Archive for June 2014
Welcome to the second post in my conversations series. This time around I chat with my friend and long-time collaborator Paul Culmsee who, among many other things, is a skilled facilitator and a master of the craft of dialogue mapping (more on that below).
In an hour-long conversation recorded a couple of weeks ago, Paul and I talked about the art of sensemaking. (Editor’s note: the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)
What is sensemaking?
KA: Hi Paul, in this conversation I wanted to focus on sensemaking. From our association over the years, I know that’s a specialty of yours. Incidentally, I checked out your LinkedIn profile and saw that you announce yourself as an IT veteran of many years and a sensemaker. So, to begin with, could you tell us what sensemaking is?
PC: [Laughs] First up, thanks for stalking me on LinkedIn. Well the “IT veteran” part is easy – it’s is what I’ve been doing ever since I left university in 1989. Sensemaking came a while later.
In a nutshell, sensemaking is about helping groups make sense of complex situations that might otherwise lead them into tense or adversarial conditions. A lot of projects exhibit such situations from time to time. Sensemaking seeks to help groups develop a shared understanding of these sorts of situations.
KA: OK, so what I’m hearing is that it is about helping people get clarity on an ambiguous situation or may be, even define what the problem is.
PC: Yeah absolutely…and we alluded to this in our Heretic’s book. It is staggering when one realizes how many teams and individuals (in teams and in organisations) spend a stack of money and time without being aligned on the problem that they’re solving. Often this lack of alignment becomes evident only in the wash, long after anything can be done. In some ways it beggars belief that that could happen; that a project or initiative could go on for long without alignment, but it does happen quite often. Sensemaking seeks to eliminate that up front.
There are various tools, techniques and collaborative approaches that one can use to bring people together to air and reconcile different viewpoints. Of course, this assumes that people genuinely want to see things improve, and in my experience this is often the case. A lot of the time, therefore, sensemaking is simply about helping groups reach a shared understanding so that subsequent actions can be taken with full commitment from everybody concerned.
KA: All that sounds very reasonable, even obvious. Why do you think this has been neglected for so long? Why have people overlooked this?
PC: Mate, I’m glad we’re having beers as we talk about this [takes a swig].
Look I think it is often seen as an excuse to have a talk-fest, and I think that criticism is actually quite fair. I think organisations…or, rather, the people within them…tend to have a very strong drive to move to action. The idea of stopping and thinking is seen as not being a particularly productive use of time.
Actually, if you delve into it, sensemaking has been around for years and years. In fact, pretty much anyone who is a facilitator is a sensemaker as well in that he or she seeks to help people [overcome an issue that they’re facing as a group]. The problem is that a lot of the techniques used in sensemaking are rooted in theories or philosophies that aren’t seen as being particularly practical. To a certain extent, the theories themselves are to blame. For example, the first time I heard about soft systems theory, I had no idea what the person was talking about. (Editor’s note: a theory that underlies many facilitation techniques)
KA: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Systems theory itself has been around for a long time….since the 1950s I think. It’s also been resurrected in various guises ever since, but has always had this reputation (perhaps unfair) of being somewhat impractical. So, I’m curious as to how you actually get around that. How do you sell what you do? (Editor’s note: Systems theory is the precursor of soft systems theory)
PC: By example. It’s really as simple as that. If you take the example of dialogue mapping, which is a practical facilitation approach involving the visual capture of rationale using a graphical notation. Even that…which is a practical tool…is much easier to show by example than to explain conceptually. If I were to try to explain what it is in words, I’d have to say something like “I sit in a room and get paid to draw maps. I map the conversations and facilitate at the same time.” People might then say, “What’s that? Is it like mind mapping?” Then I have no choice but to say, “Well, yeah…but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
So I’ve long since given up on explaining it to people conceptually; it’s much easier to just show them. Moreover, in a lot of the situations where I do engagements for clients, I discourage the sponsor from making a big deal about the technique. I’d rather just let the technique “sell itself”.
KA: Yeah that rings true. You know, I was trying to write a blog post once on dialogue mapping, and realized it would be much better to tell it through a story (Editor’s note: …and the result was this post).
OK, so you’ve told us a bit about dialogue mapping, and I know it is a mainstay of your practice. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to it and what it has done for you?
PC: Oh, it’s changed my career. In terms of what it’s done for me – well, where I am now is a direct result of my taking up that craft. And I call it a craft because it took a damn lot of practice. It is not something where you can read a book and go “Oh that makes sense,” and then expect to facilitate a group of twenty people or anything like that.
