Visual Explorer™

About Visual Explorer

Young women from the Mariam high school in Kabul select their Visual Explorer cards.

Visual Explorer™ is a tool for creative conversations and deep dialogue—using a wide variety of images—about almost any topic chosen by the user. See this useful review in Innovation Management.

PurchaseVisual Explorer

Tutorial Webinars


Tutorial webinars for Visual Explorer and Leadership Metaphor Explorer

Here are two new tutorial webinars for using Visual Explorer (the first video), and Leadership Metaphor Explorer (both videos). Each webinar talks about the background ideas of visual and metaphorical thinking, and offers experiences of the tools in use. Featuring David Magellan Horth and Charles J. Palus, Senior Fellows of CCL. Thanks to HRDQ-U.

Photo record: Building Ethiopian / German relations in the work place

Thanks to Erik Burtchen at GIZ who helped our CCL Ethiopia staff produce a photo record of their recent program–excerpts below. These are wonderful illustrations of how we use Visual Explorer at help talk about leadership as DAC, and Leadership Metaphor Explorer to talk about leadership culture (more on these concepts here.)

Visual Thinking for Effective Leadership (VIDEO)

Thanks to HRDQ for making this video of our webinar free for our users.

Join David Magellan Horth and Charles J. Palus of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) when they present “Visual Thinking for Effective Leadership,” a highly interactive webinar that will explore this concept, examine best practices, and show you how to apply it to leadership development. (more…)

Visual Tools in Facilitation: Research Center for Leadership in Action


Our friends at New York University, Research Center for Leadership in Action, have developed these wonderful practice notes regarding the use of visual tools in facilitation, including Visual Explorer.

quoteOur work at RCLA often requires the facilitation of difficult conversations, building connections among diverse groups of people, and/or convening leaders concerned with critical social issues to problem-solve or address challenges. Although visual tools can be used in any setting to facilitate group processes, they are particularly valuable in situations were complex topics are at hand, or when groups have not established familiar relationships. There is a vast array of visual tools to draw on, thanks to many thought leaders who have developed these tools.

Exploring the ecology of leadership: The power of analogical thinking

quoteThis is the creative, connective role of metaphors in action: Carrying the thinking of participants beyond their immediate experiences to make analogical connections with the dynamics of complex systems in many other contexts.”

Our friend and colleague David K. Hurst has great success using analogical thinking as an executive development technique. In a previous post he talked about the usefulness of metaphors. In his latest work he takes it to a new level:

quoteI spent the past week in California working with a senior management team from a large global corporation as part of their extensive executive development program. This was my third time with the same organization and I had worked hard to improve and upgrade the program to focus more closely on their issues. … jump to David’s post>>


Using metaphors for better coaching conversations

Metaphors and analogies are the fuel and fire of thinking, according to a brilliant new book by Douglas Hofstadter. Visual Explorer and Metaphor Explorer are based in this insight. So I am pleased to have in front of me an insightful new doctoral dissertation on the use of metaphor in coaching conversations. Kristen Truman-Allen, founder of PULP Coaching, shares a summary of her dissertation (done at Fielding Graduate University) below–thanks Kristen! (more…)

Assessing Leadership at the Grassroots Level | Leadership Beyond Boundaries

Our CCL team in Ethiopia develops leadership at all levels of society including with grassroots and community organizations. Monitoring and assessment are key to this work, and the team has invented and adapted a variety of useful methods.
LBB moonSamantha Adelberg just published a three-part series of posts on this topic that I highly recommend. The first one covers the use of Visual Explorer as an interactive tool for assessing leadership challenges and capabilities. (Here is an older post that describes a similar application of VE in Afghanistan.)

An excerpt …


Visual Explorer: Purpose and Possibility (VIDEO)

Red Zebra 3807035_300

quoteThe video clip shows the Visual Explorer process we use. This provides the delegates an effective and easy-to-use tool to explore the concept of Purpose and Leadership Possibility. It enables people to make deep connections to big issues, even if they have had little exposure to this type of thinking before.

Thanks to RedZebra for this video of VE in action!




Transforming Ethiopia’s agricultural sector

Our CCL campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is focused on democratizing leadership development for all parts of society. Their post below links to inspiring stories of societal impact. Notice the use of Visual Explorer, a tool that has proven useful for engaging people across different languages and cultures.

Visioning with Visual Explorer: Empowering Women Leaders to Lead Change in Myanmar

Reposted from Leadership Beyond Boundaries

VE Myanmar 2

Imagine you have a group of strong, committed, bright women excited by their country’s emergence from 60 long years of a military regime; add in a big measure of self-clarity and another of agency and one more of coaching & mentoring, and set them in a network of encouragement and support.  Do you get national transformation?  (more…)

Amplifying Voices: An initiative of CCL Ethiopia (VIDEO)

Addis girls programThis short 2 minute video showcases the powerful impact that happens when you invest in young women. With the support of the British Embassy of Ethiopia, The Center for Creative Leadership, through its Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative, is running a long term program to amplify the voices and to increase agency of female freshmen and sophomore university students across the city of Addis Ababa.

More here.

Review: “Well-designed Visual Explorer tool enables creative dialogue and collaboration”

innovation mgmt

Here’s a review of Visual Explorer, from Innovation Management:


Conclusion [full article here]

I like the Visual Explorer. The cards are of high quality, which means they should be durable tools that you and your team can use to open dialogue and explore new ideas. I like the fact that it isn’t just another card deck that helps you to generate ideas; rather, its primary focus is on facilitating discussion between people, building bridges between differing opinions and yes, even developing new ideas. And, as you may have gathered, I’m a big fan of the level of thinking, organization and presentation that went into the facilitator’s guide. A tool is only as good as the instructions that teach people how to use it. The Visual Explorer’s facilitator’s guide is first class all the way.

If you and your team are facing some difficult issues, or need to develop consensus on your organization’s future direction, or if you simply want to improve team communication and collaboration, then you may want to consider investing in this high quality toolset.”

CCL Collaborates with the European Center for Electoral Support

LBBLogo               European Center for Electoral Support  3

Good news from Barcelona (below) from the European Center for Electoral Support (full story here, and here for the 2012 edition). The ECES has the strategy of supporting “dialogue and mediation for the consensual and inclusive management of political transition and the prevention and mitigation of electoral and political conflict.”


The 2013 edition of the Dealing with Electoral Violence: Leadership and Conflict Management Skills for Electoral Stakeholders took place in Barcelon on 14-18 Octber 2013.

The overall objective of this 2013 edition of the LEAD Training has been to look into ways in which representatives of electoral stakeholders can improve their leadership skills and take on board means for preventing and/or mitigating the escalation of election-related violence and conflict throughout the respective electoral cycles.

The LEAD training is jointly organized with the Center for Creative Leadership: Leadership Beyond Boundaries and the Barcelona International Peace Resource Center. (more here.)

(They post these and other cool photos of the 2012 and 2013 events including use of Visual Explorer, Values Explorer, and Collaboration Explorer, and other CCL Leadership Essentials Tools.)


A different kind of conversation

Here’s a story from Jon: a successful conversation, with his son, on a topic difficult for both of them.

barn burning


I was having some challenges with one of my sons one time and his finances weren’t in order.  I was so bothered by this. I knew I didn’t want to turn him off completely but I had to get some breakthrough. I had just learned about Visual Explorer at a seminar.  And so I took the cards to dinner with the two of us, not even knowing how to use them, and I said something to the effect of, ‘Michael, talk to me about your finances’ and I said, ‘Pick a picture that helps depict what’s going on.’ And it was a barn burning. From there he told me a whole story about how he felt out of control and his whole world of finances was burning. And so the VE deck provided a great enty into getting behind what was the issue.”

Leadership Beyond Boundaries and mediated dialogue

Leadership Explorer tools, and especially Visual Explorer, have been key to our Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative, where they work by putting something in the middle of a creative conversation (mediated dialogue):

quoteImagine our world if we worked to create better leadership. Might we have fewer wars, would there be less hunger and disease, would more people recognize their talents and realize their potential, would we solve problems more creatively and effectively, and would we embrace and leverage the diversity that defines humankind? >> read more about Leadership Beyond Boundaries

Integrating Social Media in Youth Leadership Training

This field report is from Nadja Shashe, team member of the CCL Addis Ababa, Ethiopia office and inventor of the Social Media Station.

YV4P 4

quoteA target group within the Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative is youth. To get their attention and create a sustainable outreach, our team in Addis Ababa is integrating social media in youth leadership training programs.

