized version. I always think of it like when you’re a journalist you go out and get the raw notes. Those are the ones on the wall, come back and do a synthesis. That might be a really nice little graphic. In between that, in that process, I have my own learnings. My practice now is to look, and examine, and synthesize the learnings from the group and my own practice to take another layer of reflection, so that I can continue exercising that muscle of responding to, using images in a way that are truly emergent, and respond to what I’m hearing, and what I’m feeling, so that they stay fresh and authentic.

I’m learning how to teach others to do that, so having me do that, I’m one perspective, and it’s probably a valuable perspective. Because of journalism, I’m there without my own agenda to tell a story. However, once we can get other people to start looking at the imagery that comes to them while they’re in a process of transformation, team building, innovation, product development, that’s the real power. I know this is pretty meta level, but as I understand better my own process then I can explain that to other people and help them tune in to their own native sense of visualization, and everybody has it. Most people have been trained out of it, but it comes back. That to me is one of the greatest contributions I can make. Is developing a visual culture, is helping everybody develop their native visual communication capacity. That’s really the edge that I’m working on right now.

John Sumser:            You worked for many years with Doug Englebart, who is a … You’ll probably want to tell people who Dr. Englebart was, but this sounds like if he was the department head in a university this sounds like one of the really important sub courses of his work with developing collective intelligence. It’s very clear to me listening to you talk that what you’ve done is taken that work you did with Englebart and turned it into a very practical application that doesn’t look like a computer on some levels, but must have pretty interesting implications for usability and the user experience. Tell us a little bit about Doug Englebart.

Eileen Klegg:             Well first of all I love talking to you because you always connect the dots in very complex strains of thinking and dialogue. I appreciate it so much. The first thing that comes to me when you were talking was a picture we have of one of these giant murals we did. I think it was four feet by, at that point, twenty-one feet, and doing the history of technology, the history of what he called human systems, psychology and everything we’ve learned up to date about how cognition and the human mind works. We had many many streams of information on this, the events in the world. You’ve seen this mural. We have Doug walking through the mural, and at the end signing it and saying, “This is wonderful.” He was not a visual thinker. He was a genius genius technology visualizer. I take that back. I should say he didn’t express himself in pictures. That was new. He was a visual thinker.

As you know, he created the prototype for everything we have on our desks and carry in our pockets today technology wise. 1968 he created what they call the “mother of all demos”, and here he was with a screen, and the screens were hooked up to different locations. You could put information on the screen. He patented the mouse, so there were patents that came out of that, very early work. What he was trying to do was to raise collective intelligence, as you said. He set out with a team and said, “Let’s take on the most complex problem in the world, which is how do we solve complex problems?” Now what he found was that absolutely you could do this. You could put ideas together. You could show them in windows. You know what we call windows now. You could link. You could do all these very sophisticated activities to aggregate information, so the idea is if you can put everybody’s thinking together, and information, and access that information, you could solve the problems of the world.

That was in ’68, and we had the privilege of working with him from about 2003 to 2008 on his seminal ideas of many videotapes and discussions, and wrote a little promo with him to help him express his ideas for the general public. One refrain from Doug was, “Why do we still have so many problems in government and politics? We have all the information in the world available. Why are we still failing, and making bad decisions for our planet, and for people in the developing world?” He really had real grief over that. We should be able to solve the problems? He said, “It’s the human systems. It’s how humanity struggles.” One of the aspects of that is just a culture around competition, around money, you know what are our values. Those are deep human concerns that no amount of technology is going to change unless you find a way to, and we are doing now, to find a way to use technology to enhance relationships. To help people feel more safe, more creative, express themselves better, get organized, find their roles, all the things that make us comfortable and happy, less fearful, less self protective, can be enhanced with technology.

That requires bringing together the human systems and the tool systems, as Doug would say, and he was all for that. I really feel that my work often is an homage to Dr. Englebart’s legacy. That he gave us the best opportunities possible for using technology to raise our intelligence. How can we use technology to raise our EQ, our aspirations, our belief in shared humanity, to relieve all the human pressures that keep people from making the right decisions? Now that’s a huge tall order, and I’m not saying that’s something I’ll do in my lifetime, but it is the quest. The faraway beckoning vision. It kind of gets me up in the morning. Visuals are a very very big part of that. Because images tap into our soul, our spirit, creative spirit, and help us feel connected, and more safe, and more open to new ideas. I think it’s a key to diversity. I think Doug’s work was really a key to diversity also. Because if you can see a lot of very different ideas, different perspectives aggregated together and see how those ideas fit together, then suddenly you realize, “Wow we’re a lot stronger for including perspectives that initially were foreign to us. Now we see that’s going to enhance our capability.”

John Sumser:            This has been a remarkable half hour. We have burned it all up Eileen. Would you take a moment and let the people who are listening to this in on the thing that you think that they should take away from it? What should the people listening to the show know that they may not know?

Eileen Klegg:             We all know we’re in a visual revolution, but it’s very possible that words should be illustrating images and not the other way around. If we think about the potential for using open ended images to be more generative and bring out more honesty and communication, deep communication. If we honor the role of images in that I think we’re going to be a happier and more innovative and engaged culture. We can really connect with each other more deeply, and images are key to that.

John Sumser:            That’s tremendous. If somebody wanted to get a hold of you, how would they do that?

Eileen Klegg:             Well we have a website for our consultancy. The company is Visual Insight, and it’s That’s the way to find us. Our women innovators mural is on there. We talked about the new history of women in innovation. There’s a lot of more material and learning materials on there as well, so

John Sumser:  , so we’ve been talking with Eileen Klegg, who is the CEO and founder of Visual Insight. She’s somebody you may want to think about having come along to your next conversation about transformation in your organization. It’s been wonderful to have you Eileen. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Eileen Klegg:             Thank you John, and the wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.

John Sumser:            Yes, this has been amazing. This is John Sumser and you’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. We’ve been talking with Eileen Klegg. The sun is still nowhere on the horizon in Occidental, California, but we’re looking forward to a grand weekend. I hope you have the same. Thanks for tuning in today, bye bye now.

End transcript

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