How I came to it was as follows: I had come off a large failed project and was asking myself what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem was pretty obvious: there were times when things were said by certain stakeholders and I should have gone, “Right, stop!” But I didn’t. Of course, such mistakes are part of a learning journey. I subsequently did some research on techniques that might have helped resolve such issues and came to dialogue mapping directly as a result of that research.
Then, through sheer luck I got to apply the technique in areas other than my discipline. As I said earlier, I’m an IT guy and have been in IT for a long time, but I was lucky to get an early opportunity to use dialogue mapping in an area that was very different from IT (Urban planning to be precise). I sucked at it completely in that first engagement, but did enough that the client got value out of it and asked me back.
That engagement was a sink or swim situation, and I managed to do just enough to stay afloat. I should also say that the group I worked with really wanted to succeed: even though they were deadlocked, the group as a whole had a genuine intent to address the problem. Fortunately we were able to make a small breakthrough in the first session. We ended up doing six more sessions and had a really good outcome for the organisation.
KA: That’s interesting…but also a little bit scary. A lot of people would find a situation like that quite daunting to facilitate. In particular, when you walk into a situation where you know a group has been grappling with a problem for a long time, you first need to make sense of it yourself. How do you do that?
PC: Yeah, well as you do it more of it, you gain experience of different situations and domains – for example, not-for-profit organizations, executives of a business, public sector or what have you. You then begin to notice that the patterns behind complex problems are actually quite similar across different areas. Although I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I do, I would say that it is largely about “listening to the situation” and “asking the right questions”.
When Jeff Conklin teaches dialogue mapping, he talks about the seven different question types (Editor’s note: Jeff Conklin is the inventor of dialogue mapping. See this post for more on his question types). He really gets you to think about the questions you’re going to ask. It took me a while to realize just how important that is: the power of asking questions in the right way or framing them appropriately. Indeed, the real learning for me began when I realized this, and it happened long after I had mastered the notation.
The fact is: each situation is unique. I approach strategic planning, team development or business analysis in completely different ways. I can’t give you a generic answer on the approach, but certainly nowadays when I’m presented with a scenario, I find that there is not much that is unfamiliar. I’ve seen most of the territory now, perhaps.
KA: So it’s almost like you’ve got a “library” of patterns which you can find a match to the situation you’re in
PC: Yes that’s right…and I should also mention that the guys I worked with in my early days of using the craft were also sensitive to this, even though they did not practice dialogue mapping. One of my earliest gigs was to develop a procurement strategy for a major infrastructure project. We spent half a day – from 8:30 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon – just trying to figure out what the first question should be. It’s conversations like that in the early days, followed by trial and error in actual facilitation scenarios that aided my learning.
KA: That’s interesting, and I’d like to pick up on what you said earlier about the power of asking the right questions. Jeff Conklin has his seven question types which he elaborates at length in his book (and we also talk about them in the Heretic’s Guide). However, since then, I know that your thinking on this has advanced considerably. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
PC: Yeah, if we ever do a second edition of the Heretic’s Guide, I’ll definitely be covering this kind of stuff. But, let me try to explain some of the ideas here in brief.
To set the context, I’ll start with one of Jeff’s question types. An important question type is the deontic question, which is a question that a lot of maps start with. A deontic question asks “What ought to be done?” – for example, “What should we do about X?” The aim of such a question is to open up a conversation.
However, deontic questions can be poorly framed. To take a concrete example, say if one were to ask, “What should we do about increasing X?” – well such a question implicitly suggests a course of action – i.e. one that increases X. A well framed deontic question doesn’t do that. It solicits information in a neutral or open way. (Editor’s Note: For example, a well-framed alternative to the foregoing question would be, “What should we do about X?”)
All that is well and good, and is something I teach in my dialogue mapping courses as does Jeff in his. However, I once taught dialogue mapping to a bunch of business analysts, and of course told them about the importance of asking deontic questions. Some of the guys told me that they intended to use it at work the following week. Well, I saw them again a few weeks later and naturally asked, “So how did it go?” They said, “Hey that the deontic question just didn’t work!”
I kind of realized then, and in fact I had mentioned to them (but may be not stressed it enough), that questions need to be framed to suit the situation. You can ask an open deontic question in a really bad way… or even lead at the wrong time with the wrong question.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are patterns to [framing] questions. In other words, there are ways of asking questions that will lead to better outcomes. As an example, a deontic question might be, “What should our success indicators be on this project?” This is a perfectly valid open question (as per Conklin’s question types). However, in a workshop setting this is probably not a good question to ask because the conversation will go all over the place without reaching any consensus. Moreover, people who don’t have tolerance for ambiguity would be uncomfortable with a question like that.
