What can OD practitioners learn from TV thriller box sets?

I am a big fan of TV thriller series such as ‘The Killing’, ‘Arne Dahl’, ‘Life’ and ‘Homeland’. Maybe you are too. If so, have you noticed how often charts – comprising photos (usually suspects and victims), maps, Post-It notes and the connections between them – feature on the office walls of the investigators? You can see a couple of examples in the background of these photos.

Homeland Life

I assumed these wall-charts were a device used by the makers of the TV series to provide an interesting backdrop and aide memoire for us viewers who are often trying to keep track of multiple characters. However, it turns out that the use of wall charts is standard criminal investigation practice these days – and with good reason.

Trying to keep track of multiple pieces of data and then build an understanding of the relationships between them is challenging for most of us. When we are working in a team where each person has access to different pieces of the data it can be almost impossible to see the bigger picture using more conventional means of communication. Talking together and reading each others’ notes and reports are, of course, useful but what can really help is a visual representation of all the information. Hence the wall charts. These enable teams of investigators who are often trying to unravel complex crimes, build a shared understanding of the complicated web of relationships between the suspects, victims and other key players. The wall charts also act as a constant but subtle reminder of the investigation as a type of systems analysis, and can trigger insights into interconnections in a uniquely visual way.

It occurs to me that when we are conducting reviews and evaluations we are in a somewhat similar situation to the police investigators in ‘Arne Dahl’ and ‘Life’ or the spooks in ‘Homeland’. We usually work individually or in small teams and have to build a rapid understanding of the complex relationships within and between projects and programs. And yet, although I consider myself a visual thinker, until recently I have never thought to use the kind of wall chart that seems to be standard practice in criminal investigations.

So what might be the organisational development equivalent of a criminal investigation wall-chart? The most similar tool I can think of is the ‘rich picture’. The term ‘rich picture’ is borrowed from ‘soft systems methodology’ and simply means a drawing (often cartoon-type) or other visual representation showing the main actors in a situation and the relationships between them. I have used rich pictures in my organisational development work to help clients explore organisational problems and opportunities for development. Drawing a picture can feel uncomfortable at first for people who are more used to poring over lengthy reports or spreadsheets. But by encouraging us to make more use of the right-hand side of our brain which is responsible for creativity, intuition and synthesis, drawing can facilitate a deeper understanding of complex organisational issues.

Inspired by the investigators in my favourite TV series, I intend to adapt their wall charts and try them in other settings such as learning reviews and program evaluations. Step aside Sarah Lund!