Visualization Technology Helps Companies See the Future

When was the last time you visualized your company’s operations? I’m not talking about a spreadsheet or a slide deck, or a new arrangement of chairs. Have you taken a few hours recently to sit back, think out loud, and try to form a picture of how your business might look in the future?

If you aren’t quite sure how to translate the raw numbers that describe your business the way it is today into a set of visuals that might remind you of science fiction, talk to someone like JR Reagan, the Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at consulting powerhouse Deloitte in Arlington, VA. JR is on the cutting edge of using technology to help us render robust what-if scenarios. He runs the Highly Immersive Visual Environment (HIVE), a victory for innovation in itself that JR took from a one-room experiment to a well-resourced floor full of activity that has respect and buy-in throughout Deloitte.

Overlooking the Potomac and the hallowed halls of Georgetown University–and more or less around the corner from the Pentagon—JR and HIVE are in a power center, for sure. He uses that geographic vantage point to share new views with corporate heavyweights and the military’s top brass.

JR’s guests at HIVE are people who solve big problems that move millions of dollars, if not more. But JR points out that often the cobbler’s children have no shoes, as the saying goes–his guests and clients have a tough time creating value for their own companies the way they do for clients.

JR’s path to this point has zigged and zagged a little, in keeping with Peter Drucker’s tenet that innovation is something you practice. He’s seen it all, from government to banking to startups, and now the innovation hub of Deloitte. Part of what he’s learned along the way is that although recombining ideas and elements in a creative way is essential, it’s alright to take a page from someone else’s book, or “borrow brilliance,” as he puts it. We’re always starting with at least a kernel of a previous idea, and sometimes it’s not our own.

Nevertheless, the visualization JR promotes is about your own “a-ha” moments and what you add to a continuous and multi-person learning process. Pull in new data, think out loud, and in the right environment, you can see what the future looks like more clearly than ever before.

HIVE’s Two Commandments

JR lays down a couple of ground rules at HIVE: prototypes, not presentations, and hypotheses instead of requirements.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand presentations,” JR says. By getting something–anything–to visualize, you can learn where to tweak, pivot, or add layers. Data from clients and other organizations goes into the HIVE computers and comes out as something more visible, and even tangible, ready for hands-on strategic analysis.

Emphasizing hypotheses over requirements helps leaders recognize that even the smartest among us are doing our best in a fast-moving and information-rich business world. That is to say, if you’re doing it right, innovation should leave you humble and ready to evaluate a range of scenarios, not just the one that confirms your brilliance.

JR’s undergraduate social science background and keen cultural sense honed over years living in South Korea help him fine tune the way people interact with HIVE and Deloitte. He’s witnessed the transformation of doubtful generals and CEOs who sit down and cross their arms, not expecting to be impressed. Then JR starts walking through vignettes and stories of how things could be or what other clients have achieved through visualization, never telling them to do this or that. The exercise is all about reimagining problems and starting to co-create solutions. “That’s how you get the wheels turning,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a general, CEO, or agency head,” JR points out. “You watch them at around the 15 minute mark in a 2 hour meeting, and they’re elbowing the person next to them, saying, ‘See what we could do with that.’” He can almost see their gears shift from merely processing a presentation to visualizing a novel picture of what’s possible. A lot of those same senior executives who started with furrowed brows and folded arms end up staying for hours so JR and his team can help them run with their ideas. By the time they leave HIVE, his visitors feel empowered. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” they begin, and JR says, “Tell me!” The HIVE team then sets about bringing in missing pieces (usually data), and building out even fuller visualizations.

New Questions

“Visualization gives them answers to questions they haven’t asked yet,” JR says. To help that process along, HIVE has a lot of white surfaces and touch screens–it’s a blank slate where innovators almost literally throw ideas at the wall. Kiosks around the lobby display futuristic pieces of technology on loan from the MIT Media Lab. “They don’t solve anything by themselves,” JR says, but they spur creative thought. We all know what it’s like to hold a new piece of tech before we’re quite sure how we’ll use it or how it will transform our day. HIVE is about applying that same thinking across organizations in an approachable way.

JR calls himself a user experience (UX) evangelist, and he believes the process of scenario planning should deliver the same feeling as editing a photo quickly or paying a bill without hunting around a poorly designed website. “I’m old enough to remember booking travel sitting across from someone entering codes,” JR reflects. There was a world behind that person’s terminal we didn’t have access to. “Now, as consumers, we can do pretty sophisticated stuff, adjusting slider buttons, dates, times, durations, and at home, we’ll abandon a website in a heartbeat if the site’s value doesn’t come across visually.” As JR provides value with the help of an immersive experience, he hopes clients and visitors to HIVE will visualize a future where people interact with their systems in a fluid way. Positive user experiences are also a must if you ever expect to attract and retain the talent you need to build competitive advantage.

“People in the workforce expect things to work,” JR adds. He sees learning cycles getting shorter, and the younger generation of workers are now on the same side as customers when it comes to demanding access to tools that let them do serious analysis.

Da Vinci Days

In the HIVE, project management is simple and visual, and around the space you’ll find designers, programmers, and skilled analysts, many of whom are innovative Deloitte team members from other parts of the federal practice.

HIVE holds what JR calls “Da Vinci Days” once a quarter, inspired partly by the 20% of work time Google gives its employees for productive tinkering and projects. At HIVE, everyone has a personal innovation project, and once a quarter the whole team shows each other what strengths they all have to tap into.

To further spread the spirit of immersive technology, JR teaches classes at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School as well. There he can help emerging business leaders look far ahead and try multiple future scenarios on for size with the help of immersive visuals and tools that really let them create.

“In the consulting world by and large we’ve become slaves to presentations; we almost use it as a shield,” JR says. At HIVE there’s no script. It flows as fast as the ideas come and their extensive array of tools will let them.

Sometimes those who have taken the dive into this Highly Immersive Visual Environment get their a-ha moment after JR sees them on their way. They start chatting in the elevator or on the ride back to the office about how to wire the new vision into their enterprise and make it operational. Then they get excited about fleshing out the vision and getting the job done with Deloitte’s help. Then JR gets to see them again, because the innovator’s job is never done.

Originally published in SmartCEO Magazine, December 2013
Image courtesy of Deloitte

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