A better option would be to reframe the question and ask something like, “If this initiative were highly successful and we look back on it after, say 2 years, how would things be different to now?” With that question what you’re saying to people is: let’s not even worry about problem definition, context, criteria and all that stuff that comes with a deontic question; instead you’re asking them to tell you about the difference between now and an aspirational future. This is easier to answer. A lot of people will say things like – we’ll have more of X and less of Y and so on.
On a related note, if you want to understand the long-term implications of “more of X” or “less of Y”, it is not helpful to ask a question like, “What do you think will happen in the long-term?” People won’t intuitively understand that, so you won’t get a useful answer. Instead it is better to ask a question like, “What behaviours do you think will change if we do all this sort of stuff?” Now, if you think about it, the immediate outcomes of projects are things like “increased awareness of something “or “better access to something”, but over time you’re looking for changes in behaviours because that’s when you know that the changes wrought by an initiative have really taken root.
Subtle reframings of this kind yield richer answers that are more meaningful to people. Moreover, when you solicit responses from a group in this manner, you’ll start to see common themes emerge. These are the sorts of subtleties I have come to understand and appreciate through my practice of sensemaking.
KA: That’s fascinating. So what you’re saying is that rather than asking a direct question it is better to ask an oblique one. Is that right?
PC: Yes, and I think that point is worth elaborating. You used the word “oblique” and I know you’re using it deliberately because we’ve talked about this in the past. Essentially I think the “law of asking questions” is that the more direct question, the less likely it is that you will get a useful answer.
Seriously, asking a question like “What should our vision be?” is a completely brainless way of getting to a vision. You’re more likely to get a useful answer from a question like “What would our organization look like three years from now, if we achieved all we are setting out to do?” The themes that come out of the answers to these kinds of question help in answering the direct question.
I’ve learnt that the question that everyone wants answered is never the one you start with. If you start with the direct question, the conversation will meander over all kinds of weird places.
I came across the notion of obliquity in an article (…and I think it was one of the rare times I sent you something instead of the other way around). In the article, the author (John Kay) made the observation that organisations that chased KPIs like earnings per share (for example) generally did not do as well as organisations that had a more holistic vision (Editor’s note: I also recommend Kay’s book on obliquity). One example Kay gives is that of Microsoft whose objective in the 90s wanted “a PC on every desk in the world.” Microsoft achieved the earnings per share alright, but it was pursued via an oblique goal.
Organisations that chase earnings per share or other financial metrics tend to be like the folks who “seek happiness” directly instead of trying to find it by, say, immersing themselves in activities that they enjoy. I guess I observed that the principle of obliquity – that things are best achieved indirectly – also applies to the art of asking questions.
KA: That makes a lot of sense. Indeed, after we exchanged notes on the article and Kay’s book, I’ve noticed this idea of obliquity popping up in all different kinds of contexts. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that we don’t really know how the future is going to unfold, and obliquity helps open our minds up to possibilities that we would overlook if we took a “straight line from A to B” kind of approach.
PC: Yep, and that brings up an interesting aspect to oblique questions as well. You know, some people – especially those trained in a standard business school curriculum will be surprised if you ask them an oblique question because it seemingly makes no sense. They might say, “Well, why would you ask that? What we really want to answer is this”
Well, I’ve found a way to deal with this, and I learnt this from working with a facilitator who is a professor at one of the business schools here (in Perth). This was in a strategic planning workshop that we co-facilitated. Before starting, she walked up to the whiteboard and sketched out a very simple strategic planning model – literally a diagram that said here’s our vision, and the vision leads to a mission, which leads to areas of focus which, in turn, lead to processes…a simple causal diagram with a few boxes connected by arrows.
She spent only a minute or so explaining this model; she didn’t do it in any detail. Then she pointed to a particular box and said, “We’re going to talk about this particular one now.” And I don’t know why this is, but when you present a little model like that (which is familiar to the audience) and say that you’re going to focus on a particular aspect of it, people seem to become more receptive to ambiguity, and you can then get as oblique as you like. Perhaps this is because the narrative is then aligned with a mental model that is familiar to them.
What I’ve learnt, in effect, is that you can’t talk about the wonders of complex systems theory to a bunch of rational project managers. Conversely, when I’m dealing with a group of facilitators (who love all that systems theory stuff) I would never draw a management model going from vision to mission to execution. But when dealing with the corporate world, I will often use a model like that. Not to educate them – they already know the model – but purely to reduce their anxiety. After that I can ask them the questions I really want to ask. It’s a subtle trick: you put things in a familiar frame and then, once you have done that, you can get as oblique as you like.
