Graphical Efficiency

The world of purchasing and procurement decisions is draped in data. On good days, we have clear pictures of volumes, prices, costs, risk and intention. On bad days, we can stare at half completed spreadsheets, hoping for a gleam of illumination to arrive from somewhere. There is a risk inherent in all this data, which is that we may feel compelled to share what we have, to demonstrate the rightness of our thinking, the rigour of our analysis and the inevitable conclusions which must follow.

However, we live in a world of Excel and PowerPoint, and the opportunity to create pages of graphics, with appropriate clip art and assorted arrows, is often the solution we provide. When faced with a request to keep it down to a single slide, we are often challenged to get it down to ten, such is the complexity of the message we wish to portray. Surely, there is a better way?

That is the way of graphical efficiency. This phrase, developed by Edward Tufte, suggests conveying ideas and information so that the greatest amount of information is passed to the viewer in the shortest time, using the least amount of ink and paper. A sort of anti-PowerPoint. Some fantastic examples exist, and one of the earliest is Charles Minards single page graphic which depicts the loss of men during Napoleons March to and retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. This single graphic shows the loss of men, locations, effect of temperature and rivers, skirmishes, diversions and time all on a single page. Everyone preparing a sixty page PowerPoint deck needs to see it.

This is, of course just one example. Tufte, in his books, provides many examples of brilliant data representations from all manner of fields, and those of us who need to convince others of the meaning of data need to spend time thinking about and understanding what we could be doing to better represent our analyses. Being able to develop this as a skill will not come overnight, or without practice. We need to look for new ways of representing data, of showing opportunity, of demonstrating the effect and benefit of change. 

So, we need to start small. Find one example of an area of data which is, or should be compelling. Live with it. Explore the different aspects and axes, insights and seek ways to illustrate it differently.    Look at the page as being multi- dimensional, and show how changes will effect certain scales, or movements, or timings. With practice, the effect of a change of strategy can be drawn together into a single view, the one slide which we are so challenged by.

There is an issue with this, inevitably. It takes time and practice to get good at this. Mark Twain once said ‘I’m sorry I wrote you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one’, and time will be the challenge with graphical efficiency as well. However, next time you sit through 25 slides of data, think how much time would be saved if it had been graphically efficient.

Go practice, now.


Mark Hubbard thinks about purchasing and procurement far too much


About Mark Hubbard

I set up a specialist purchasing consultancy and a business focussing on seeking innovation. I work all over the world with clients, helping purchasing teams develop new ways of delivering value for their businesses. I love thinking about how purchasing works, and how it can be better, and I'd love to share some of those thoughts with you
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