Eight to Late

Issues, Ideas and Arguments: A communication-centric approach to tackling project complexity

with 41 comments

I’ve written a number of posts on complexity in projects, covering topics ranging from conceptual issues to models of project complexity. Despite all that verbiage, I’ve never addressed the key issue of how complexity should be handled. Methodologists claim, with some justification, that complexity can be tamed by adequate planning together with appropriate controlling and monitoring as the project progresses. Yet, personal experience – and the accounts of many others – suggests that the beast remains untamed. A few weeks ago, I read this brilliant series of articles by Paul Culmsee, where  he discusses a technique called Dialogue Mapping which, among other things, may prove to be a dragon-slayer. In this post I present an overview of the technique and illustrate its utility in real-life project situations.

First a brief history: dialogue mapping has its roots in wicked problems – problems that are hard to solve, or even define, because they satisfy one or more of these criteria. (Note that there is a relationship between problem wickedness and project complexity: projects that set out to address or solve wicked problems are generally complex but the converse is not necessarily true – see this post for more). Over three decades ago, Horst Rittel – the man who coined the term “wicked problem” – and his colleague Werner Kunz developed a technique called Issue Based Information System (IBIS) to aid in the understanding of such problems. IBIS is based on the premise that wicked problems – or any contentious issues – can be understood by discussing them in terms of three essential elements: issues (or questions), ideas (or answers) and arguments (for or against ideas). IBIS was subsequently refined over the years by various research groups and independent investigators. Jeff Conklin, the inventor of dialogue mapping, was one of the main contributors to this effort.

Now, the beauty of IBIS is that it is very easy to learn. Basically it has only the three elements mentioned earlier – issues, ideas and arguments – and these can be connected only in ways specified by the IBIS grammar. The elements and syntax of the language can be illustrated in half a page – as I shall do in a minute. Before doing so, I should mention that there is an excellent, free software tool – Compendium – that supports the IBIS notation. I use it in the discussion and demo below. I recommend that you download and install Compendium before proceeding any further.

Go on, I’ll wait for you…

OK, let’s begin. IBIS has three elements which are illustrated in the Compendium map below:

IBIS Elements

Figure 1: IBIS Elements

The elements are:

Question: an issue that’s being discussed or analysed. Note that the term “question” is synonymous with “issue”

Idea: a response to a question. An idea responds to a question in the sense that it offers a potential resolution or clarification of the question.

Argument: an argument in favour of or against an idea (a pro or a con)

The arrows show links or relationships between elements.

That’s it as far as elements of IBIS are concerned.

The IBIS grammar specifies the legal ways in which elements can be linked. The rules are nicely summarised in the following diagram:

Figure 2: Legal Links in IBIS

Figure 2: Legal Links in IBIS

In a nutshell, the rules are:

  1. Any element (question, idea or agument) can be questioned.
  2. Ideas respond to questions.
  3. Arguments make the case for and against ideas. Note that questions cannot be argued!

Simple, isn’t it? Essentially that’s all there is to IBIS.

So what’s IBIS got to do with dialogue mapping? Well, dialogue mapping is facilitation of a group discussion using a shared display – a display that everyone participating in the discussion can see and add to. Typically the facilitator drives – i.e. modifies the display – seeking input from all participants, using the IBIS notation to capture the issues, ideas and arguments that come up. . This synchronous, or real-time, application of IBIS is described in Conklin’s book, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (An absolute must-read if you manage on complex projects with diverse stakeholders). For completeness, it is worth pointing out that IBIS can also be used asynchronously – for example, in dissecting arguments presented in papers and articles. This application of IBIS – which is essentially dialogue mapping minus facilitation – is sometimes called issue mapping.

I now describe a simple but realistic application of dialogue mapping, adapted from a real-life case. For brevity, I won’t reproduce the entire dialogue. Instead I’ll describe how a dialogue map develops as a discussion progresses. The example is a simple illustration of how IBIS can be used to facilitate a shared understanding (and solution) of a problem.

All set? OK, let’s go…

The situation: Our finance data mart is updated overnight through a batch job that takes a few hours. This is good enough for most purposes. However, a small (but very vocal!) number of users need to be able to report on transactions that have occurred within the last hour or so – waiting until the next day, especially during month-end, is simply not an option. The dev team had to figure out the best way to do this.

The location: my office.

The players: two colleagues from IT, one from finance, myself.

The shared display: Compendium running on my computer, visible to all the players.