Tying this back to a question you asked earlier about how I prepare for a facilitation session. Well, I usually try to figure out audience first. If I’m dealing with the public sector I might set the stage by talking about wicked problems, whereas with corporate clients I might start with a Strategic Planning 101 sort of presentation. Either way, I find a frame that is familiar to them and then – almost like a sleight of hand – I switch to the questions I really want to ask. Does that make sense?
KA: Yeah, so to summarise: you give them a security blanket and then scare the hell out of them [laughs]
PC: That’s actually pretty well summarized [laughs]; I like where you’re going with that…but I’d put it slightly differently. It’s actually a bit like when you’re trying to get little kids to eat something they don’t want to eat – you go, “see here’s the choo-choo train” or something like that, and then get them to have a spoonful while their focusing on that. In a way it’s like creating a distraction. But the aim is really to couch things in such a ways as to get to a point where you can start to have a productive dialogue. And the dialogue itself is driven by powerful questions.
From obliquity to directness
KA: By powerful, I guess you mean oblique…
PC: Yeah, the oblique aspect of questions is a common thread that runs through much of what I do now. Mind you, I don’t stay oblique all the way through a session. I start obliquely because I want to unpack a problem. Eventually, though, as people start to get insights and themes begin to emerge, I become more direct; I start to ask things such as who, when etc…putting names and dates down on the map.
KA: So you get more direct in your questioning as the group starts to reach a common understanding of a problem.
PC: That’s exactly right. But there’s the other side to it (and by the way, you should have a conversation with my colleague Neil on this kind of stuff): you typically have a mixed audience, the “left-brainers” who are rational engineer types as well as the “hippies” (the so-called “right-brainers”) who want to stay out in conceptual-land. Both groups like to stay in their comfort zone: the engineers don’t like moving to conceptual-land because they see it as a waste of time; on the other hand conceptual people don’t like moving to action because the conceptual world feels safer to them. So I sort of trick the engineers into doing conceptual stuff while also pushing conceptual guys into answering more direct questions.
Other techniques and skills
KA: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about techniques – I know dialogue mapping is a mainstay of much of what you do. What are some of the other techniques you use [to draw people out of their comfort zones]? You mentioned soft systems theory and a few others; you seem to have quite a tool-chest of techniques to draw upon.
PC: Yeah well, when I got into mapping, I also looked at other techniques. I was interested in what else you could do, so I looked at various gamestorming techniques, graphic facilitation and, of course, many methods based on the principles of soft systems and related theories.
I use techniques from both the right-brained and left-brained ends of the spectrum…and by the way, I apologize to any neuroscientists who might be reading/listening to this because I know they hate the term left/right brained. However, I do find it useful sometimes.
Anyway, a popular technique on the right-brained end of the spectrum is Open Space, which operates almost entirely in conceptual-land. It relies on the wisdom of the crowd; there is no preset agenda, just a theme. People sit in a circle, there’s a Tibetan bell…an on the surface it all seems quite hippy. However, I’ve actually done it in construction projects where you have folks who have come off a building site, dressed in their safety gear – hard hats and all – and participated in such situations. And it does work, despite its touchy-feely, hippy image.
On the other hand, once you’ve conceptualized a project you need to get down to hard work of getting stuff done. One of the first questions that comes up is, “How do we measure success?” This usually boils down to defining KPIs. Now, I would never dialogue map or open space a conversation on KPIs. You might get a few themes from dialogue mapping, but definitely not enough detail. Instead, one of the things I often do is go to an online KPI library (like http://kpilibrary.com which has over 7000 KPIs) in which you can find KPIs relating to any area you can think of, ranging from project management to customer service to quality or sustainability. I’ll then print relevant ones on cards and then use a card-sorting technique in which I put people in different groups and ask them to look at specific focus areas [that emerged from the conceptualization phase], and figure out which KPIs are relevant to it.
Why do I do that? Not because I think they will find the KPI. They probably won’t. It’s more because such a process avoids those inevitable epic arguments on what a KPI actually is.
A very effective technique is to spend half a day unpacking a problem via dialogue mapping and get key themes to emerge. This “conceptualization phase” is done with the whole group. Then, when you want to drill down into detailed actions action, it helps to use a divide and conquer approach. This is why I split people up into smaller groups and get them to go off and work on themes that emerged from the conceptualization phase. The aim is to get them to come up with concrete KPIs or even actions. If I’m feeling really evil, when there’s only 10 minutes left, I’ll tell them that they can present only their top four actions or KPIs. This forces them to prioritise things according to value. It’s a bit like a Delphi technique really. Finally, the groups come back together and present all their findings, which I then dialogue map. Once that is done, the larger group (together) will turn to the map and synthesise the outputs of what the smaller groups have done. This example is quite typical of the kind of stuff that I do.