One example of this effort is the Social Media Station that we invented for the Youth Voices for Peace project in Nakuru, Kenya.

social media station (more…)

Nuggets of Wisdom from the Early Leadership Toolkit

By Brandi Nicole Johnson

quoteLast month, I had the opportunity to attend LBB’s training on CCL’s Early Leadership Toolkit. I spent 2.5 days learning atoolkit-demo-imagebout CCL’s leadership content, practicing a toolkit module (ie. exercises, lessons, etc.) delivery and critically considering how we could apply what we had gathered in other settings to a population of young people. …

Continue reading this post here

The CCL Early Leadership Toolkit features several Leadership Explorer tools (Visual Explorer, Values Explorer, and Leadership Metaphor Explorer).

Use of Collaboration Explorer and Visual Explorer in a Capacity Building Retreat in Nairobi

By Kathy Vaughan
Center for Creative Leadership


quoteI used Collaboration Explorer and Visual Explorer as part of a retreat for a high performing team within a multilateral agency whose work is pro-poor. The team is comprised of core staff and several consultants. The team has operated in a highly dynamic environment over the past year with large scale organizational change and with lack of formal leadership of the new overarching entity within which they sit. Over the course of the year, I have worked with them on a capacity building initiative to enhance the collective capacity of the team in the areas of communication, conflict management and negotiation. The September retreat marked the end of the engagement. The design for the retreat included both Visual Explorer and Collaboration Explorer. (more…)

Video introduction to Visual Explorer

Here is a nice introduction to Visual Explorer by David Magellan Horth.  A deeper introduction is a CCL Webinar called Visual Thinking for Effective Leadership, by David and Chuck.

What Is Visual Explorer?

Visual Explorer uses images to facilitate conversations, creating new perspectives and shared understanding. The tool consists of 216 images, available in letter-size (USA), postcard-size, and playing-card-size formats, and a facilitator’s guide.

Visual Explorer offers the most benefits when a group needs to:
• Find patterns in complex issues and making connections
• Take a variety of perspectives
• Ask new questions, uncover hidden assumptions
• Elicit stories and create metaphors
• Tap into personal experiences and passions
• Articulate what is known to the group
• Practice dialogue

More on Visual Explorer here>>

Click for a small sample of the 216 images in a VE set.

A Peaceful Neighborhood Learning Circle

Sue Wolpert, change agent in Cleveland, writes to us about the formation of a Peaceful Neighborhood Learning Circle. (More on Sue’s work with dialogue and community engagement in urban neighborhoods here.)

The Possibility    People in Cleveland are moved to manifest their own aspirations for healing and peaceful neighborhoods by the stories told and spaces created by a small group of change agents who dedicate themselves to learn, celebrate, and demonstrate peaceful neighborhoods. As we discover new ways to live with ourselves, others and our physical spaces we model, with deep respect, these new ways of being.

The conversation we had was fabulous. The participants came up with so much wisdom that would never have surfaced without the cards.   …   
Every card opened the path for a story, every story revealed an important piece of information for our work.


Visual Explorer at RedZebra

This is a brief montage of a Visual Explorer session from the enormously talented and creative folks at RedZebra. Notice the journal writing step that greatly enhances the depth of a VE session.

CCL Conducts Evaluation with Afghan and U.S. Youth

Heather Champion, a senior faculty member with CCL’s Evaluation Center, recently completed an evaluation of Youth LINKS, a virtual cultural exchange program between youth in the United States and Afghanistan. Global Nomads Group, a U.S. nonprofit, in collaboration with the School of Leadership Afghanistan, hosted the program.

Global Nomads Group is an international NGO whose mission is to foster dialogue and understanding among the world’s youth.

The focus groups included the use of Visual Explorer, a tool developed by the Center for Creative Leadership designed to support collaborative, creative conversations in a wide variety of situations to help develop ideas and insights into useful dialogue. Nine questions were asked to assess the impact they experienced from participating in the program. Also assessed were the extent to which they discussed the program with other students, family, and other community members; what they learned about the US/Afghanistan; … and factors that supported and barriers that prevented greater impact.

Six middle and high schools from a cross the U.S. were paired with six middle and high schools in Afghanistan.

Young women from the Mariam high school in Kabul select their Visual Explorer cards.

The evaluation included a survey of the students, interviews with the teachers who facilitated the program at each school and focus groups with the students in both the U.S. and Afghanistan. A local evaluator implemented the evaluation in Afghanistan. Students participated in a nine-month  curriculum that focused on cultural sensitivity, media literacy and civic engagement, and included six video conferences where students could interact with each other.

A unique aspect of this evaluation was the incorporation of Visual Explorer (VE) into the focus groups. Students picked a VE card that represented the impact they experienced from participating in the program. The use of Visual Explorer was a powerful and engaging component of both the U.S. and Afghan focus groups.

A participant from the Bakhtar School shares her Visual Explorer card.


There was evidence of impact in the all three of the areas targeted: cultural sensitivity, media literacy, and civic engagement. The greatest impact reported by both Afghan and US youth was greater unity and solidarity and an increase in media literacy.  Additionally, Afghan youth reported being encouraged to continue their formal education (not always highly valued in Afghanistan, particularly for women), being inspired to help develop their country, an increase in confidence, and recognition of the benefits of team work.  U.S. youth also reported an increase in cultural awareness and an appreciation of diverse perspectives.

For more information on the evaluation process contact Heather Champion at the Center for Creative Leadership. More here at Leadership Beyond Boundaries.

Neighborhood Connections: Dialogue and Community Engagement in Cleveland

We enjoy hearing from people who are intrigued by Visual Explorer and looking for ways to use it in their own work. Below is a thread of conversation with Sue Wolpert, a change maker in Cleveland (here, here, and here … ) and publisher of The Funny Times. Thanks for sharing your work and fun with us Sue.

My work is around dialogue and community engagement in urban neighborhoods in Cleveland. Even in the microcosm of a city we have so many cultures, isolated groups, enemies, possibilities. I refocused my work here in Cleveland after years of Israel Palestine peace work. After my last trip to meet and support positive change agents there, I found that many of the same issues (small minded, past-centric, distrust, power differentials, lack of spaces to bring people together across divides etc.) all of it is right here in my backyard. Cleveland is an exciting place.

From: Sue Wolpert
Sent: Friday, January 13, 2012 12:43 PM
Subject: Visual Explorer Post Card Facilitator’s Set

Hi, Last year I had a chance to be in a large group in Belgium that used the Visual Explorer deck as an ice breaker activity. It was an enjoyable way to get a room full of strangers talking to each other. I would be interested to know what other ideas you have for using objects like a deck to help groups bring themselves forward into relationship and action.

My work is around dialogue and community engagement in urban neighborhoods in Cleveland. I would like to have a tool like the Visual Explorer as a way to loosen up peoples imagination when they gather for various reasons. I work on a grassroots level with individuals and simple associations of citizens trying to make the world a better place.

I am wondering if there is a way to get the materials (cards and facilitator booklet) at a discounted rate. [Yes education and not for profits get a 40% discount–ask for it.]

Thanks for your attention,
Sue Wolpert

 later …

Wow! Thank you so much for the package full of tools which I received this morning. I opened the picture deck this morning first thing and I asked my husband, tell me how you are feeling about the pinched nerve in your neck? He picked the card of the football players crushing the guys neck. …

Today, I took the deck with me to a visit today with a couple of people that run an organization called Peace In The Hood. They do anti-violence, anti-gang, work in a very rough neighborhood of our city. They also do character development work with youth. I shared with the leadership of Peace In The Hood, the Visual Explorer deck and the Values Explorer cards. We discussed ways they might use the Visual Explorer deck to open up dialogue with stakeholders who might become donors. We also talked about how they might use the values cards with their youth as part of the character development and rites of passage work. We came up with the idea of making a wall hanging that uses the 5 values a person holds most closely.


Here is what is going on with the me and the Visual Explorer decks you shared. I used them once in a group setting (see a few pictures attached) before I took on a two year project for a wonderful local organization called Neighborhood Connections.

The event was an experimental evening, a party for local change agents (A Small Group) that combined using the Visual Explorer deck with practices from Peter Block. I have also used the deck in one on one meeting with new people as a way to take the conversation in a different direction.


My work with Neighborhood Connections gives me a great platform to bring people of Cleveland’s urban neighborhoods together. Over the next two years my assignment is to convene many events and occasions which will showcase the accomplishments of grassroots people in Cleveland. I will be creating learning circles, parties, and other kinds of fun community dialogues and learning adventures which will build connections. My work is to bridge divides and cross siloed communities, both among grassroots people, organizations that work with grassroots leaders, and in the vertical divides.

I have spent the last 2 months having conversations with people, listening for themes and for what they want to accomplish that might be possible with a groups that spans across neighborhoods, kinds of work, organization, etc. I am almost to the part where I am going to start making up the engagement process and the what kinds of groups to get going. This is where I will start using the deck.

I will keep you posted as we invent the kinds of convenings where people can slow down, and use the deck to connect and share about what is most important to them in the matter at hand.