The discussion was launched with the issue stated up-front: How should we update our data mart during business hours? My colleagues in the dev team came up with several ideas to address the issue. After capturing the issue and responding ideas, the map looked like this:

Figure 3: Map - stage 1

Figure 3: Map - stage 1

In brief, the options were to:

  1. Use our messaging infrastructure to carry out the update.
  2. Write database triggers on transaction tables. These triggers would update the data mart tables directly or indirectly.
  3. Write custom T-SQL procedures (or an SSIS package) to carry out the update (the database is SQL Server 2005).
  4. Run the relevant (already existing) Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) procedures at more frequent intervals – possibly several times during the day.

As the discussion progressed, the developers raised arguments for and against the ideas. A little later the map looked like this:

Figure 4: Map - stage 2

Figure 4: Map - stage 2

Note that data latency refers to the time interval between when the transaction occurs and its propagation to the data mart, and complexity is a rough measure of the effort required (in time) to implement that option. I won’t go through the arguments in detail, as they are largely self-explanatory.

The business rep then asked how often the ETL could be run.

“The relevant portions can be run hourly, if you really want to,” replied our ETL queen.

“That’s good enough,” said the business rep.

…voilà, we had a solution!

The final map looked much like the previous one: the only additions were the business rep’s question, the developer’s response and a node marking the decision made:

Figure 5: Final Map

Figure 5: Final Map

Note that a decision node is simply an idea that is accepted (by all parties) as a decision on the issue being discussed.

Admittedly, my little example is nowhere near a complex project. However, before dismissing it outright, consider the following benefits afforded by the process of dialogue mapping:

  1. Everyone’s point of view was taken into account.
  2. The shared display served as a focal point of the discussion: the entire group contributed to the development of the map. Further,  all points and arguments made were represented in the map.
  3. The display and discussion around it ensured a common (or shared) understanding of the problem.
  4. Once a shared understanding was achieved – between the business and IT in this case – the solution was almost obvious.
  5. The finished map serves as an intuitive summary of the discussion – any participant can go back to it and recall the essential structure of the discussion in a way that’s almost impossible through a written document. If you think that’s a tall claim, here’s a challenge: try reconstructing a meeting from the written minutes.

Enough said, I think.

But perhaps my simple example leaves you unconvinced.  If so, I  urge you to read Jeff Conklin’s reflections on an “industrial strength” case-study of dialogue mapping. Despite my limited practical experience with the technique, I believe it is an useful way to address issues that arise on complex projects, particularly those involving stakeholders with diverse points of view.  That’s not to say that it is a panacea for project complexity – but then,  nothing is.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, it may be viewed as an addition to a project manager’s tool-chest of communication techniques.  For, as I’ve noted elsewhere, “A shared world-view – which includes a common understanding of tools, terminology, culture, politics etc. – is what enables effective communication within a (project) group.” Dialogue mapping provides a practical means to achieve such a shared understanding.

41 Responses

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  1. Kailash

    Thankyou so much for this article. I’ve been a huge fan of your writings for a long time. This write-up of this subject that has become a major part of my practice is hugely humbling for me. Beers on me next time I am in Sydney.

    Dialogue Mapping has made a massive difference to our practice at all levels, so much so that we are called upon to perform this craft in various situations completely removed from our original discipline. The true “initiation” for a dialogue mapper is the first time you perform it for a large, new group where you have no buy-in to a project and are there purely as a sensemaker and facilitator.

    Also seeing the master (Conkin) perform the craft in the flesh was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget.

    Dialogue Mapping now one of the key pillars that underpin our practice and our dedication to the craft and its principles has resulted in our practice (sevensigma.com.au) being the only designated partners of Cognexus (Jeff Conklin’s organiation) in the world.

    If any of your readers would like more information with regards to IBIS, Issue Mapping and Dialogue Mapping please feel free to contact me via the cleverworkarounds blog.

    http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/about

    Thanks again Kailash. I think we are philisophical kindred spirits

    regards

    Paul Culmsee

    Paul Culmsee

    April 7, 2009 at 11:32 pm

  2. Great article, and a very useful process. Not only does this help to breakdown complexities but it can be used to document how the decision was made when it is questioned in the future.

    How many organizations flip-flop on the same issues repeatedly forgetting all the time, effort, and results of intense debates.

    Mike Oryszak

    April 8, 2009 at 12:17 am

  3. Paul,

    Your posts triggered my interest in IBIS and dialogue mapping – so many thanks to you!

    I have to admit that my experience with dialogue mapping is very limited, but I am looking for opportunities to practise it.

    I’m also interested in other uses of IBIS: for dissecting arguments (as you have done in your posts), and as a short to mid term organisational memory. I hope to explore these topics in the near future.

