How To Create A Rich Picture


Tuesday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality. – Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In my last post I introduced the idea of facilitated modelling and suggested it was worth spending a little time exploring this. Facilitated modelling is a practice that helps to structure discussion through the use of a representation – a model of some kind that people can engage with.

Rich Pictures are a technique used in Soft Operations Research and particularly in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). The idea is that getting people to draw a picture of a situation that matters to them is a useful way of getting at ideas and insights that are less easily expressed verbally or in written form.

I’m considering arguing that Rich Pictures should be treated as models – they have parts that can be related to make a whole. You can use the model to help you think and come up with observations and insights.

Take the concept of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) – a subject that is getting increasing interest in the corporate and public sector worlds. Wolbring and Lillywhite (2021) have 35 pages of prose about EDI in Universities.

I’ve selected one section to demonstrate how one might start to build a Rich Picture. People who work in Universities such as academics have career ladder to climb. Their ability to climb it depends on other people – on how they are accepted, how visible they are, how much support they get and who mentors and pushes them. Academics that belong to under-represented groups or that have less privileged backgrounds experience challenges climbing the ladder. They also experience implicit biases, microaggression and need those with power to help change things. Change can’t happen soon enough – the earlier it starts the more likely it is that it will make a difference for people that are affected by inequality. They need access, opportunity and active promotion to develop their careers.

Hopefully you can see elements of these points in the image above. Imagine using a picture like this or one you’ve drawn yourself to talk through these ideas with someone else, exploring the various elements together. You might add your own ideas. The hope is that it helps us have a better discussion about the important points.

This post isn’t really about EDI but about how creating a picture to act as a model can help us have a discussion. It’s not a perfect solution – just a method that you can use if it’s something that works for you. We know that we can’t prove that one method works better than another when it comes to engaging in social situations like group problem structuring and problem solving. We can only try and have a high-quality discussion – one that makes us feel like we’ve said what we wanted to say, listened and been listened to and that the ideas that were expressed have been captured in a way that lets us take the next action.

One observation with modelling is that if you want to do it with others it needs to be as simple as possible. You can’t beat the experience of pen and paper or, in my case, stylus and screen. The more complicated your modelling process the more likely it is that you’ll need to do the work away from the group and come to the group to present and test your ideas. The takeaway is to keep it easy to follow along.

A picture creates issues of its own – should I draw race or gender more clearly? Will that lead to a different kind of bias because the picture is seen as unrepresentative? Should I draw a wheelchair or is it ok just having “keyhole” people? But just using text is also risky. Using the wrong words can offend others and we need to be careful to follow guidelines on inclusive language.

If you want to try this yourself the best thing to do is start by trying to express the problem that you’re considering as a picture – the actors, the elements, the relationships and talk about what they mean to you – aloud, to yourself, or in writing. See if this helps to bring clarity and organise your thoughts. And if it works, do it some more.


Karthik Suresh


Wolbring, G.; Lillywhite, A. 2021, “Equity/Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Universities: The Case of Disabled People”. Societies, 11, 49.

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