One-on-one life coaching using Visual Explorer

From: Beth Dixson
To: Horth, David; Palus, Chuck
Subject: a Visual Explorer story

Recently I gave feedback to an emerging leader, a participant in the Women’s Leadership Program at the Center for Creative Leadership. (I have disguised her identity in what follows.)

She is highly regarded and experienced. Her personal stumbling block is her reluctance to speak forcefully or take the lead.

I’ve carried a small deck of Visual Explorer cards with me for years, just in case. We framed a question for her having to do with seeing herself in 6 months time, and about shifting that which blocks her.

It was late in our 3 hour session, but I spread the cards around our room and left her for a few minutes to be with the images and her thoughts quietly and privately. When I returned, she had confidently picked the card showing a single dandelion seed head silhouetted against the bright skyline.

She spoke about her certainty and attraction for this image instinctively, but could not say more. I followed up with my thoughts framed as “if this were my card, I see/I feel … .”  She liked having a partner in dialogue. It seemed to be a new idea for her that she could look outside herself for a deeper identification with her inner state.

As much as picking the card, I think modeling the way of seeing it and feeling the connection was the key experience for her. A new skill, way of paying attention, bridging the inner chaos through recognizing a personal visual metaphor.

It shifted her mood greatly to a lighter, more hopeful mind set. We were able to complete our talk concretely with sketched actions to take after the workshop.

Along with the whole class experience, I think she will carry that clear image as a re-framing point to sustain her.

As small a thing as responding to an image was a significant moment with its own power and clarity when the totality of the week begins to blur. I certainly felt glad I had this compact resource at hand.

Building and Testing Visual Values Explorer in Somalia

This post comes from Aaron White at Leadership Beyond Boundaries. Aaron is Deputy Regional Director based at the new Center for Creative Leadership office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here’s our virtual interview with Aaron: (More on contextualizing Visual Explorer at What is the biggest challenge that youth face in Ethiopia?)


We have been prototyping a Visual Values Explorer contextualized for Somalia. This card deck works with low-literacy pastoralist communities to talk about individual and communal values and to create deep dialogue for leadership development and conflict mitigation.

Why Visual Values Explorer ?

The Visual Values Explorer idea originated from a desire to have a card deck that could be used for low literacy populations to discuss personal and communal values and one that could also be used for dialogue creation around a framing question.

Knowing common values helps build empathy for other groups (women, other clans, etc) to empower and reduce conflict.

Why contextualize for Somali People?

Those who are working among the Somali people need tools like this to better implement programs in food security, conflict mitigation, governance, etc. I saw a great need for NGOs to have a tool like this in their work.

I have a camel given to me by a Somali ‘uncle’ –which means I’m forever connected to this group.  I have enjoyed the challenges of working with nomadic Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia and through that experience

Roughly 5 million Ethnic Somali people live in Ethiopia, but over 12 million Somali people also cover part of Djibouti, the autonomous and rapidly developing Somaliland, the Somalia we know from piracy and war, and North Eastern province of Kenya.  All sharing similar values, language, religion, and livelihoods despite being spread across 5 countries and thousands of miles. The Somali culture is very different from the majority of Ethiopia.  It’s a very egalitarian society as opposed to highly hierarchal

 How was it created?

CCL worked with Desert Rose Consulting whom we often turn to for contextualizing of our tools and methodology.  Thomas Berger, a Swiss social anthropologist who is fluent in Somali, worked for several months to get a set of pictures that represented important, and not important values. Many focus group discussions were held among urban and rural Somalis.  Pictures were tested and modified several times until a working deck of 64 values was formed.

What are the challenges?

Values are not talked about in Somali society, so it was difficult to get to the root of the culture to understand the how the values actually play out.

Low-literacy populations engaged in focus group discussions had a difficult time “reading” or interpreting abstract pictures that were being used in current Visual Explorer decks.  The new cards are easier to interpret and leave less room for arguments over what the picture means.

Participants were acutely critical of seemingly minor issues in the picture.  A picture of a man and two children (which was supposed to represent the value of being a father or of having children) often got the response… “why is this man with his children during the day? Is he unemployed? Why are the children not looking after the goats or in school? Is he in America?”  Because of those issues, pictures had to be very carefully selected so that participants did not get distracted and start arguing over meaning.  In a picture of a teacher (see below), we blurred the words on the black board to avoid arguments over the content of what the teachers is teaching.

 Where to next?

A lot of development money goes unsuccessfully into Somali areas, but we believe leadership may be the lever to improve these programs.  Tools like Visual Values Explorer can help NGO staff to get community buy-in or to create understanding for like values between groups.


Leadership Explorer tools in Leadership at the Peak

Here’s a story of Wisdom Explorer in combination with Visual and Metaphor Explorers, from our colleague Dave Altman. Dave is an early adopter and shaper of the Leadership Explorer™ tool series. Dave is EVP of Research, Innovation and Product Development, at the Center for Creative Leadership.

‘When participants enter the room, they are dazzled with a potpourri of stimuli that gives them a shot of energy and piques their curiosity… ‘

CCL offers Leadership at the Peak, a program for C-level senior leaders from organizations around the globe. One of the challenges we have in this program, and others we run, is to build in enough time for participants to reflect on the data they receive ,to analyze the experiences they have had during the program, and to set goals for the future. In LAP we now provide participants with a few hours of relatively unstructured reflection time preceding an intense day of both peer feedback and one-on-one executive coaching.

The following approach, in my experience, enhances the effectiveness of this period of reflection. Prior to participants’ arrival, I spread throughout the room cards from Wisdom Explorer, Leadership Metaphor Explorer and Visual Explorer. When participants enter the room, they are dazzled with a potpourri of stimuli that gives them a shot of energy and piques their curiosity!

I then provide them with framing questions related to their current challenges and their goals going forward. I change the wording of the specific questions based on the climate of the classroom and the needs of the participants.

I then ask participants to select a card that represents their current challenge and a card that is emblematic of a high priority goal. In all but a handful of cases, participants flat out reject my advice that they limit their selection to two cards! Many take 4-5 cards and some take even more than that.

It’s very clear that there is huge variability in Explorer card preferences. Some people will select multiple cards within a single deck (e.g., only Wisdom Explorer), while others will mix and match.

Whatever cards they select, a large majority of participants relate how important the card is to them and ask whether they can take the card home. Some weave passionate stories about the cards they select. Most want to share their cards and stories with other participants (which we encourage, but not require them to do).

There are many lessons to be learned from these experiments to promote robust reflection. An important one is to provide participants with multiple Explorer sets, as it increases the likelihood that their reflections on being a leader will be substantive, thought-provoking and lasting.

Visually Exploring an Interdependent Future (VIDEO)

Visual Explorer can be an effective tool for collaborative visioning. What follows is a visual case study of leaders in an organization connecting the current state to their desired future state in a series of images and actions, woven into a shared narrative. The context is a rapidly growing tech company (disguised) doing an experience-to-vision-to-action project that include the colorful vignettes below.

Excerpts from the graphic wall poster follow. The current state is heroic, with people often thinking and acting independently of each other. The future state is one of interdependence and boundary spanning

Later the same VE images were combined with the speaker’s words in a different way, as a tool for reminding senior leaders of the key insights that emerged from the whole series of engagement conversations with employees. This next slide show is …

“…  Just a 10 minute module that enabled the ‘voice of the employee’ to be in the room. First, with the lights in the room down, I played the first image, and hold just that same image in a long dramatic pause. Much longer than they are used to seeing any image. The tension rises and people shout out sometimes. Then the words layer onto the image. There are gasps; very powerful. That pause worked so well, image after image, the whole experience was wildly effective …


Creating Possibility: The Sensemaking Workshop

More cool stuff on Strategic Conversations at the Brody School of Medicine by Bruce Flye. See his full post here and further background here. (Click on the beautiful photos to enlarge them.)


Moving to “Yes And”

Moving to ‘Yes And’ Thinking and Possibilities: A Workshop

by Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky, Ph.D.
Watering the Tree Outside the Fence

It is January when individuals make promises to themselves. While being aware of the  ‘competing commitments’ that Kegan and Lahey write about in Immunity to Change, and of our own experiences of having made a promise to our self that we causally left by the side of the road, as we hurried forward to some other demand on our time. We wanted to create an environment that would not abandon our yearnings.

As the founder of the Society of the Vav, whose mission is to “de-but the world”, I am fascinated by the improvisation exercise known as  ‘Yes and…’ that engages people in opening minds and hearts to possibilities, in contrast to the ‘yeah buts’ we often hear or subtly tell our own self.  I wanted to combine these themes and offer an opportunity to focus on personal desires for this moment.

Silver Threads Celebration is a long-standing annual event for women and their partners who are over fifty.  I offered this workshop to 20 women using these elements and four questions, Visual Explorer cards and creating accountability partners.