Another example: I did some strategic planning work for local government – this was in the area of urban planning. Now, we did not want them to just copy someone else’s community development plan and “cookie cutter” it. So the very first thing we did was a dialogue mapping session geared towards answering a couple of questions: 1) if the community development plan for this organization was highly successful, how would things be different from how they are now? And, 2) what is unique about this particular area (shire)?
Then, in the second workshop we got some of the best community development plans from around Australia and put each one at a different table. We split people up into groups and got them to spend time at each table. Their job was to note down, on flipcharts, the pros and cons of each plan. The first iteration took about half an hour – presumably because this was the first time many of them were reading a development plan. Once the first iteration was done, people moved to the next table and so on, in round robin fashion.
By the end of that exercise, everyone was a world expert in reading community development plans. By the time people got to their third plan, they were flicking through the pages pretty fast, noting down the things they agreed or disagreed with. Then they came back together and did a synthesis of the common themes were – what was good, what was bad and so on.
Finally, we dialogue mapped again, and this time the question was, “Given what we have seen in all of the other plans, what are we going to do differently to mitigate the issues we have seen with some of them?” That pretty much nailed what they were going to do with their plan.
The need to improvise
KA: From what you’re saying it seems that almost every situation you walk into is different, and you almost have to design your approach as you go along. I suppose you would make a guess or some tentative plans based on your knowledge of the make-up of the audience, but wouldn’t you also have to adjust a lot on-the-fly?
PC: Oh yeah, all the time. And in fact, that is more a help than a hindrance. I’ll tell you why…by example again.
Often groups will tell you what they aspire to do. They might say, “as a general principle, we will do this” or something along those lines. For me that’s gold because I can use it on them [laughs].
In fact, I did this a couple days ago in a workshop. Earlier in the workshop they had said, “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are honest with each other and upfront about it.” I totally used that on them towards the end of the workshop when I said, “Given that you guys are honest with each other, the question I’d like you to answer is – what keeps you up at night with this project?”
My colleague uses the phrase, “hang them by their own petard” when we do this kind of stuff [laughter]. I guess what we’re doing, though, is calling them out on what they espouse, and getting them to live it. If you can do that in a workshop, it is brilliant. So I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to improvise like that, particularly when it is a matter of (espoused) principle.
There are many times when I’ve been in workshops where the corporate values are hanging on a wall – in a boardroom, right – and I’m witnessing them get completely trashed in the conversation that’s happening. So I like to hold people to account to what’s stated…and these are sneaky little subtle ways in which one can do that.
KA: I’m sure you come across situations where a certain approach doesn’t go down very well – may be people start to get defensive or even question the approach. Does that happen, and how do you deal with that?
PC: I’ve never had a situation where people question the approach I use. I guess that’s because we’re able to deal with that as it happens. For example, if I’m going a bit too “hippie” on a group and I see that they need more structure then I’ll change my approach to suit the group and then gently nudge them back to where I want them to be.
I also co-facilitate with other people…and sometimes they’re the ones who design the workshops, or I co-design it with them. Often it is their tolerance for ambiguity that can be a roadblock. One facilitator I work with loves emergence. This is my crass generalization, but anyone who thinks complex systems theory is just it will be happy to let a group get mired in ambiguity. The group might be struggling, but as far as the facilitator is concerned that’s OK because he or she believes that ambiguity is necessary for an emergent outcome. What they forget is that not everyone has the same level of tolerance for ambiguity.
On the other hand, I also work with highly structured facilitators who follow a set path – “we’ll do this, then we’ll do that and so on”. This approach might not go so well with people who prefer more open-ended approaches.
These sorts of experiences have been handy. When designing my own workshops, I’m the ultimate bower bird: I cherry pick whatever I need and improvise on the fly. So I tend not to worry about the risks of people not finding the workshop of value. That probably comes from a level of confidence too: we’re reasonably confident that we know our craft and have enough experience to deal with unexpected situations.
Coda – capturing organisational knowledge
KA: Thanks for the insights into sensemaking. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to switch tack and talk about something that your organization – Seven Sigma – is currently involved in. I know you guys started out as a SharePoint outfit, and you’ve been doing some interesting things in SharePoint relating to knowledge management. Could you tell us a bit about that before we wrap up?
PC: Sure. To begin with, dialogue maps are a pretty good knowledge artifact. Anyone who has used the Compendium software will know this (Editor’s note: Compendium is a free software tool that can be used for dialogue mapping). I’ve used it extensively for the last five years and have an “encyclopedia of conversations” that I have mapped. When I go and look at them, they’re as vivid to me as on the day I mapped them. So I’ve always been fascinated by the power of dialogue maps as a visceral way to capture the wisdom of a group at a point in time.