    Thanks for your comments; they mean a lot to me as I’m a huge fan of your writing.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    April 8, 2009 at 6:16 am

  4. Mike,

    Thanks so much for the feedback.

    IBIS cuts through the fog and helps focus attention on the key issues. Further – as your have pointed out – it also serves as a succinct (often one page!) visual summary of a discussion, thus aiding organisational memory.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    April 8, 2009 at 6:29 am

  5. Hi Kailash,

    Wow … that’s the best review of dialogue mapping that I’ve ever seen! Except of course for the ones Paul wrote. :-)

    If you or any of your readers are ready for a grad-school level hands-on course on dialogue/issue mapping with Compendium, there’s still a chance to jump into the 2-month intensive course that I teach, but you’ll have to move fast because the first class is tomorrow (Weds, April 8) at 4pm Pacific Daylight Time — which I think is 9am-noon Thurs, April 9 Sydney time.

    The course consists of 5 3-hour virtual class sessions, and the class is small (5 or 6 people at the moment) so there’s lots of room for interaction and dialogue. For more info see our website: http://cognexus.org.

    Thank you so much for such a clear exposition of the core ideas behind dialogue mapping!

    Best regards,
    Jeff

    Jeff Conklin

    April 8, 2009 at 10:00 am

  6. Jeff,

    Thanks so much – I am truly honoured by your feedback (and absolutely agree that Paul’s writings on dialogue mapping are way better than mine ;-)).

    I’ve been reading (and re-reading) your book over the last few weeks, and (at the risk of sounding gushy) I should say that it has been a revelation.

    I got to know about your course through Paul’s web site. I would love to do it, but unfortunately can’t make it this time :-( .

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    April 8, 2009 at 5:20 pm

  7. Hi again

    I am also doing some interesting things around organisational memory right now. Contact me if you want to talk more on this because I’d value your input and insight.

    regards

    Paul

    Paul Culmsee

    April 8, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  8. Paul,

    Definitely interested in hearing about what you’re doing – I’ll send you a PM shortly, and we’ll take it from there.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    April 8, 2009 at 9:19 pm

  9. [...] in words and pictures.  Here’s where the notion of shared understanding, discussed in my previous post comes into play. To quote again from Conklin’s paper, “One element of creating shared [...]

  10. [...] of truth to it: visual representations can be very helpful in clarifying complex arguments. In a recent post,  I presented a quick introduction to a visual issue mapping technique called IBIS (Issue Based [...]

  11. [...] Eight to Late This insightful blog goes deep and even includes graphics to help project managers who learn visually. An interesting sample, from creator Kailash Awati: “A Communication-Centric Approach to Tackling Project Complexity.” [...]

  12. [...] in turn depend on facility with the language, vocabulary etc. In contrast, visual notations such as IBIS (used in issue mapping) have few elements and very simple grammars. Simplicity slays [...]

  13. [...] muss interpretiert werden, die Issue Base Information System (IBIS)-Methodik von Horst Rittel und Werner Kunz reduziert Ambiguitäten durch die Nutzung weniger [...]

  14. [...] better made through visual representation.  I reckon he is absolutely right. So here it is,  an IBIS map summarising the main points of the [...]

  15. Hi Kailash,

    This was my first intro to this. In your experience, how often have you used this in your “day job”? I’m trying to imagine a time and place or when I or anyone would use this. I do see the usefulness in enhancing communications/conversations with this though.

    Does this assume some kind of maturity or familiarity of the audience with this? Or is it generic enough to use? Seems to me that one would need to be pretty proficient in facilitation skills to be able to use it powerfully.

    TIA!

    Lui Sieh

    May 30, 2009 at 10:50 pm

  16. Lui,

    I’ve used dialogue mapping a few times in small groups (3-5 people) – typically in discussions of the “what should we do?” or “how should we do something?” kind. The technique definitely helps to keep the discussion focused and moving forward.

    The best introduction to dialogue mapping and IBIS (that I have come across) is Jeff Conklin’s book. I’ll be posting a review of the book very soon – so please check back if you’re interested.

    As you have recognised, there are two aspects to dialogue mapping: issue mapping (using IBIS) and facilitation. More on these below.

    In my experience, most people catch on to the IBIS notation within a few minutes. It, of course, helps to provide a brief introduction prior to using it in a group setting.

    One way to get some experience with IBIS (in a non-group setting) is to use it for issue/argument mapping. See this post for an example of issue mapping using IBIS, and this one for a discussion of why visual representations of reasoning are better than prose.

