Rich Pictures


Last week I spent a very enjoyable five days in Oxford facilitating a short course on Organisational Development for INTRAC. This is an annual event for me and one that involves participants from across the globe. This year there were ten. One of the methodologies I introduce during the course is drawing ‘rich pictures’ and every year I can guarantee that asking the participants to draw a picture elicits groans from at least half of them. For most people, drawing is something they leave behind them as children. This is a great pity and I am pleased that almost everyone – even those who insist they “can’t draw” – reassess the value of using pictures as well as words to help them explain the complex organisational challenges they bring to the course. Drawing rich pictures is part of ‘soft systems methodology’ (see Checkland, Peter and Jim Scholes (1999) Soft Systems Methodology in Action, Chichester, UK: Wiley) but it has now evolved into a recognised ‘standalone’ method that can be used in many different ways. A Rich Picture uses drawing to visualise the complex systems nature of a situation, open up discussion, generate creativity and insight, and facilitate shared understanding.

Rich Pictures are well-suited to examining organisational development and organisational learning issues because even apparently simple organisational issues always involve complex multiple inter-acting relationships. Pictures are often a better medium than words for expressing complexity because they encourage a more dynamic and holistic representation of a situation – in short they can provide a rich amount of information in an easily understandable form. I have used Rich Picture methodology with groups in Denmark, Myanmar, Sweden, the UK, The Netherlands and Armenia. The methodology seems to cross cultural borders easily.

I try to reassure my course participants that they don’t have to be an artist to produce a Rich Picture! All you need is a very large piece of paper (flipchart-sized or bigger), lots of coloured pens and some time to think.

Here are some guidelines for drawing rich pictures:

  1. The focus of the picture should be the situation you are interested to explore – it could be in your organisation or in another organisation.
  2. Use all the space available – spread out the parts of your picture but leave some space for developing the picture (a Rich Picture is a dynamic tool and can be revised to incorporate new insights).
  3. Include a representation of yourself in the picture – you don’t have to be at the centre but you should be in there somewhere!
  4. Include key people, teams and structures within the organisation.
  5. Include other important stakeholders outside the organisation.
  6. Represent the issues, achievements, problems, feelings and concerns of the people in the diagram using speech bubbles and thought bubbles (just like comic books).
  7. Use metaphors – for example, if you think someone is forcing their views on others, draw them as an elephant!
  8. Represent types of relationships using arrows, lines or any other way you like.
  9. Represent the climate or quality of the relationships using symbols such as dark clouds, sunshine, lightning flashes or any other way you like.
  10. Include influencing factors in the wider environment.

There are a number of books around for people who are interested to dive deeper into the use of Rich Pictures. One of my favourites is Growing Wings on the Way – Systems Thinking for Messy Situations by Rosalind Armson, 2011, Triarchy Press.


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