PRB Articles

Strike An (Optic) Nerve

From the beginning, the intent of this column has been to help managers think about and explain agency issues from a “visual” perspective. In the spirit of empowerment, this month’s column follows the ancient parable’s instruction to teach people how to fish rather than simply giving them a fish.

The variety of techniques used to “draw” each month’s tools actually can be grouped into a few common categories.

The “Circular” Logic Of Venn Diagrams

In 1880, John Venn published an article describing his method of overlapping circles (see Figure 1) to show how two or more factors--which he termed sets--interact (Edwards). This method is easy to construct (place a coffee mug on a piece of paper and trace around the bottom edge), and just as easily understood. (Note: Venn diagrams normally are limited to three circles, but four can be used for diagrammatic purposes.)

For example, as shown in Figure 1, the left circle may represent all participants in agency programs, and the right circle can represent the people residing in the agency’s political subdivision. The circles’ overlapping area contains those people who are both participants and residents--the taxpayers who support the agency. The size of each circle can be scaled to indicate actual numbers (of people, in this case), and the amount of overlap is varied according to the level of interaction. In Figure 1, therefore, the number of participants is smaller than the number of citizens, but very few of the participants also live within the agency’s political boundary.

X, Y and Z: Cartesian Space

Rene Descartes (who used the Latin version of his name: Cartesius) is credited with developing a coordinate system consisting of numbered axes--horizontal (x) and vertical (y)--that divided a space into four squares or quadrants. Two versions of this method commonly are used.

The first (Figure 2) features the “zero” point (called the origin), located where the axes cross, which splits both the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes into a positive half and a negative half. This creates quadrants, allowing the aspect a manager is measuring to be expressed as really desirable (+, +), or really negative (-, -), or as two other less desirable options (+, - or -, +). For example, if agency staff members are performing according to standards--and patrons appreciate it--that is considered a “+, +” condition, also known as a win-win. Conversely, if they are performing poorly, and patrons are complaining, a “-, -” lose-lose situation exists.

The second version (Figure 3) uses only the positive halves of x and y to show how one variable affects a second, which also can be used to indicate trends. For example, if an agency increases its promotional budget, it expects to see an increase in the number of participants. Since neither a budget nor the number of participants can be less than zero, there is no need for “negative” space in such a tool. The line connecting the initial conditions with the new conditions depicts the change between the two points--a trend.

Care To Go Cycling?

Figure 4 represents a transition from trending (Figure 3) to a true cycle (Figure 5), in which the “trend line” becomes more than a general indication of change by being divided into several distinct categories or stages. For example, an event such as a costume party is composed of several stages based on the number of people attending at various times throughout the evening. Because no one wants to be first, only a few people are present at the party’s scheduled starting time. Then, a larger group arrives “fashionably late,” followed by those who actually are running late; this is the moment of greatest participation. Soon after, a few must leave due to other commitments, while a larger number departs near the scheduled ending. Even then, a few guests linger “after hours,” until, eventually, everyone has gone home.

Figure 5 is a true cycle, in that its series of stages finishes by returning to the first step, to repeat albeit in a modified form. Program planning is a perfect example of cycling, and also may be conceived as being more like an upward-rising spiral, because the modifications ensure that programs are improved the second--and third, etc.--time around. Obviously, the number of steps can vary, as can the number of times the cycle is repeated.

At some point, all managers face the frustration of not getting their message across. Based on the time-tested truism that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” each tool in the box serves as a map showing the “lay of the land” with regard to the particular topic at hand, while also showing the path leading to the “way out.” Using one or more of the graphic devices described above provides an alternative way to facilitate understanding and communication by going beyond words.

Works Cited

Descartes, R. (2001). Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology. Paul J. Olscamp (trans). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Edwards, A. W. F. (2004). Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at

The Call

A Closer Look