Leveraging onion skin diagrams can bring tears of joy

by Sylvie Edwards

The use of simple, graphical tools in project management has become essential to ensure that stakeholders can easily and speedily know what they are reviewing. One such tool making its way back into our culture is the onion skin diagram. No shedding a tear over this one, it is a good tool to use.

I had never really paid attention before I started to write this article but I have been using an onion skin diagram for what seems like forever. You might know it best by one of the numerous names it has been given over the years: layer, radar, ripple effect or concentric circles…

I can’t remember when I started using this diagram or using that name for it, but it has been part of my go-to library for the longest time. The main function of this simple, yet powerful tool is to depict the relation or proximity of different elements to one another while also providing a component of hierarchy to the relationship. I have looked around for the origin of this diagram and there are a lot of vague references without really attributing it to anyone specifically.

Onion skin diagrams have started showing up and making a resurgence with the proliferation of infographics in recent years. They are one of the best vehicles to convey in a small concentric circles diagram information of rank, importance to and relevance to a project or topic.

If you are not familiar with this tool, here are a couple of examples from my own past work explaining how it can be used to make things look neat fast.

 1. Used with stakeholder analysis

This often ends up being the first tool I use to map out my stakeholders in relation to the project. It is simple and does not require much more than a pen to start with. Most graphical or presentation software will include a template for this type of diagram as part of the standard set. Most people are used to the conventional Johari (quadrant) window chart representing characteristics of our stakeholders such as influence, power, and interest. Also used in stakeholder analysis is the salience model depicting elements of power, legitimacy, and urgency in a Venn diagram. In most recent years, the stakeholder cube has been added as a use to represent our stakeholder’s support, power, and engagement on projects.

I will often forego these other mapping tools altogether for the more basic and simple onion skin diagram. This generally depends on the size and complexity of the project. They are easy to create, but more importantly, they can be tailored to be as graphical as you want them to be, from the use of words and names to actual physical pictures or logos.

Without any possibility of insulting or branding anyone, they can be included in a kick-off meeting presentation, for example, which can clearly show how many stakeholders we will need to deal with and communicate with over the life cycle of the project.

2. Used for depicting expert judgment in a team or organization

My second favorite use is one where the graph depicts in relation to the project where we will get our expertise from in order to satisfy the needs or objectives. The close to the center or core means that our expertise resides with the team within the organization while the furthest will be more than likely external to that organization. Why is it important to know or show this? In most cases, the further from the core, the more expensive it might be to acquire that expertise.

For whatever use or reason, you decide to include these diagrams in your toolkit, you will likely not regret it.

The most attractive aspect of them? They are super easy to create and do not need any other special equipment or software than what most PMs usually have already. You certainly don’t need any training to create one and using them as part of a creative session with your team helps put things into perspective.

So, whatever you call it, be it onion skin, layer, radar, ripple effect, or concentric circles, this one is a keeper to add to your PM toolkit.

Do you use this type of diagram? What do you call it? and How do you use it in your projects? Leave a comment below sharing your thought and don’t forget to like, comment, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter!


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