We began by engaging in several improvisation exercises. Then I explained the ‘Yeah but’ syndrome and asked them if they would be willing to replace that phrase with a ‘Yes and.’  They all agreed.  And to support their commitments, each two person randomly-created group exchanged addresses and phone numbers and agreed to stay in touch to support each other on her path.

Then the questions were read to the group and copies of the questions, placed by the Visual Explorer cards that were all face down – no one could see the pictures until they were chosen-on a table. The questions are:

  • Who am I in relationship to my vision?
  • What do I need to experience to make this vision happen?
  • What will push or pull me across the threshold of fear or awe?
  • What will I feel or who will I be when I am living my vision?

The women were asked to choose a card for each question and then to spend some time pondering their meaning in relationship to the one desire, vision, goal of their heart they wanted to focus on for our session. After some alone time, each couple found space in the room where they gathered to create the sacred space of listening and attentiveness. After one woman shared her vision and the cards, her partner offered her perspective on the cards.

The women found this process very beneficial and learned a lot about themselves, their partner and from each other. They were encouraged to have a partner on the road with them toward meeting their vision.

Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky, Ph.D. is an Associate at The Center for Creative Leadership

United Nations Development Program, Leadership Beyond Boundaries & Visual Explorer

Here’s a wonderful update from Steadman Harrison on the United Nations LEAD program developing leadership in Portuquese speaking Africa including “Team in a Box” and Leadership Beyond Boundaries. Featured below in the slide show is the Visual Explorer portion of the program–a great sequence of what VE looks like in action. (Slides showing Values Explorer in action at LEAD are shown under the Values Explorer tab of this blog.)


Dear friends,

Writing to you at the close of a long day of meetings in Maputo, Mozambique where I’ve been shuttled from European Union Commission to USAID to DFID to local training consultancies to talk about scaling our work through our UNDP partnership in the six Portuguese speaking countries in Africa.  We now have Leadership Essentials translated into Portuguese, French, Amharic, Arabic, and some Hebrew.A few years ago we talked about the idea of trying to scale our core work out to many more people across language and culture barriers and I am simply writing to tell you that it is taking place at a rapid clip.  We are on an amazing growth curve and the world is starting to take notice.  These are exciting times.  Global Voice of Leadership and now Leadership Beyond Boundaries is really taking off.

Team in a Box™ is a concept that Davida Sharpe and a few of our team at the Center for Creative Leadership worked on a number of years ago. With USAID funding we will be distributing hundreds of Team in a Box™  materials to Public Health teams in the southern region of Ethiopia.  This is just one example of how our tools and methods can be contextualized to help grassroots facilitators change the dynamics of leadership in their own community.

Congratulations to CCL and the Leadership Beyond Boundaries team on these achievements!  Special thanks to our team in Africa – Cheri Baker (intern), Rajan Singh (intern), Hannah Smith (intern), Aaron White, Moses Wawich, Teddy Tadesse, Sissay Abebe, Habtamu Gizaw, Rachel Demiessie, Desalegn Wujira, and our consultancy friends at Desert Rose Consulting in Addis!

Blessings to all of you,

Leadership Explorer tools at the HMC Conference, St. Andrews, Scotland

Steadman Harrison from the Center for Creative Leadership took these great photos at the HMC Conference at St. Andrews, Scotland. More on global leadership at Leadership Beyond Boundaries.


Here are collages from a different venue that Steadman also shared, from his work with the organization ChildFund.

What is the biggest challenge that youth face in Ethiopia?

click to enlarge

Our Leadership Beyond Boundaries team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, asked this question of former street kids, now leaders-in-training, using an Ethiopian version of Visual Explorer to start the dialogue:

(From the bearded man clockwise … )

“The elders and our parents look away from us. They don’t see our value.” – Mamush

“This woman has a cow and she’s happy because she can send her children to school with the milk that it makes. But my family didn’t have that so I went to the street. If parents can’t support their children to go to school, then how can we get a job?” – Tesfaye

“These people are separating the teff (grain) by working together at the same time, but most youth don’t want to work together.” – Zerihun

“We are like these cattle walking in the desert. There is little for us to do and nothing to make us grow strong” – Abeba

“This picture represents people walking into a dark place and I don’t know what’s in there. Many youth don’t know what is in the future for us, so we are like them, walking into the dark.” – Misrak

“Youth are carrying a heavy burden… Look at this man! He is carrying a big load, but where will he go and why aren’t other people helping him?” – Hannah

Aaron White, (CCL Deputy Regional Director for Africa) gave us this report. Aaron and his colleagues are prototyping a locally contextualized version of Visual Explorer:

“We have about 60 cards that we’ve tested with youth and illiterate women, using them to facilitate conversations about leadership and challenges they face.  We’ve also used them as a “visual values” explorer, helping participants sort them into important and not important values for themselves and their community.  When a group of 12-15 year-old former street kids were prompted with the question, “what is the biggest challenge that youth face in Ethiopia?” they responded with these pictures … .”

Here is the background on this project from Aaron, including a partnership with Retrak, a UK based charity that works with street children in Africa.

“The barriers, discrimination, abuse and struggles that children and youth on the street face, in an environment that has not yet acknowledged their potential, is troubling. Vulnerable youth have been sidelined in the development agenda, and, increasingly, their choices are limited, and are excluded from socio-economic development. Youth leadership development complements Retrak’s urgent push to improve the situation for vulnerable youth on the street, helping them transition back into their communities, new foster families, or new opportunities.

“What is important to remember is that youth are quick learners, provide significant contributions in driving change, and have great socio-economic potential, if they are acknowledged as leaders. The value in investing in vulnerable youth is their ability: to change and quickly adapt effortlessly to new opportunities; to innovate and collaborate with others; and to bring energy and drive to society. CCL and Retrak believe that the short-term investment in youth human capital development is actually a long-term development strategy for generations to come.

“To be clear, leadership development is not a panacea for the problems street children face.  However, when integrated with existing programs that focus on protection, health, education, and HIV prevention, leadership development has the potential to make meaningful and lasting change.

“This change has already been noted in a recent 3-day youth leadership pilot program hosted by CCL for current and former street children enrolled in Retrak’s program.   The response from the participants, aged 11-15, was overwhelmingly positive and opened up opportunities to use contextualized tools such as Visual Explorer.”

More on contextualized Visual Explorer at Building and Testing Visual Values Explorer in Somalia.

Boundary Spanning Leadership in Sedona with Visual Explorer (VIDEO)

Facilitated by Rich Been and Rod Mahs from the Center for Creative Leadership. More about Boundary Spanning Leadership here.

Boundary Spanning Leadership | Sedona, Arizona 2011
Facilitated by Rich Been & Rod Mahs

Exploring the climate for teaching, learning, and working

Here’s a self-explanatory slide show from Bruce Flye illustrating his facilitation of  a group exploring how to create a climate conducive to teaching, learning, and working. Notice the “visual + verbal” collaging of the images with their emergent meanings. (Use the full screen mode to get the best view of the slides.)

Visual Explorer™ Video Taste from Konsulentgruppen Innovator (VIDEO)

Konsulentgruppen Innovator from Denmark is using Visual Explorer for positive growth, leadership, learning and change management. This short video shows what a Visual Explorer™ session is like. The framing question in this case was

How do you turn the financial crisis into something positive?

Jens Fisker Carlsbæk, who helped create this video, reports back:

Visual explorer is a tool that helps you find solutions to challenges like this. Visual explorer helps you to think beyond verbal and analytic aspects and to obtain a more nuanced overview to a given problem. Thus, the tool gives you an outcome with new insights and thereby better solutions. Read more about visual explorer and tools to obtain creative/innovative thinking on And participate in discussions and new tendencies on our Facebook page: (in Danish).

Productive Brainstorming Using Visual Explorer™

Kristy Blackman, VP of HR at Lane Construction send us this application of Visual Explorer™ in a quick brainstorming session that ended two weeks of frustration. Notice how the card sized VE can be used on the spur of the moment using just a table top.

“I thought I would let you know that today we had a very positive outcome utilizing our Visual Explorer™.

We were trying to develop a name and URL for our new “Wellness Program” We’d been trying off and on for a couple of weeks. We had some names but they just weren’t doing it for us. There was not a collective feeling that we had found the right one.

While we were standing around I asked the group that was present today for 15 minutes to brainstorm.

I gathered them in the conference room and spread a deck of the cards face down on the table and asked each to pick one and tell how it related to wellness. We jotted down the key words and phrases that each person used. We then did a second round. We came up with 3 phrases that were better than we had so far, but neither were just right.

Using what was on the board we continued to brainstorm. We bounced some things around and asked questions and someone got a bright idea. We found the perfect program name. Project: Wellness.”