Now SharePoint is a collaborative platform that’s often used for intranets, project portals, knowledge management portal and so forth. It’s a fairly versatile platform. The Compendium software on the other hand, is not a multi-user, collaborative platform. It’s more like Photoshop or Word in that you use it to create an artefact – a map – but if someone else wants to see the map then he or she has to install Compendium. And it can be a bit of a pain in the butt to install Compendium as it is a freebie, open source product that doesn’t really fit in an enterprise environment. We’ve therefore always wanted to have the ability to import maps into SharePoint and my colleague Chris [Tomich] had already started writing some code to do that around the time we first got into dialogue mapping.
However, my own Aha moment came later; and come to think of it, the fact that we’re having beers in this conversation is relevant to this story…
I was dialogue mapping a group of executives about 4-5 years ago; it was a team-building exercise built around a lessons learned workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to improve the collaborative and team maturity of this group. [As a part of this exercise] the group was reviewing some old projects, doing a sort of retrospective lessons learned. We got to this one project, and someone complained about an organisational policy that had caused an issue on the project. Now as it happened, there was this guy in the group who knew how this policy had come about (I knew this guy, by the way, and I also knew that he was about to retire). He said, “Oh yeah, well that happened about 30 years ago, and it was on so-and-so project.” He then proceeded to elaborate on it.
Well, I knew this guy was about to retire. I also knew that the organization does this “phased retirement” thing, where people who are about to retire write documentation about what they do, mentor their successors etc. before they leave. I remember thinking to myself, “there’s no way in hell that he would have written that down in his documentation.” I just knew it: he had to be in that particular conversation for him to have remembered this.
Then my next thought…and as I’m mapping, I’m having this thought … “man, someone just ought to give him a beer, sit him down, and ask him about these kinds of old projects. I could map that video…how hard could that be? If one can map live conversations then surely one can map videos.” In fact, videos should be simpler because you can pause them, which is something you can’t do with live conversations.
So that was literally the little spark. It started with me thinking about how great it would be if this guy could spend even half his time recording his reflections…and this could take different forms, may be it could be a grad asking him questions in a mentoring scenario, or it could be another person he has worked with for years and they could reminisce over various projects. The possibilities were endless. But the basic idea was simple: it was to try to capture those sorts of water cooler or pub conversations, or those that you have in conferences. That’s where we get many of our insights – it’s the stories, the war stories through which we learn. That kind of stuff never gets into the manuals or knowledge-base articles.
Indeed, stories are the key to those unwritten insights about, say, when it is OK to break the rules. That kind of stuff can never be captured in the processes, manuals or procedures. One of your pieces highlights this beautifully – it’s one of the parables you’ve written I think, where an experienced project manager suggested to the novice that he should be listening to the stories rather than focusing on the body of knowledge he was studying. And that is completely true.
So that was, to coin a pun, the “glimmer of an idea” – because the product is called Glyma. The idea was to capture expert knowledge by mapping it and storing the map in SharePoint. SharePoint has a great search engine and we already knew that dialogue maps are a great way to capture conversations in a way that makes it easy to understand and navigate rationale (or the logic of a conversation). If we could do dialogue maps live, then we sure as hell could map videos. Moreover SharePoint also offers the possibility of tagging, adding feeds etc. – the kinds of things that portals these days are good at. It occurred to us that no one had really done that before.
Sure, there are plenty of story captures, say where people capture reflections on video. But because the resulting videos tend to be quite big, they are usually edited down to 15 minute “elevator pitch” type presentation. But then all the good stuff is gone; indeed, you and I have had many of these brief conversations where you’re summarising something terrific you’ve read and I’ll go, “Yeah well, that doesn’t sound so interesting to me.” The point is: you can’t compress insight into a convenient 10 minute video with nice music. So our idea was – well, don’t do that; take the video as it is and map it. Then, if you click on a node – say an idea node or a question node –Glyma will play the video from the point in time where the idea or question came up. You don’t have to sit through the entire thing. Moreover, when you do a search and get a series of results, you can click on a result and it plays that bit straight away.
So that was really the inspiration for Glyma…and it will see the light of day very soon.
Actually we’ll be putting a beta site out early next week (Editor’s note: the site has since gone live; I urge you to check it out). By the way, Glyma has been four years in the making. One of last things on our bucket list of things to do while running a consultancy was to put an innovative new product out and to see if people like it. So that’s where we are going with that.
KA: That’s sounds very interesting. The timing should work out well because this conversation will be posted out in a week or two as well. I wish you luck with Glyma; I’ve seen some early versions of it and it looks really good. I look forward to seeing how it does in the market place and what sort of reception it receives. I certainly hope it gets the reception it deserves because it is a tremendous idea.
