How to simplify a complicated process

so that even a 2.5 year old would understand them

A few years ago, we had a significant challenge with our 2 year old daughter. Morning and evening routines were an uphill battle every day. Getting out the door to her childminder quickly enough to make my first meeting in the morning was often a drawn out battle of wills.

While it was clear she wanted to collaborate and appease us as parents, she didn't understand what we expected of her. Moreover, her brain development still seemed to behind. The neocortex doesn't really kick into overdrive growth until later. She was also awash hormones, which is completely normal for this age. This caused the temper tantrums typical for a two year year old. They're called "terrible twos" for a reason. We were also frustrated as parents, and we didn't know how to help her. Fundamentally, this was an issue of her feeling overwhelmed. And unable to sort out what's important from what isn't.

In a professional context, visualization works really well to help stop overwhelm. Whether this to map out a business process, plan a large scale software system, or figure out a business model, it always helps to have everyone involved "brain dump" onto post-its. And then to organize them. This usually unleashes a lot of latent creativity. Plus it helps front-load difficult discussions. You find out really quickly what the major challenges are with a new initiative.

How it all started

One Saturday afternoon, as I was watching her learn to draw on a coffee table, I had the idea to map out her morning and evening routines as a process. This would be analogous to a light weight lean value stream map or a business process Eventstorm. First and foremost, I wanted to do it with her, not to her. As she was already drawing and playing around, I felt a little more comfortable drawing my chicken-scratch cartoons. I don't feel like drawing was ever a personal strength of mine.

So I pitched it to her as a fun project we can do together. I pulled out some bigger post-its and a sharpie, and sat down at the coffee table with her.

First, I suggested that we brainstorm all of the things which she does in the morning. As she was coming up with specific actions, like eating breakfast, I would sketch out in cartoon format some kind of symbol of that particular activity.

As she clearly wasn't able to read yet, images reduced the cognitive load for her. And she was excited to see me draw things she understands on the fly. It isn't that common of a sight to be honest. As an output of each suggestion, we drew out a specific green wide post it, and put it on a coffee table.

Once we had a handful of these, I suggested a few others which she might have missed. I also suggest a few which were incorrect, just to make sure she was paying attention.

After this, we moved to a "converging phase". I suggested that she take the post its and put them in order on the wall. We had to do it together in practice, but the key was that I gave her the final say in the actual order. I was holding the relevant two postits, and asking questions like do you "eat breakfast" before you "descend the stairs"? Doing this multiple times, we came up with a chonologically ordered list of post-its that reflected her morning routine.

At that moment, she seemed to step back and view the whole process. And she was absolutely beaming, proud of both us for doing it together. But also happy that she finally understood what her parents were on about every morning. I think this was all because she felt less overwhelmed.

So she felt confident that she will now be able to achieve what is expected of her. Because she understood what is expected of her for the first time in her life!

Wrap up and implementation

We then did the same thing thing with her evening routine on dark blue post its. And ordered it the other way, finishing with her in bed and falling asleep.

When thinking about it, I realized that some of the activities are performed on the ground floor of our house. And some on the first floor, where her bedroom and the bathroom was. So I unwrapped a brown paper roll, ripped off two pieces about a meter long, and sat down with my daughter. We put all of the ground floor post-its on one brown paper square, and all of the first floor post its on the other.

Finally, we hung up the ground floor post its in our dining room, and the first floor post its in her bedroom. So in the end, she had a detailed map of her daily routines, organized chronologically and physically near the place where she would actually do them.

What happened in practice

My wife and I were shocked at how effective this was. The daily tantrums nearly disappeared completely overnight. If there was push-back from her, it lasted 15 seconds not 15-45 minutes as it frequently did in the past.

The fastest way to help her calm down, when she looked like she was about to blow up, was to walk her over to the post its. Then ask her where we were at that moment in the process. She would point to the relevant one. The emotions would calm down, as this required some cognitive load from her. And we could continue on with the rest of the routine that morning or evening.

About a year later, as I was putting her to bed, she said

"Daddy, that picture there is wrong" pointing at the one where she brushes her teeth.

"Oh realy, what do you mean?" I asked.

"By the time I am brushing my teeth, I'm already wearing my PJs, not a dress".

She was absolutely right. The next weekend, I drew out a version of the same post-it with her avatar dressed in a pajamas.

Her brain development caught up to understand what this map meant. She had full ownership of the process, because she'd been involved from the beginning. And most importantly, she could call out specific ideas for improvement.

Lessons learned

This experience made it clear to me how powerful the principle of visualization actually is.

  • It can help make sense of initially overwhelming complexity, by putting everything "out there" on the wall rather than in your own head.

  • It helps participants feel empowered and in control of what is happening, thus improving motivation once decisions are made.

  • It helps everyone involved to view a situation more objectively, both big picture and into the smaller details (what should i draw on your plate when you eat breakfast?)

  • In the case of my daughter, the increased clarity and reduced overwhelm also helped with emotional regulation. While (hopefully) not as necessary in a professional environment, it's good to know that this a welcome side effect.

  • It doesn't even require the ability to read or write.

Visualizing waste and complexity is a very powerful way to help get a grip on it. Clearly, the visual component speaks to us at a primordial level. Cavemen drew images. Medieval religious communication was all based on paintings and images.

In software terms, this would be like the kernel of the operating system. So you really get through to the root causes of problems and address them, rather than just yelling louder and pressuring people-regardless of age-who don't act according to your wishes.