Kristy L. Blackman
Vice President, Human Resources
The Lane Construction Corporation

Creating an environment in which change can occur

The Explorer tools easily lend themselves to compelling and useful digital graphics. In this example Bruce Flye uses both Visual Explorer and Leadership Metaphor Explorer in helping this team of departmental leaders create their narrative for intentional change. The print version is huge–six and a half feet long. In that version the narrative text is layered into the “gray space” of the graphic. The online Prezi version zooms to the hi-res detail, which can include photos, charts, and so on (the Explorer cards can be individually photographed and incorporated). This digital artifact allows further reflection and dialogue as the narrative is put into action, and helps bring newcomers up to speed quickly.

Leadership Essentials for the Jamaican Government

“In this program we had all levels of the organization, from maintenance to trainers to managers. …   We wanted to do something to bring them into egalitarian unity, to recognize that everyone is a leader with gifts. We had them choose a Visual Explorer card …  .”

This is a field report from our Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative, submitted by TZiPi Radonsky.

“We just did a Leadership Essentials program with 23 people in a training organization for the Jamaican government.

In this program we had all levels of the organization, from maintenance to trainers to managers. We did not know this initially, and when we figured it out, we wanted to do something to bring them into egalitarian unity, to recognize that everyone is a leader with gifts. We had them choose a Visual Explorer card that was a reflection of their essence as an effective leader. After choosing, they journaled about the card, and then talked about it with two other people. After they did this we had them line up with their pictures, and then slowly walk in front of each person, look in their eyes, and at their picture. We wanted them so see each other in a new way and they did. It was awesome to feel the shift in energy and the coming together as a group.”

Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky, Ph.D.
Associate, The Center for Creative Leadership
Watering the Tree Outside the Fence
The Society of the Vav

Applying Visual Metaphors to Career Transitions

Dr. Robert Barner wrote this insightful and useful article on career coaching using Visual Explorer™ as the tool for metaphorical self-construction by the coachee.  His conclusion:

“In summary, visual metaphors appear to constitute an important part of a client’s narratives and may provide a useful method for helping individuals integrate emotional and symbolic aspects of their life experiences and career aspirations.”

Barner, Robert W. (2011). Applying visual metaphors to career transitions. The Journal of Career Development, February 2011, vol. 38, no. 1, 89-106.

Abstract:  This article makes use of a case study involving two career professionals to show how visual metaphors can be used as an important part of a constructivist approach to career counseling. It discusses how visual metaphors can serve as an effective  methodology for encouraging adults to engage in the self-review of career transitions, discusses comparative approaches to the use of visual metaphors, and explores potential applications of this methodology to career counseling.

Here is an excerpt. The full text may be obtained at  SAGE Journals Online.

“Metaphors can serve as an important interpretive vehicle in helping individuals construct and make sense of their own career narratives. Peavy (1998) contends that‘‘our lives are lived out metaphorically and mythically. Deprive people of their stories and you leave them paralyzed in their actions and stuttering in their words’’ (p.31). Metaphors, which have been defined as ‘‘the understanding of one kind of thing in terms of another’’ (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 5), possess several qualities that make them potent conveyers of personal and organizational experience. They are compact, enabling a single word, phrase, visual symbol, or object to convey a broad array of interrelated thoughts, feelings, and beliefs (Ortony, 1993).

“Because metaphors are incomplete, in that they merely suggest or imply rather than attempt to explain in a literal sense (Ortony 1975), they ‘‘leave room for the imagination to fill in details’’ (Trice & Beyer, 1993, p. 99). This incompleteness also draws our attention to those dominant features that are commonly associated with a given metaphor. Thus, the individual who describes herself as ‘‘caught in an ever-tightening vise’’may begin to view her career through this metaphorical lens, eliminating from viewother interpretative frameworks.

“Within the counseling process, these unique characteristics allow metaphors to serve as powerful symbolic vehicles for giving voice to clients’ life experiences (Amundson, 2005; Hoskins, 1995; Lyddon, Alison, & Sparks, 2001; Rule 1983). Through the use of metaphors, individuals may uncover tacit assumptions aboutself and world that subtly shape their views of life events and possible futures (Lenrow, 1966; Lyddon et al., 2001). Metaphors also appear to support counseling by facilitating the expression of emotional states and experiences that may otherwise difficult to convey (Carlsen, 1996; Fox, 1989; Lyddon et al., 2001; Siegelman, 1990). Similarly, McMahon (2006) contends that the use of metaphors in career counseling may serve as a vehicle to move ‘‘away from the conscious mind and prior meaning structures into uncharted territory where new meaning may be created’’ (p. 21).

“Although the focus of most metaphor research has been on the use of verbal metaphors, individuals frequently make use of such nonverbal metaphors as drawings, icons, or artifacts to give voice to their personal experiences (Fox, 1989; Stein,1994). Meyerson (1991) has proposed that visual data collection methods such as pictures or images provide several advantages over the use of more traditional diagnostic methods such as organizational interviews. These advantages include facilitating the ability of individuals to express emotionally charged issues and reducing the impact of social-desirability effects (Meyerson, 1991, pp. 263-266).

“In summary, visual metaphors appear to constitute an important part of a client’s narratives and may provide a useful method for helping individuals integrate emotional and symbolic aspects of their life experiences and career aspirations. The current study attempts to extend this area of research by using two cases to illustrate how visual metaphors can be used to help individuals construct meaning from career transitions and to envision potential opportunities that exist within those transitions.”

2010 Reprints and permission: 10.1177/0894845309359287

Dr. Robert Barner, Associate Director with the Annette Caldwell  Simmons School of Education & Human Development at Southern Methodist University, and the author of the forthcoming book, Accelerated Leadership Development (Jossey-Bass, scheduled for Q4/2010) has been applying Visual Explorer to both organizational assessment and career coaching.

Life-Career Planning in an MBA program

“It worked! The images they picked really hit home in ways that surprised them.”

From: Carol Connolly Bruce,
To: Chuck Palus

I used Visual Explorer in my Mid-Career MBA course at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
There are evening students, most over 30 years, all with work experience. One of their assignments was to create a Life-Career Plan. So I asked them to pick an image that represents their Current Reality as part of their Life-Career Story. Picking the image helped inform their writing of the story. In preparation for the Life-Career Plan, they picked a second image that represents their vision for their life/career. In the plan, they used Robert Fritz’s concepts of Structural Tension, Current Reality and Vision/Aspiration. Then they integrated the two images, Current Reality and Vision, and the steps it will take to move from the first to the second.

Many of them didn’t think they could do it, but I encouraged them to try and just see what happened. Well, it worked! The images they picked really hit home in ways that surprised them. Their plans were very good, lots of authentic self awareness and opening up to go after things they’ve wanted to do but have pushed aside due to limiting beliefs and mental models, which they were to uncover in their life/career stories. Several are really going for it as a result of the work they did in the course, all are much clearer on what they want. They also commented on how they have a sense of renewal and less fatigue about where they are in their work and lives.

Carol Connolly Bruce
The Center for Creative Leadership

Visually exploring burn out

Cathy M. writes about her experience of Visual Explorer cards as introduced to her by her CCL feedback coach.This is a great illustration of using VE for one on one coaching, and also suggests a self-coaching process, in this case on the topic of burn out.

During my attendance at CCL for the Leadership Development Program, I was blessed to have TZiPi Radonsky as my feedback coach. Prior to attending CCL, I was going through a bit of professional and personal “burn out”. During my feedback session, TZiPi offered me a deck of cards that had a photograph on each card. My assignment was to file through the deck and pull out any cards with pictures that spoke to me in some way. I flipped through the deck and pulled out 7 cards that contained scenes that evoked peace, tranquility and joy in me and 1 card that represented destruction and burn out.

Two interesting things came from the experience:

1) My initial reaction to the burn out card revealed a picture of a bridge embankment that had been destroyed by a tornado or bomb. This demonstrated how I was feeling at that moment. After the empowering, feedback session with TZiPi that followed, I looked at the cards one more time and I couldn’t find the card with the destroyed embankment. I realized that the picture I originally saw as destruction was actually a beautiful bridge crossing a canal leading to a forested area. I was stunned at how being in a more peaceful, clear thinking place completely transformed the picture into something of beauty. Additionally, I never could get the picture back to the original view.

2) The second awareness I had from the card experience came about 4 weeks later. I had been working hard on my CCL goals which included getting back to a state of peace. I began noticing a sense of calm and tranquility in the following weeks and enjoyed recognizing things around me that previously gave me joy. These included:

a. Snow skiing – so I began planning a ski trip with friends this winter.
b. Music – so I purchased tickets for a Christmas concert with the symphony.
c. Nature – so I made a point to notice the sky through the Fall leaves above me on a lunchtime walk through the woods.
d. The beach – so I gathered several girlfriends and went to the beach for the weekend.

A few weeks later, I revisited the cards that I had chosen at CCL (TZiPi sent e-files of them to me) and I was amazed to discover that all of the activities I had planned and accomplished were depicted on the cards I had chosen with TZiPi.

This was quite remarkable. I was pleased to see that the things that evoke peace and joy for me are true even in times when I am in a non-positive place. And, I was impressed that visualizing things I enjoy motivated me to make them happen.

This was an exciting activity!

Cathy M.
CCL attendee, September 2008

Metaphor My Life (VIDEO)

Global Citizen Year
Fellow Ananda Day talks about imagery, metaphor, and life:

“Some people live their lives in technicolor. Others live life in misery. And still others live in ignorance, bliss, knowledge, etc. While there may not be one way to live life, it has become blatantly obvious to me that almost everyone lives their life in metaphor.”

Here’s a cool video from the 2009 Global Citizen Year Training Institute, illustrating Visual Explorer combined with an invitation to “draw your own image”:

Metaphor My Life

 Ananda Day Ananda Day

Two days ago, while struggling to fall asleep (due to the hilarious wolof jokes being told outside my window by ten Senegalese men), I pulled out a stack of Visual Explorer cards, from the Center for Creative Leadership, that I had gotten during training. Visual Explorer is basically a stack of really nice photographs that are card sized. I then asked myself questions, and tried to find out which picture perfectly explained my emotions or ideas about that question. It is surprising how much more you find out about yourself when you make yourself realize why one image or phrase resonates, and another doesn’t. This led me to think about how much of my life is explained like Visual Explorer – in metaphor.


blog it

Visual Explorer Quick Guide

VE is a tool for facilitating creative conversations using visual images. VE helps create meaningful dialogue around complex challenges or difficult issues. Its benefits are in bringing together multiple perspectives, and in creating new perspectives and shared understanding. It is an effective tool to use when people have been stuck in their points of view. Often it is used as a leadership tool; but VE is also useful for classroom discussions, group facilitation, coaching, problem solving, survey panels and focus groups, and in qualitative research. VE is available in a growing number of formats including letter-sized sets of 216 images, more portable playing-card and post-card sized decks.
VE can be used in a wide variety of ways depending on the context. Here are the five basic steps for using VE to facilitate a group conversation around a shared question. These steps can be altered or elaborated for particular situations as described in the VE Guidebook.
  1. Frame
  2. Browse
  3. Reflect
  4. Share
  5. Extend

>>See detailed step by step instructions

1. Choose one or two “framing questions” to frame the conversation. For example a group with a shared challenge might ask: “What is the key to this challenge we are facing?” and “What strengths do we have for solving this challenge?” >>creating effective framing questions.
2. Make the VE images available for browsing. If you are using the full-sized images, spread them around a room on the floor and on tables. Card decks can be browsed in more compact ways, such as on a table top, or simply by thumbing through the deck. Everyone silently browses the images and each person chooses an image for each framing question. “Pick an image that represents or connects to your own response to the question.” The connection of the image to the question can be literal, or it may be emotional, metaphorical, aesthetic, or intuitive (“Let the image pick you”).
3. Each person examines the images he or she has selected, and reflects on how the image connects in any ways to the framing question. “Pay attention to each image you selected. What is it? What is happening in it? What is the context? Anything surprising? How does it connect to the framing question?”
4. The group (or sub-groups) sit in a circle. One person at a time shares his or her image(s) as follows:
First: “Share the image and describe the image itself (forget about any connection to the question for a moment). What is it? What is happening? What do you notice?”
Second: “What connections do you make from the image to the question? How is the image a response to the question?”
Third: Each person in the group responds to the image(s) offered by this first person. Each response may also have two parts: “What do you see in the image? Do you see the same things that other’s see? What stands out to you? AND THEN: “What connections do you make from the image to the question?” After the first person has shared their images around the group in this way, he or she thanks the group, and the conversation moves on to the next person and their image(s). Continue until everyone has shared their images.
5. When this initial dialogue with the images is finished, a certain kind of momentum is often present, and it works well to extend the conversation in whatever direction is important to the group. Subsequently, the most significant images and metaphors can be reused in ongoing creative problem solving, invention, and communication. The images lend themselves to “cascading” to other groups in the same organization, especially in digital form.

“Can this blind man do Visual Explorer … ?”

“I was of course pleased to meet Enos and glad to have him as part of our program. My mind, however, began working overtime on how I would incorporate him into the upcoming Visual Explorer exercise. What could I do to be sensitive to this blind gentleman’s needs? … “

Steadman Harrison at the Center for Creative Leadership sends us this story from the Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative:

“In December 2006 I traveled to Kenya as part of a research initiative called Leadership Beyond Boundaries. I looked at the map and guessed that it would take me about an hour and a half by car to drive from the capital city of Nairobi up to a smaller town called Nakuru where I was to host a Leadership Forum Workshop for our contacts at ERMIS Africa. In Nairobi I hired a driver who agreed to take me out to Nakuru and we started our journey.

“Kenya is a very large country. The short trip I had anticipated turned into a nearly 4 hour drive across the Rift Valley ridge of mountains more than 8,000 feet above sea level. The road was last paved in the 1960s and at times the driver chose to drive off road because the potholes were so bad. At one point I looked out and saw a heard of zebras and asked if we could pull over so I could take a picture. The driver simply veered the car off the road and drove straight out into the field into the middle of the heard so I could see them better. This was the start of my adventure.

“I’ll focus here on one story that happened that first day at the workshop in Nakuru. I decided to set up Visual Explorer early in the morning before the workshop began as a bit of a backdrop and to create some intrigue about the activities we would cover later in the day. The colorful 8.5 by 11 pictures lined 3 of the walls of the conference room. This was an open enrollment workshop and my friend, Bancy, had sent out all the invitations. I had no idea how many participants we would have nor did I know anything about their backgrounds. As participants came in that morning I would introduce myself and some of them asked a few questions about all the pictures spread out around the room.

“Enos Awili was about the tenth person to join us that morning. He came in being led at the hand by a friend. Shortly after being seated he invited me to come over and speak with him where he told me a little bit about his life.

Born in 1950, I became blind as a result of infections by Trachoma and Glaucoma combined. I then went through the normal academic education in a residential school for the blind twenty-seven miles from Nairobi city. I then worked for a bread-producing company until it closed down in January 1993. Since then, I have not been in any gainful employment but thank the Lord for providing me with sponsors who paid school fees for my three children. Despite my financial problems I still feel it’s my duty to teach people about the ethics of good leadership and how to stay free from HIV and AIDS scourge. So I am here today as a representative for Persons with Disabilities National Council of Kenya and look forward to this program.

“I was, of course, pleased to meet Enos and glad to have him as part of our program. My mind, however, began working overtime on how I would incorporate him into the upcoming Visual Explorer exercise. What could I do to be sensitive to this gentleman’s needs? After introducing Visual Explorer that morning I promptly assured Enos that he could be fully involved in the exercise.

“As the exercise began I asked him to briefly describe both his organizational challenge and the ideal future state of his organization (the two questions I had asked the group to consider as they picked out their two pictures). I then led him around the room briefly describing each picture. To my surprise this didn’t take long. When we came across the picture of ‘a donkey with its feet tied together’ he exclaimed that this was his picture he was looking for. And when I described ‘the bird with outstretched wings having just caught a fish’ he said that this was his future organization. The really rich part of the exercise was watching Enos’s sheer delight as each of the members of his small group described the two pictures in great detail.

“At the end of our debrief, he was in tears as he shared what a great gift it was to be a part of such a wonderful exercise that captured the challenges facing the disabled people of East Africa and the hope that he had moving forward to a day when so many people in need would have the resources they needed to soar like eagles.

Visual Explorer with the Afghan National Army

A collage of officer’s VE images from the program

Earlier we looked at Visual Explorer in Afghanistan, used there in leadership development with the Afghan National Army. Clemson Turregano at CCL leads that work. Check out this great collage (top of post) they made of the VE images picked by the class–fabulous. The slideshow below puts the initiative in context and shows the program design.. But the very best part is this next story from Clemson, when his set of VE images got vetted by the local mullah ….

I had laid out the VE pictures in the hallway prior to the class. Going through the deck, I removed any that I thought might be culturally sensitive (women in shorts, that kind of thing). There were still pictures of women, but none that I found might be offensive to Islam. As I was about to welcome the students, a nice gentleman appeared in full Afghan regalia, toting a very nice camera. My translators informed me that he was the local imam, responsible for the area in which the school was located. He spoke a little English and informed me that he was a photographer and asked if he could look at the images. I replied that I welcomed his insight and asked if he might review the pictures so that they would meet all the ‘cultural’ requirements. I left him alone for a while and when I returned, he and I spotted the one picture I had overlooked – Lady Godiva on a horse. Before I could get to it, he looked to the one next to Lady Godiva and said ‘This one OK’ – then he saw Lady Godiva, and handing the picture to me, he stated, ‘this…not so much…’ We both laughed and then he stayed most of the day to watch the interaction with the class. When he left, he thanked me for allowing him to help us.