PC: Well thank you; I appreciate your saying that…and we’ll see if you still say that once you’ve mapped this video because that might be your homework. [laughs]
KA: [laughs] Alright, great mate. Well, thanks for your time. I think that’s been a really interesting conversation. We’ll chat about Glyma further after it’s been out for a while.
PC: Yeah absolutely.
KA: Cheers mate.
PC: See ya.
In his thought-provoking book on antifragility, Nassim Taleb makes the point that the opposite of fragility is not robustness or resilience, rather it is the ability to thrive on or benefit from uncertainty. There is no word in the English language to describe such behavior, and that is what led him to coin the term antifragile.
Nature is an excellent example of an antifragile system: whenever subjected to a cataclysmic event (like this one that occurred ~66 million years ago), nature manages not only to recover, but does so in novel and arguably better ways. Unlike nature, however, most human-made systems tend to be fragile. An example that Taleb highlights is the global financial system , not just prior to the 2008 financial crisis but even now.
The broader lesson to be learnt from the financial crisis is that it is impossible to predict the future in any detail. Systems should therefore be designed to cope with (if not take advantage of) the irreducible uncertainty associated with this lack of predictability. Human-made systems that overlook this inescapable fact tend to be brittle by design.
The above is true not only of systems, but also of future-directed activities such as strategic planning. Overlooking the role of irreducible uncertainty in planning invariably locks an organization into an inflexible course of action. Unfortunately, this is not always appreciated by those who run organisations. As Taleb puts it:
Corporations are in love with the idea of the strategic plan. They need to pay to figure out where they are going. Yet there is no evidence that strategic planning works —we even seem to have evidence against it. A management scholar, William Starbuck, has published a few papers debunking the effectiveness of planning [see this paper, for example]—it makes the corporation option-blind, as it gets locked into a non-opportunistic course of action.
The trick, as Taleb hints in the above passage (and elaborates on in his book), is to plan in such a way as to take advantage of options that we are unaware of now, but might emerge in the future.
That, of course, is easier said than done.
In this post, I draw on Taleb’s book and my own experiences to discuss how one can formulate an IT strategy that thrives on uncertainty. Although my focus is primarily on IT, the points discussed have a wider applicability to strategic planning in general.
Towards an antifragile IT strategy
Before we get into antifragility, it is useful to take a brief look at how IT strategy is usually formulated.
Although some IT leaders will contest this point, a good majority of organisations tend to view IT as a cost rather than a strategic focus area. As a consequence, the objectives of an IT strategy are generally geared towards cost reduction and increased efficiency. The obvious ways in which to do this are through strict governance, standardization and/or outsourcing. Unfortunately, these actions tend to make organisations less flexible and hence more susceptible to uncertainty…and thus more fragile.
So, the key to an antifragile strategy is flexibility…but what exactly is flexibility?
The best definition of flexibility I have come across is the one proposed by Gregory Bateson who defined it as uncommitted potential for change (see this post for more on Bateson’s definition of flexibility). Only if one is flexible in this sense can one take advantage of unexpected events when they occur. The problem of formulating an antifragile IT (or any other!) strategy thus boils down to finding ways in which one can increase one’s flexibility. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.
This one is going to raise some eyebrows because the general trend in the world of corporate IT is to move in exactly the opposite direction – i.e. towards greater centralisation. The drive to centralisation manifests itself in many different ways: from top-down decision-making to the deployment of standardized processes and pan-organisational “enterprise” applications (single instance ERP systems being an extreme example).
The justification offered by advocates of centralisation is that it increases efficiency and reduces cost by using a one-size-fits-all approach. In reality, however, such an approach almost always has undesirable features. For example:
- It overlooks the unique features of different structural units of the organization (subsidiaries in different countries, for example). Indeed, this is precisely at platform standardization fail – see my post entitled, The ERP paradox for more on this point.
- It increases coupling between different structural units. Since systems and processes have a global reach, an unexpected glitch in any of these will affect all structural units within the organization.
Decentralisation basically amounts to giving structural units the autonomy they need in order to make decisions and choices that affect them. To be sure, this must be balanced with some oversight and direction from a central authority, but the overall aim should be a federal structure rather than a centralized one. A few examples of things that can be controlled centrally include network infrastructure, security…and possibly even things such as preferred vendors, especially from the perspective of getting volume discounts on pricing. There is no black and white here: choices need to be made judiciously and revisited if they don’t work.
