Do You Think Like a Pie Chart, or a Venn Diagram?

“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship, the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”    -Peter Drucker

“The only worse design than a pie chart is several of them.”    -Edward Tufte

One of my favorite hobbies is oversimplifying the world, and I’ve decided to share my latest instance. Two very different kinds of thinkers exist; I call them Pie Charts and Venn Diagrams. How are they alike, how do they differ, and which one is your default thought process?

A Pie Chart is useful for gaining perspective on the distribution of a resource. It shows the relative percentage that each portion of a finite thing is allotted within the whole. While it can identify how large an opportunity is today relative to other parts, the universe could change tomorrow, e.g., the size of the pie may increase or diminish.

A Venn Diagram illustrates how two or more things are related. Are they separate? Do they overlap? If they overlap, then to what extent? The Diagram evolves as the size of each circle changes, as the degree to which they overlap grows or diminishes, or as a new circle is introduced.

How does using a Pie Chart versus a Venn Diagrams influence our imagination?

Pie Chart thinking constrains your vision to that which already exists. An everyday example is seen in political economics. Portraying the U.S. economy as a zero sum game (i.e. a pie chart) manipulates us into focusing on how someone is taking our piece of the scarce resources that constitute the pie. In business, the outcome of Pie Chart thinking is usually suboptimal. For example, when a company’s only growth option is “more of the same” or “sell harder,” a Pie Chart mindset is behind it.

Remember “think out of the box”? A Pie Chart is the box outside of which we need to think all the time, not just during brainstorming sessions at offsite retreats. Venn Diagram thinking enables you to break out of the box by forcing you to consider which of several circles you will include.  The size of each circle is unbounded, and the overlap between them is dynamic. Venn Diagram thinking empowers us to envision how we can grow the pie, while Pie Chart thinking inhibits innovation by limiting our consideration of alternatives.

Understanding the difference between these two modes of thought elevates our vision. Consider the effect of Pie Chart thinking versus Venn Diagram thinking on what we choose to emphasize, on the perspective we bring, and on the outcome we experience:

Pie Charts emphasize how two things are different; Venn Diagrams encourage a search for synergy. Pie Charts constrain us to a finite perspective; Venn Diagrams encourage us to include more factors. Pie Charts divide the whole into its constituent parts; Venn Diagrams influence us to identify common interests and create unity.

How can we apply this heightened vision to lead our companies more effectively? Here are a few examples:

  • Organizational Dynamics: Root out instances of narrow, self-interested departmental silos (Pie Chart) and replace them with improved collaboration and common commitment (Venn Diagram).
  • Product Management: Notice when product managers focus very narrowly on their own product lines (Pie Chart) and encourage them to see consider whether the combination of their products with additional products and services can accelerate growth (Venn Diagram).
  • Strategic Partnerships: When a manager is at an impasse trying to grow the business using available resources (Pie Chart), identify a compelling reason that a partnering company would share needed resources (Venn Diagram).
Many other applications exist. By sharing an awareness of the principles that differentiate Pie Chart and Venn Diagram thinking, you can transform your company’s effectiveness in dealing with daily business challenges!

About Bob Barker
Bob Barker is a trusted advisor to CEOs, helping them identify, define, and execute new growth-accelerating opportunities. He also shares ideas on LinkedIn (robertgbarker), in guest posts on related blogs, and in industry publications. Contact him via email at bob@2020outlook.com.

Comments are closed.