Effective Group Coaching

Jennifer Britton has a new book called Effective Group Coaching: Tried and Tested Tools and Resources for Optimum Coaching Results. On her blog she cites Visual Explorer as the first of My Five Favorite Group Coaching Tools This Year. An excerpt:

Thursday, December 17, 2009
My Favorite Group Coaching Tools This Year

Every year at this time, I like to look back and take stock of some ofmy favorite tools and resources of the year, and share them here on theblog.

This year, five of my favorite tools and resources are:

  • Visual Explorer from the Center For Creative Leadership. Those of you who joined me inOrlando know the power of this visual tool. I continue to bring it into team and group coaching sessions, along with workshops and seminarsas a conversation starter, and awareness builder. Visit CCL to learn more about the tool in its many different forms.
  • Facilitative Coaching by Dale Schwarz and Anne Davidson. This book is chock full of exercisesand resources for your coaching work. Although geared primarily for a1-1 setting you could adapt many of these for a group context.
  • MindMapping seems to make my list each and every year, but I do so love this tool forprogram design, brainstorming and getting clients unstuck. Check outthe tag MindMapping for some ideas on how I use it. Once again, is the best computer based MindMapping tool around. Try outtheir 21 day free trial at

Opportunities to lead and experience full lives: Living the mission at UGARC

What does the mission statement mean to you?
What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
  – framing questions for the UGARC Visual Explorer sessions

Our colleagues at the social services organization Ulster-Greene ARC (UGARC) have been using Visual Explorer™ in a series of creative conversations to build understanding of and commitment to the mission among their 1000+ employees. The method involves gathering about 35 people at a time in three and a half hour sessions, with the Executive Director participating in each one. UGARC has been quite pleased with the process and the outcomes. What they are doing is a fascinating form of leadership, and leadership development. Let’s take a closer look.

This post documents the details of the process so others can follow and adapt from it. All you need for the process is a set or two of Visual Explorer images, facilitators, a big enough room, and a worthy mission needing understanding and commitment!

(Thanks to all the fine people at UGARC! Thanks also to Al Selvin atCompendium Institute for helping to birth this process at UGARC; his detailed process notes are invaluable and are linked here.)

Some facts about UGARC, from their website:

We are a not-for-profit agency that serves nearly 2000 people who have developmental delays or disabilities throughout the mid-Hudson and Catskill Mountains (New York state) region. The disabilities include mental retardation, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to name just a few.

Our vision: The dreams, desires and needs of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are realized through innovative services and advocacy.

Our mission: To offer people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities opportunities to live and experience full lives.

This is challenging and rewarding work, and it is not for everyone. It’s vital that UGARC engages people explicitly and deeply around their shared direction. The mission is the reward–and if you don’t believe that you may be working in the wrong place. UGARC built a wonderful process for this kind of engagement, a conversation using visual images as something in the middle to work with.


  • Staff at all levels will think about the mission with an open mind
  • People from different departments will creatively connect with each other
  • All staff will live the mission


  • 100% engagement in a non-threatening environment
  • More alignment to the mission within and across departments
  • Widespread renewal of passion for the mission

Here’s a summary of the process.

Thirty five people at a time gather for three and a half hours in a comfortable place. The Executive Director talks briefly about the mission. People spend five minutes writing their thoughts (privately) about two questions:
1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
Each person chooses two images, one for each question, from the Visual Explorer set, browsing all the images laid around the room. Groups of 5-6 sit in circles and share their images and their ideas about the two questions (in a process we call the Star Model, described below.) Then the whole group gets back together and talks about what they learned about the two questions, and how was it talking like that, and they have a good chat about the mission.

This is not complicated nor is it difficult. There are a few tricky aspects and clear instructions, and basic facilitation, are necessary. The script for the process used at UGARC is provided at the bottom of this post.

Here are some interesting observations that Bart Louwagie, their IT Director and a catalyst of this process, shared with me recently.

  • It’s non-threatening. There is not much of a chance “to say the wrong thing.”
  • 100% participation ensues naturally. It’s fun and inviting.
  • The mission is in the foreground
  • Easy and simple, you can do it with your own staff
  • Overall feedback is very positive
  • People talk closely with each other in these sessions on many topics using many stories.
  • It’s also a chance to get different departments (who attend together) to get on the same page
  • Now some people are using Visual Explorer in other places like staff meetings, or in their families

The following agenda spells out the process used at UGARC. The details can be adapted of course to fit a variety of objectives and contexts. (Here are slides from one of the sessions, which also produced the “hands on the mission” poster at the top of this post.)

Sample Agenda

8-9: Arrive
– Hand out first handout with the two questions
– Hand out their name tags and a sequential number between 1 and 16
– Hand out the agendas
– Hand out map with assigned areas
– Food-coffee is in multipurpose room.

9-9:15: Introduction, recognition

9:15 Laurie (Executive Director)
– Talk to the mission and the mission statement
– Laurie say that the goal is for us: [COMPLETE]
o All to sign the mission statement with our hand print, which you will do at the end of the session.
o Do a personal commitment by writing to yourself
o We have a FULL day, so stick to time indicated

9: 20 Sue & Bart (Senior leaders)
– Explanation of Visual Explorer with the one sample slide. Model the process.
– You all have a handout with two questions that we would like you to think about and write some initial thoughts down. This is something just for you personally. Spend 5 minutes on both questions.
– Question 1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
– Question 2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?

  • Look at all the pictures
  • Pick two pictures that talk to you, one for each question.
  • Please be silent while you choose pictures.
  • Come back to your seat with the two pictures.

– Talk about time management; why it is important for all to keep track of time so that all have a fair share in the conversation.

– 15 minute walk around with music and pick their pictures and come right back to your seat.

– Short 5 minute break

– Look at the back of your questions form to find the instructions below..


Please be seated in your group by 10:00
A. Please make sure to start this phase on time. Spend 1 min reading the instructions.
B. Question 1 first

1. Person A starts and shows the picture to group and makes sure everyone can see the picture during the conversation. Describe the physical image itself in detail. (1 min)
2. Talk to why you chose that picture, “How does the picture speak to the question about the mission?” (4 min)
3. Then hand the conversation over to another person B in the group who says: “If I had picked this picture (the one of person A) this is what I would have seen…” Allow everyone to answer that same question in turn (1 min each), limit back and forth please.
4. Person A with picture “thank you for your input” (0 min)
5. Next person presents their own picture with process starting on number 1.

C. After half hour total all pictures for 1 question should have been reviewed by the group.
D. When all have done image/question 1, same cycle for image/question 2, go back to B. You should start on question 2 by 10:40
E. Finish group discussion of both questions and be back in main room by 11:20.

That’s the agenda that UGARC followed. Of course this can be adapted for other contexts and timeframes.

The experience of the staff at UGARC in doing this exercise has typically been quite positive. Here is a reflection from Don Crespino, Ulster-Greene ARC Vocational Coordinator:

As with most trainings, I entered into the Visual Explorer Training not knowing what to expect. The Visual Explorer session was a rare and enlightening experience in the field of working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. I feel that we as a culture are realizing that more often than not, it is our thinking and approach that greatly hinders us from providing quality services (more than anything else). The Visual Explorer exercise managed to unite different types of people and employees on all levels by getting them to experience universal meanings based on seeing the same thing in all aspects of life. The fact that everyone was able to express themselves in an environment where there were no wrong answers, just interpretations based on a few different photographs and everyone uniquely expressing how they see things like our agencies Mission Statement in them, was so thought provoking towards the right thinking and approach in our field of employment.

What do you see? Using Visual Explorer for admissions essays at the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

click through to the New York Times article
more on Dean Schall’s address
more at the NYU site
more at Leading Effectively CCL blog

reposted from the New York Times, EducationLife section, Sunday, November 1, 2009

Below is the online application page with the instructions for the essay (click image to enlarge).

More from Dean Ellen Schall:

Excerpt from Dean Ellen Schall’s Convocation Remarks
Presented to 2009 graduates of the
NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
May 15, 2009

“In the Wall Street Journal last week, 10 college presidents were asked to answer a question from their own schools’ applications. They all found it harder than they imagined. We have always understood at Wagner that it mattered how we started to engage you, even as prospective students, that we were beginning a conversation, perhaps a relationship – one that could last for years.