I use the term agile here in the sense of adaptability rather than as a reference to the slew of methodologies that go under the banner of Agile. Indeed, agility in the sense I use it here is more about a mindset than a methodology: if you are adapting to a shifting environment by changing your approach and priorities appropriately, then you are being agile in the sense of adaptability.
So, what does agility entail? Here are some things I see as being important:
- Responding to changes within and outside the organization…but only after determining that they need to be responded to. The qualifier is important: one must be able to distinguish between changes that merit a response and those that don’t. Moreover, any change should be instituted in a gradual or incremental fashion so that one can adjust one’s approach and take corrective actions if needed. Agility does not imply rapid, large-scale change.
- Sensing (or even creating!) new opportunities and taking advantage of them. The term intrapreneurial is often used to describe such a mindset. Many IT leaders are aware of the need to do this, but don’t always know how. In my experience, instituting a dedicated innovation group isn’t the best way to go about it. Instead, it may be better to focus on creating an environment in which people feel inspired to try new things. One of the ways to do this is to actively encourage staff to learn by experimenting on company time – say, one Friday afternoon per month – with no expectation of useful outcomes.
- Building flexibility into your external contracts so that you can respond to changes that weren’t foreseen when the contract was drawn up. Essentially this amounts to building a trust-based relationship with your vendors (see the last point in the present post for more on this) and factoring in transaction costs in your outsourcing deals.
An agile mindset is unlikely to thrive in an IT department that is bogged down by overly onerous rules and procedures. To be sure, rules and processes are necessary, but not at the expense of flexibility.
One of the keys to being antifragile in financial investing is to spread one’s investments over a range of different products. In analogy, one of the best ways towards developing an antifragile IT strategy is to diversify elements of your IT environment, especially those things that are likely to be negatively affected by uncertainty.
Here are some examples:
- For coverage in times of trouble, ensure that your team consists of people with overlapping sets of skills. This should be reinforced by periodic cross-training of staff in all key technologies that are used within your organisation.
- Hire people with different thinking styles. Your teams should contain a mix of people with analytic and synthetic approaches to problem solving. Most uncertain situations require both types of approaches.
- Diversify your vendor base. Among other things this means do not…and I repeat, do not…tie yourself to a single vendor by signing a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract!
- Set up small, low-cost skunkworks projects to explore technologies and ideas that have the potential to provide your business an edge.
- Seek to understand diverse viewpoints. Any important decision should be made only after soliciting and understanding viewpoints that are different from yours. Such an understanding will lead to better decisions than those made by relying on gut instinct or advice from a single source.
…and I’m sure there are many other possibilities.
Creating an environment of trust
I kept this for the last because it is possibly the hardest to put into practice. An antifragile IT strategy will only work if there is a mutual trust between all parties involved in a business relationship – be they managers and employees or IT folks and the businesses they serve. Although much has been written and spoken about trust, the fact is that it is conspicuous by its absence in the present day corporate world. Indeed, use of the word in corporate circles tends to evoke cynical reactions from the rank and file; it is seen as platitude rather than a word of significance.
Why is trust important?
Elinor Ostrom’s prize winning work established that trust is one of the core relationships that promote cooperation (see this post for more on this point). In situations of uncertainty, those who work in a high-trust environment would generally be willing to step outside their regular roles and work with others to fix the problem. In contrast those in a low-trust environment are likely to switch off or worse, start apportioning blame. On another note, people are more likely to share their ideas in a high-trust environment rather than in one that is riven by mistrust and unhealthy competition. I’m pretty sure that most readers would have experience of low-trust environments and would know from experience that such work environments are fragile in that they simply fall apart under stress.
It should be noted that that trust is also important in external relationships, such as those with vendors. Although purchasing and legal departments are quick to advise us about the importance of rock-solid contracts, in my experience it is far better to rely on trust. Indeed, it has been suggested that contracts can destroy trust!
Finally, just in case it is not clear: the onus for creating an environment of trust lies with management rather than the rank and file.
I offer the above as some suggestions aimed at making your IT environment less susceptible, even responsive, to unexpected external or internal events. Indeed, I believe that in times of uncertainty, they are likely to work much better than some of the well-worn but discredited command and control approaches that are inexplicably popular.
To sum up: IT strategies are invariably focused on improving efficiency and reducing cost. Typical measures to achieve this tend to reduce flexibility (tighter governance and outsourcing, for example). As a result most IT strategies are unable to deal with, let alone benefit from uncertainty. In this post I have outlined key elements of an antifragile IT strategy that can correct this oversight.
When I reviewed this piece just prior to posting it, I was struck by the fact that the points I have mentioned have more to do with social or ethical matters than technology. This reminded me of Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative:
“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
And that, quite possibly, is the perfect one-line summary of an antifragile strategy.