    You’re absolutely right about facilitation skills being important. As Paul Culmsee states in his comment (first comment above):

    “…The true “initiation” for a dialogue mapper is the first time you perform it for a large, new group where you have no buy-in to a project and are there purely as a sensemaker and facilitator…”

    I’m a universe away from this level of proficiency. Further, being a reluctant public speaker, it may take me a long while to get there.. :-). That said, one does not have to be a master dialogue mapper in order to use the technique in one’s day to day work.

    Hope this helps.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    May 31, 2009 at 8:55 am

    • Update:

      For those interested, my review of Jeff Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping book has been posted here. Feedback welcomed, as always.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      K

      June 7, 2009 at 9:59 am

  17. [...] against ideas – pros and cons) – which can be connected according to a specified grammar (see this post for a quick introduction to IBIS or see Paul Culmsee’s series of posts on best practices for a [...]

  18. [...] against ideas – pros and cons) – which can be connected according to a specified grammar (see this post for a quick introduction to IBIS or see Paul Culmsee’s series of posts on best practices for a [...]

  19. [...] and team bonding. A good team dynamic encourages the sharing of tacit knowledge. The technique of dialogue mapping facilitates the sharing and capture of knowledge in a team [...]

  20. [...] the discussion assumes a basic knowledge of  IBIS (Issue-Based Information System) –  see  this post for a quick tutorial on IBIS.  Third, the map is constructed using the open-source tool Compendium [...]

  21. [...] this post for a simple example of dialogue [...]

  22. [...] in real time (Editor’s note:  readers unfamiliar with IBIS may want to have a look at this post and this one before proceeding).  “Why not give it a try,” he thought, “I can’t do any [...]

  23. [...] stated aims of dialogue mapping, a technique that I have described in several earlier posts (see this article for an example relevant to [...]

  24. Thanks Kailash,
    Finally got a break long enough to open your blogs.
    My interest was been sparked. I will follow-up regarding other business applications.
    Andrew F

    Andrew F

    October 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

  25. Andrew,

    Thanks for the feedback. I look forward to working with you.

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    K

    October 13, 2009 at 4:14 am

  26. [...] for a practical method to manage wicked problems.  In the articles he made a convincing case that dialogue mapping can help a diverse group of stakeholders achieve a shared understanding of such problems.  [...]

  27. [...] of the task at hand – in particular those who request the work and those who will do it.  Dialogue mapping, which I’ve discussed at length in several posts on this blog, offers a great way to do [...]

  28. [...] IBIS (Issue-based information system), and demonstrated its utility in visualising reasoning and resolving complex issues through dialogue mapping.  The IBIS notation consists of just three elements (issues, ideas and arguments) that can be [...]

  29. [...] this post for a quick introduction.  Having used IBIS to resolve work related issues before (see this post, for example), I thought it might help my friend if we could used it to visualize his problem and [...]

  30. [...] Issues, Ideas and Arguments: A communication-centric approach to tackling project complexity – http://eight2late.wordpress.com/2009/04/07/issues-ideas-and-arguments-a-communication-centric-approa… [...]

  31. [...] design deliberations to project meetings  [Note: see this post for an introduction to IBIS and this one for an example of mapping dialogues using IBIS].   Feedback from participants indicated that IBIS [...]

  32. [...] another post on dialogue mapping I described how IBIS was used to map a technical discussion about the best way to update selected [...]

  33. [...] to a shared understanding is dialogue mapping which I have discussed at length earlier – see this post for a quick introduction that uses an example relevant to data [...]

  34. [...] pioneered by Jeff Conklin. Those unfamiliar with the technique will find a super-quick introduction here.  Dialogue mapping uses a visual notation called issue based information system (IBIS) which I [...]

  35. [...] of what the project is all about and a shared commitment to actions that will make it happen.  Dialogue mapping, which I have described in many earlier posts is an excellent way to achieve this. But in the end [...]

  36. [...] by Jeff Conklin. Those unfamiliar with the technique will find a super-quick introduction here.  Dialogue mapping uses a visual notation called issue based information system (IBIS) which I [...]

  37. [...] arises because they fail to relate to each other in an empathetic way. Techniques such as dialogue mapping help address relational issues by objectifying issues, ideas and arguments. Such approaches can [...]

  38. [...] Visualisierung einer Diskussion und gegen Prosa dargestellt:Prosa muss interpretiert werden, die Issue Base Information System (IBIS)-Methodik von Horst Rittel und Werner Kunz reduziert Ambiguitäten durch die Nutzung weniger [...]

  39. [...] Eight to Late This insightful blog goes deep and even includes graphics to help project managers who learn visually. An interesting sample, from creator Kailash Awati: “A Communication-Centric Approach to Tackling Project Complexity.” [...]

  40. [...] or this post or this one for examples of IBIS in mapping [...]


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