The Risk – a dialogue mapping vignette
Last week, my friend Paul Culmsee conducted an internal workshop in my organisation on the theme of collaborative problem solving. Dialogue mapping is one of the tools of the tools he introduced during the workshop. This piece, primarily intended as a follow-up for attendees, is an introduction to dialogue mapping via a vignette that illustrates its practice (see this post for another one). I’m publishing it here as I thought it might be useful for those who wish to understand what the technique is about.
Dialogue mapping uses a notation called Issue Based Information System (IBIS), which I have discussed at length in this post. For completeness, I’ll begin with a short introduction to the notation and then move on to the vignette.
A crash course in IBIS
The IBIS notation consists of the following three elements:
- Issues(or questions): these are issues that are being debated. Typically, issues are framed as questions on the lines of “What should we do about X?” where X is the issue that is of interest to a group. For example, in the case of a group of executives, X might be rapidly changing market condition whereas in the case of a group of IT people, X could be an ageing system that is hard to replace.
- Ideas(or positions): these are responses to questions. For example, one of the ideas of offered by the IT group above might be to replace the said system with a newer one. Typically the whole set of ideas that respond to an issue in a discussion represents the spectrum of participant perspectives on the issue.
- Arguments: these can be Pros (arguments for) or Cons (arguments against) an issue. The complete set of arguments that respond to an idea represents the multiplicity of viewpoints on it.
In Compendium, IBIS elements are represented as nodes as shown in Figure 1: issues are represented by blue-green question marks; positions by yellow light bulbs; pros by green + signs and cons by red – signs. Compendium supports a few other node types, but these are not part of the core IBIS notation. Nodes can be linked only in ways specified by the IBIS grammar as I discuss next.
The IBIS grammar can be summarized in three simple rules:
- Issues can be raised anew or can arise from other issues, positions or arguments. In other words, any IBIS element can be questioned. In Compendium notation: a question node can connect to any other IBIS node.
- Ideas can only respond to questions– i.e. in Compendium “light bulb” nodes can only link to question nodes. The arrow pointing from the idea to the question depicts the “responds to” relationship.
- Arguments can only be associated with ideas– i.e. in Compendium “+” and “–“ nodes can only link to “light bulb” nodes (with arrows pointing to the latter)
The legal links are summarized in Figure 2 below.
…and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
The interesting (and powerful) aspect of IBIS is that the essence of any debate or discussion can be captured using these three elements. Let me try to convince you of this claim via a vignette from a discussion on risk.
The Risk – a Dialogue Mapping vignette
“Morning all,” said Rick, “I know you’re all busy people so I’d like to thank you for taking the time to attend this risk identification session for Project X. The objective is to list the risks that we might encounter on the project and see if we can identify possible mitigation strategies.”
He then asked if there were any questions. The head waggles around the room indicated there were none.
“Good. So here’s what we’ll do,” he continued. “I’d like you all to work in pairs and spend 10 minutes thinking of all possible risks and then another 5 minutes prioritising. Work with the person one your left. You can use the flipcharts in the breakout area at the back if you wish to.”
Twenty minutes later, most people were done and back in their seats.
“OK, it looks as though most people are done…Ah, Joe, Mike have you guys finished?” The two were still working on their flip-chart at the back.
“Yeah, be there in a sec,” replied Mike, as he tore off the flip-chart page.
“Alright,” continued Rick, after everyone had settled in. “What I’m going to do now is ask you all to list your top three risks. I’d also like you tell me why they are significant and your mitigation strategies for them.” He paused for a second and asked, “Everyone OK with that?”
Everyone nodded, except Helen who asked, “isn’t it important that we document the discussion?”
“I’m glad you brought that up. I’ll make notes as we go along, and I’ll do it in a way that everyone can see what I’m writing. I’d like you all to correct me if you feel I haven’t understood what you’re saying. It is important that my notes capture your issues, ideas and arguments accurately.”
Rick turned on the data projector, fired up Compendium and started a new map. “Our aim today is to identify the most significant risks on the project – this is our root question” he said, as he created a question node. “OK, so who would like to start?”
“Sure,” we’ll start, said Joe easily. “Our top risk is that the schedule is too tight. We’ll hit the deadline only if everything goes well, and everyone knows that they never do.”
“OK,” said Rick, “as he entered Joe and Mike’s risk as an idea connecting to the root question. “You’ve also mentioned a point that supports your contention that this is a significant risk – there is absolutely no buffer.” Rick typed this in as a pro connecting to the risk. He then looked up at Joe and asked, “have I understood you correctly?”
“Yes,” confirmed Joe.