“Two years ago, when many of you applied, we decided to add a particular twist to our application – in part to get your attention, in part to signal we were after a different level of engagement. We gave you the possibility of responding to a photo, a visual image, from a collection of images developed by colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership. As you may remember, we use Visual Explorer, which is what CCL calls this approach, at orientation as well. The basic idea is that it’s easier to get the conversation started when you have an object in the middle. And we wanted to get a conversation started. more>> and more>>

Creative conversations with the women of Kpendua, Ghana, West Africa

“This is the Nyobilbaligu Women’s Group having their monthly meeting on my veranda. Using the Visual Explorer cards, this meeting focused on thinking for oneself, creativity, problem-solving, and information sharing.”

“[In these photos] three women at our women’s group meeting trying to decipher what exactly is in each photo. When they weren’t asking their friends for help, they were sitting quietly turning the Visual Explorer cards over and over in their hands.”

This item is reposted from the CCL Leadership Beyond Boundaries blog, Visualizing new futures with women in rural Ghana.

From: Cheri Baker
Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 5:44 PM

Hello yet again! Of course, when I reached Tamale, not only was the Internet down but power all over the city was out for about 12 hours! I’m sorry for the delay, but it’s an expected part of life here. Here’s some information for your blog about the three women’s group meetings I held in Kpendua using the Visual Explorer cards.

Work began soon after moving to a very rural village in the Northern Region of Ghana. As a Health/Water and Sanitation Peace Corps Volunteer, my work is incredibly varied and always interesting. Through constant interactions with the villagers in Kpendua, I have learned more than I ever imagined about another culture and its people.

Since I first moved to Kpendua, I have marveled at how strong and hard working the women are. Because I was so impressed with their dedication to their families, a group of village friends and I decided we should start a Women’s Group. But at the first meeting, more than 65 women showed up to participate! In time, our one women’s group became four separate ones, and our work together ever since has been very worthwhile.

At the majority of our monthly meetings, my Ghanaian counterpart and I teach interactive lessons on HIV/AIDS, nutrition, proper breastfeeding, hand washing, or a topic of a similar nature. For the two strongest and most active groups, we are also trying to create business plans for alternative livelihood projects like corncob charcoal and beekeeping. But the most interesting work I’ve done with them has been related to the role of a Dagomba (a tribe in Ghana with whom I live) female, gender equality in a village, and leadership development activities.

When I first moved to Kpendua, I used a well-known Peace Corps technique (specifically a PACA tool) in which you begin by posing a positive question to get the group comfortable and more receptive to information gathering, then following up with a more difficult one that makes the group think about some negative aspects of their life. After a meeting in the capital of Ghana with Lyndon Rego, Steadman Harrison III, and Phillip Brady from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), I was able to bring some of CCL’s techniques to a village in the North. In three separate women’s group meetings, I repeated the same PACA tool–but this time with a very helpful visual aid: CCL’s Visual Explorer cards.

And wow, what a difference they made! When I first posed the question to groups of villagers more than a year a go, I just got blank looks in response. When pried, I could get some answers out of the villagers, but the concept and reasoning behind my questioning was too unclear. They couldn’t seem to fathom why I was asking them, “What aspects of your life here do you appreciate?” When pushed, they could only answer about tangible things. They’d say, “We like that we have a clinic in our village that serves nine surrounding communities,” or “We like that we have a Primary School.” I was disappointed to find that that was all I could get out of them. Frustrated at the time, I eventually moved onto other techniques. But this time around, using the same technique with the Visual Explorer cards made all the difference.

While it was still very difficult, the women were very chatty once they understood the concept of the meeting. I started by asking the women, “What is the best thing about living in Kpendua?” (Most villagers I live with trouble with the concept of the word, “best.” They also have trouble with the concept of “goals,” “improvements,” and “future plans,” but that’s another frustrating story!) When I rephrased the questioning to, “What is already happening in Kpendua that makes you the happiest? What is successful? What is good about living here?” I was able to get a few very informative and interesting responses. The most impressive answer I repeatedly received was related to the Visual Explorer Card (VEC) that depicts a group of young boys standing with their arms around each other’s backs.

Through that photo, the women talked about how it’s great that everyone here helps each other, specifically to floor compounds (an amazing communal and very musical experience), plaster the mud walls (with a mixture of cow feces and mud), harvest groundnuts, and gather maize for naming ceremonies. Another group commented that they were happy that when a man asks other villagers for communal labor farming, men gladly ride their bicycles to farm to help weed. In addition, they were happy we have meetings and discussions so everyone’s voices can be heard. The photo of the dilapidated house by a riverside drew murmurs of approval.

The women said, “The house is very beautiful; it is big and the landlord would be proud to own the house. We are happy that Kpendua has strong mud rooms for strangers (Ghanaian English for “guests”) coming to visit because it’s nice to have strangers.” It was also interesting to hear a woman exclaim she was “happy because she has strong legs to do all the work that women do daily” and that “It’s too hard for the women who can’t walk well.” All this just from a photo of small baby’s feet held in an adult’s hand!!

When a woman holding the card of crayons asked the translator if it was a picture of bowls, he explained to her that it doesn’t matter what the photo is and that what matters is what she sees.

As she grew more comfortable with her thoughts, she made a long speech about how happy bowls make her. She clarified that female villagers use bowls to eat, and food is important. After pushing her to continue, she answered that bowls make her happy because it’s nice to serve and share food at baby naming ceremonies and funerals. Though the inevitable tangible answer did come up repeatedly, it was great to hear what the women thought was going well in their communities. They realized they were lucky to have a competent nurse who could take care of them when they were sick at our clinic, which serves the nine surrounding communities.

Another woman’s photo reminded her of mosque, and she explained that Fridays made her very happy because everyone was “praying very seriously.” Another woman said she was happy we have a road big enough for lorries to pass through our village. Yet another said it made her happy when there was a full moon because people could walk around freely and see at night. (Kpendua has no electricity.) A woman who said it made her happy to see development in Kpendua discussed the photo of an old woman’s eyes. Kpendua has a school, a clinic, a mosque, and light poles waiting for electricity. (Though the district has been claiming that “the electricity will certainly come soon” for more than two years, we do have light poles lying on the ground in the middle of the village!) And in a response that portrayed a major tradition in the tribe, a woman said she was happy that the elders here are respected and make the major decisions for the rest of the village after looking at a VEC of an old lady.

After this question, I asked a new series of questions trying to pry answers out of them about they want to happen in Kpendua. I asked questions like, “What do you see in the photos that makes you sad about living in Kpendua? What is difficult? What can we improve on in Kpendua?” This part of our meetings consistently proved very interesting. I have been here for almost two years, but I can rarely get any concrete answer out of this type of question. No matter how patient I am and how many times I explain that my role as a PCV is not to give money, most people just answer this question by saying that they want me to help them buy a tractor. And get more money. This was the first time I was able to hear what the women really want. The VEC cards really helped them open up. With the VEC, I now know that the women with whom I work want a special grinding mill to make shea butter. And on a related note, they want bulk traders to come directly to the village to buy the unprocessed shea nuts. I also learned that they want more Moringa Oleifera trees, a major nutrition project I have been working on with them for about a year. And they want more water, since there are currently only three working boreholes for 3000 people. (There is supposed to be one for every 300 people.) By looking at a VEC of an overturned shopping cart, a woman said she wanted to learn how to do beekeeping. (Apparently word of one of my potential upcoming projects has spread!)

They don’t want any more lorry accidents (we had a very serious one a few months ago killing seven people from Kpendua and injuring literally everyone else.) And they don’t want people to “grow lean” and suffer without enough food. After gazing at the VEC photo of a pile of skulls, a women said she didn’t want any more warfare within the Dagomba tribe. (An ongoing chieftaincy dispute has split the tribe into two major sides.)

But the most exciting answer for me was when each group mentioned that they want latrines!! In the entire village, I still have the only latrine while everyone continues to go to the African “bush” to use the toilet. The women all agreed that they want latrines so they don’t have to go to toilet so far away anymore. This answer made me so excited because my counterpart and I have been talking until we’ve felt like we were blue in the face trying to desensitize the village to the need for latrines.

Overall, the use of the VEC was a huge success. Though one of the women’s groups kept asking my counterpart to direct them more with clearer directions, he kept refusing for the sake of the activity. We also spent a great deal of time stressing that there were no wrong answers. They didn’t have to know what the picture was of; instead we wanted to hear about anything that they saw. Admittedly, it was also sometimes difficult to get the women to say how the photo related to Kpendua instead of just explaining what they saw in the photo. Even so, I heard more about what aspects of life they want to leave the same and what they want to improve than I have heard in a long time. It was pleasant to hear the women interact so freely with each other, and I enjoyed watching them work together to try to figure out what was on each card.

Near the end of each meeting, women were answering the questions very clearly without using the cards. It was the first time they were so open and forthcoming with their responses. It was an amazing change. I will certainly be using these cards again soon!”