I came across a very interesting timeline visualization the other day, as I was skimming Semiology of Graphics, the awesome book by Jacques Bertin. If you've been following articles on visualization in the Edge of Chaos blog, you might be familiar with it (see: My 12 Visualization Books).
This timeline shows how the actual and potential decisions and events have unfolded during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. This series of moves, as in a chess party, is believed to have brought USA and USSR to the closest point of real nuclear conflict that threatened massive mutual destruction. The crisis was eventually resolved, and this visualization covers the whole story:
This mixed events-decisions timeline got me thinking. No doubt, the Cuban crisis does deserve to be visualized that way, with its hidden and/or possible threats and agreements. But I don't recall ever seeing any similar mix of both events and decisions on a timeline anywhere else, neither in a presentation, nor in a case study of a project success or failure. There's a bunch of visual techniques for decision-making, but it looks like there's no common visual technique to facilitate a retrospective analysis of decisions bundled with actions.
For example, we can use a release timeline to reverse-track the points of "Done" for features, and we will embrace the whole picture in one look. But what would we do at a release or a project retrospective, if we look at a timeline and see that our initial estimate for releasing a feature is very different from the actual release time? An events-only timeline won't give any clues to stakeholders as to which decisions resulted in this late release. Hence, they'd have a lesser chance to improve them. Someone would look at a timeline in 6 months and think to themselves: "Hmmm, I can't remember what happened, why we were actually that late with releasing this thing?" That's where visualizing a sequence of decisions+events over time might come in handy. It's worth noting that we are somehow more interested in "the reasons for failure" when at a retrospective, but this wording and thinking is hardly a good fit. We need to formulate this question in another way. Which sequence of decisions resulted in the delay?
Focusing on avoiding mistakes takes our focus away from becoming truly exceptional
Well, it could be that taking such a grand look at a delayed project release is an overkill. Okay. Let's then move a level up and see how visualizing decisions+outcomes will help in an even more serious stuff, such as analyzing a failure/success of a business, or a start-up. This article puts together 51 Start-Up Failure Post-Mortems. Ironically, the web page offers a context ad which says something like: "get data and trends on start-up failure". I'd say the prevalence of data- and trends-based thinking is something that most of the failed start-ups have in common. With everyone having access to statistics and trends, it's quite logical for the failures to be grouped by certain criteria. A successful start-up must have something more up their sleeve than data and trends. That would be spot-on decisions in their particular context, free from "join everyone else" mindset.
What I'm getting at is: if start-ups and established businesses had a visualization technique similar to the one used for the Cuban crisis, they would be able to take a deeper insightful look into the nuts and bolts of things. I presume that people who read the stories of failed or successful start-ups want to learn their lessons based on these stories, so having them visualized as a timeline with actual/potential decisions looks like a good idea.
I only hope that one day some start-up will get busy and come up with a timeline that would visualize not only events, but actual/potential decisions and their linkage with the events as well. This will give an excellent tool not for decision-making — there are zillions of visual techniques for that — but rather for a retrospective analysis of success/failure of a business, or a product release, or a PR campaign, or shooting a blockbuster, or staging a play. The practical applications are diverse, and such a visualization would facilitate the insightfully pragmatic thinking and successes, rather than failures.
*The highlighted quote is taken from the book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders