I was working with an executive coaching client the other day developing a strategy for the next steps in her career. For reasons unclear to me, I thought our discussion was off course. Was I not asking the right questions? Not hearing the underlying comments or insights? Influencing her answers by showing some form of judgment or perspective? All were possible. The challenge was how to get to the meat of the issues. It dawned on me to make the problem visual.

People have been brainstorming and debating for a long time, sometimes they whiteboard to record the progress and see flaws in process. I decided my client and I should think together and write it down. Out came those 20 x 23 jumbo Post-it sheets and the large marker. I borrowed a grape cluster exercise format from my colleague and friend Don Carlson. I drew some good size circles, touching another (like grapes). I labeled the sheet “Mica’s Career.” As the client spoke, I recorded, filling in the circles with her ideas — initially simple things like what her ideal office life would look like — “must have a window” “no more than a half-hour commute.”

For someone who claimed not to know what she wanted, the thoughts started to flow quickly and fluently. I gently shifted her “and what are you doing in the space you just mentioned?” More grapes drawn and more filled. She described the type of people she wanted to work with (Chinese) and what her role would be “liaison between their culture and American.” I pushed her to give me as much detail as possible, so we were clear as to the desires. The exercise was enlightening and productive but it still felt wanting.

I pulled another sheet and labeled it “Mica’s Personal Life.” More grapes were drawn. This one was harder probably because my client had neglected this part of herself for her current job, working way too many hours a day and being on-call nights and weekends. We had to look back, before her present work, to remember what and whom she loved. It was there, just buried under e-mails and tasks, and the people pleasing of demanding bosses. The desire to be with friends, have a love life, and maybe bear a child, start a hobby, gain more time with family, read for pleasure — things many of us take for granted or also wish we had.

It still wasn’t feeling complete. I suggested we create a timeline. It was then that the harsh reality hit. If she didn’t start making changes now, she was going to run out of reproductive time, some family members might not be around, she’d age out of some industries (she’s in her late 40s) and might just not get to have the amount of fun she earned and deserved. It also helped her create her priorities — get out of the current gruesome work environment ranked first. She set deadlines to get moving and noted when she wanted to be placed. She continued the process with each opportunity and hurdle. To her amazement, some things were very possible and to her horror, some were hitting the point of no return sooner than she realized.

At the end of our coaching session I suggested she take the sheets home and paste them in a very visible area of her apartment. “Keep the marker close at hand and jot down anything and everything that comes to mind.” To both of our amazement, many new ideas and solutions popped up over the course of a week. Her choices became clearer. I no longer had to ask the questions. She was telling me the patterns and the outcomes she wanted. From that we were able to get some very dynamic and attainable goals and she was ready to commit to them.

Here’s your opportunity:

Take a challenge — big or small. Using free flowing thoughts write down ideas, dreams, and solutions in great detail using the grape cluster method.

Begin to solicit an action plan from the cluster.

Place your ideas and action on a timeline. Make sure you break the pieces into manageable tasks. We want to set you up for success not discouragement and surely not failure.

How will it feel? When I use this exercise, I find it gives me clarity, pushes me to use my imagination, and helps me envision completion and success. I‘ve applied it to everything from long-range life goals to relationships. It’s pretty incredible what you learn and what happens.

Placing problems and solutions in a visual format that encourages brain mapping rather than brain auditing can help you come to creative solutions. Putting success into real time makes it seem possible. Together they insure attainment.

(c) Jane Cranston.

Author's Bio: 

Jane Cranston is an executive career coach. She works with success-driven executives, managers and leaders to reach their potential, better manage their boss and staff, as well as develop a career strategy to reach goals and aspirations. Jane is the author of Great Job in Tough Times a step-by-step job search system. Click here to subscribe to her twice monthly Competitive Edge Report.