“That’s pretty cool,” said Helen from the other end of the table, “I like the notation, it makes reasoning explicit. Oh, and I have another point in support of Joe and Mike’s risk – the deadline was imposed by management before the project was planned.”
Rick began to enter the point…
“Oooh, I’m not sure we should put that down,” interjected Rob from compliance. “I mean, there’s not much we can do about that can we?”
…Rick finished the point as Rob was speaking.
“I hear you Rob, but I think it is important we capture everything that is said,” said Helen.
“I disagree,” said Rob. “It will only annoy management.”
“Slow down guys,” said Rick, “I’m going to capture Rob’s objection as “this is a management imposed-constraint rather than risk. Are you OK with that, Rob?”
Rob nodded his assent.
I think it is important we articulate what we really think, even if we can’t do anything about it,” continued Rick. There’s no point going through this exercise if we don’t say what we really think. I want to stress this point, so I’m going to add honesty and openness as ground rules for the discussion. Since ground rules apply to the entire discussion, they connect directly to the primary issue being discussed.”
“OK, so any other points that anyone would like to add to the ones made so far?” Queried Rick as he finished typing.
He looked up. Most of the people seated round the table shook their heads indicating that there weren’t.
“We haven’t spoken about mitigation strategies. Any ideas?” Asked Rick, as he created a question node marked “Mitigation?” connecting to the risk.
“Yeah well, we came up with one,” said Mike. “we think the only way to reduce the time pressure is to cut scope.”
“OK,” said Rick, entering the point as an idea connecting to the “Mitigation?” question. “Did you think about how you are going to do this? He entered the question “How?” connecting to Mike’s point.
“That’s the problem,” said Joe, “I don’t know how we can convince management to cut scope.”
“Hmmm…I have an idea,” said Helen slowly…
“We’re all ears,” said Rick.
“…Well…you see a large chunk of time has been allocated for building real-time interfaces to assorted systems – HR, ERP etc. I don’t think these need to be real-time – they could be done monthly…and if that’s the case, we could schedule a simple job or even do them manually for the first few months. We can push those interfaces to phase 2 of the project, well into next year.”
There was a silence in the room as everyone pondered this point.
“You know, I think that might actually work, and would give us an extra month…may be even six weeks for the more important upstream stuff,” said Mike. “Great idea, Helen!”
“Can I summarise this point as – identify interfaces that can be delayed to phase 2?” asked Rick, as he began to type it in as a mitigation strategy. “…and if you and Mike are OK with it, I’m going to combine it with the ‘Cut Scope’ idea to save space.”
“Yep, that’s fine,” said Helen. Mike nodded OK.
Rick deleted the “How?” node connecting to the “Cut scope” idea, and edited the latter to capture Helen’s point.
“That’s great in theory, but who is going to talk to the affected departments? They will not be happy.” asserted Rob. One could always count on compliance to throw in a reality check.
“Good point,” said Rick as he typed that in as a con, “and I’ll take the responsibility of speaking to the department heads about this,” he continued entering the idea into the map and marking it as an action point for himself. “Is there anything else that Joe, Mike…or anyone else would like to add here,” he added, as he finished.
“Nope,” said Mike, “I’m good with that.”
“Yeah me too,” said Helen.
“I don’t have anything else to say about this point,” said Rob, “ but it would be great if you could give us a tutorial on this technique. I think it could be useful to summarise the rationale behind our compliance regulations. Folks have been complaining that they don’t understand the reasoning behind some of our rules and regulations. ”
“I’d be interested in that too,” said Helen, “I could use it to clarify user requirements.”
“I’d be happy to do a session on the IBIS notation and dialogue mapping next week. I’ll check your availability and send an invite out… but for now, let’s focus on the task at hand.”
The discussion continued…but the fly on the wall was no longer there to record it.
I hope this little vignette illustrates how IBIS and dialogue mapping can aid collaborative decision-making / problem solving by making diverse viewpoints explicit. That said, this is a story, and the problem with stories is that things go the way the author wants them to. In real life, conversations can go off on unexpected tangents, making them really hard to map. So, although it is important to gain expertise in using the software, it is far more important to practice mapping live conversations. The latter is an art that requires considerable practice. I recommend reading Paul Culmsee’s series on the practice of dialogue mapping or <advertisement> Chapter 14 of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices</advertisement> for more on this point.
That said, there are many other ways in which IBIS can be used, that do not require as much skill. Some of these include: mapping the central points in written arguments (what’s sometimes called issue mapping) and even decisions on personal matters.
To sum up: IBIS is a powerful means to clarify options and lay them out in an easy-to-follow visual format. Often this is all that is required to catalyse a group decision.