One of the toughest challenges I have faced is telling my family what I actually do. My kids think that I draw pictures and because I have worked pretty extensively with the US Department of Defense, that I might even be a spy. Its not true, but it sure sounded cool to their friends.
In thinking about explaining what I do as a consultant, I recalled one of my favorite books as a kid - The Way Things Work by C. van Amerongen. The book was written in the late 1960s and has subsequently been reissued by David Macaulay with much cooler images, but the premise is the same - help make complex systems (a washer, a car engine, the Internet) understandable, using diagrams and drawings to tell a story. The book was groundbreaking because for the first time (that I knew of anyway), you did not need to be an engineer to "get the gist" of how something works without having to read endless amounts of technical jargon.
For most of my work life, I have been doing just that - using diagrams to help non technical people (starting with me) understand complex systems and how they need to change to large organizations thrive in an ever changing world. To be more specific:
Understanding the way things work today (current state)
Analyzing how things could work (incorporating innovative ideas)
Determining how things should work (applying mandates, policies and laws)
How things will work (requirements for the best alternative)
The resulting set of methods (a methodology) is called Architecture Based Analysis [ABA], since it uses architectural diagrams to help non-technical folks understand the complex processes, systems and rules of an organization using visual images. Really not rocket science on the face of things.
As for smaller organizations, change can happen pretty quickly, using a whiteboard (virtual or actual) to apply the methods an a way that results in the way things will work. However, as organizations become larger they really do follow Metcalfe's Law (probably in that book somewhere) but basically as each additional entity (an organizational function, business system, etc.) is added to an organization, things become an order of more complex magnitude.
The problem is familiar to anyone who has worked in big organizations, including the aforementioned US Department of Defense (which is both huge and complex). However, if the diagrams are created in a standardized way, and the resulting requirements for how things should work are linked to other requirements, it becomes powerful way to discover things about an organization that even long time employees did not know. That is the fun part.
How ABA does this is a subject for a future post. Other than helping my kids understand what I do for their college, the point of this post is that when it comes to illustrating complex organizations and helping them to change successfully, and a picture really is worth a thousand words.