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Improving decision-making in projects

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An irony of organisational life is that the most important decisions on projects (or any other initiatives) have to be made at the start, when ambiguity is at its highest and information availability lowest. I recently gave a talk at the Pune office of BMC Software on improving decision-making in such situations.

The talk was recorded and simulcast to a couple of locations in India. The folks at BMC very kindly sent me a copy of the recording with permission to publish it on Eight to Late. Here it is:


Based on the questions asked and the feedback received, I reckon that a number of people found the talk  useful. I’d welcome your comments/feedback.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to Gaurav Pal, Manish Gadgil and Mrinalini Wankhede for giving me the opportunity to speak at BMC, and to Shubhangi Apte for putting me in touch with them. Finally, I’d like to thank the wonderful audience at BMC for their insightful questions and comments.

The Risk – a dialogue mapping vignette

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Foreword

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Compendium is a freeware tool that can be used to create IBIS maps– it can be downloaded here.

In Compendium, IBIS elements are represented as nodes as shown in Figure 1: issues are represented by blue-green question markspositions by yellow light bulbspros 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.

Figure 1: Elements of IBIS

Figure 1: IBIS node types

The IBIS grammar can be summarized in three simple rules:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Figure 2: Legal links in IBIS

Figure 2: Legal links in IBIS

 

…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 on 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?”

 

 

Fig 3: The root question

Figure 3: The root question

 

“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.

 

Fig 4: Map in progress

Figure 4: Map in progress

 

“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.

 

Fig 4: Map in progress

Figure 5: Two pros for the idea

 

“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.

 

Fig 6: A con enters the picture

Fig 6: A con enters the picture

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.”

Figure 7: A "criterion" that applies to the analysis of all risks

Figure 7: A “criterion” that applies to the analysis of all risks

 

“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.

 

Figure 8: Mitigating the risk

Figure 8: Mitigating 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.

Figure 9: Mitigating the risk

Figure 9: Mitigating the risk

 

“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.

Figure 10: Mitigating the risk

Figure 10: Mitigating the risk

“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.

Figure 11: Completed discussion of first risk (click to see full size

Figure 11: Completed discussion of first risk (click to view larger image)

“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.

Afterword

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.

Improving decision-making in projects (and life)

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Note: This post is based on a presentation that I gave at BA World Sydney on 26th June. It draws from a number of posts that I have written over the last few years.

Introduction – the myth of rational decision making

A central myth about decision making in organisations is that it is a rational process.   The qualifier rational refers to decision-making methods that are based on the following broad steps:

  1. Identify available options.
  2. Develop criteria for rating options.
  3. Rate options according to criteria developed.
  4. Select the top-ranked option.

The truth is that decision making in organisations generally does not follow such a process. As I have pointed out in this post (which is based on this article by Tim van Gelder) decisions are often based on a mix of informal reasoning, personal beliefs and even leaps of faith. . Quoting from that post, formal (or rational) processes often cannot be applied for one or  more of the following reasons:

  1. Real-world options often cannot be quantified or rated in a meaningful way. Many of life’s dilemmas fall into this category. For example, a decision to accept or decline a job offer is rarely made on the basis of material gain alone.
  2. Even where ratings are possible, they can be highly subjective. For example, when considering a job offer, one candidate may give more importance to financial matters whereas another might consider lifestyle-related matters (flexi-hours, commuting distance etc.) to be paramount. Another complication here is that there may not be enough information to settle the matter conclusively. As an example, investment decisions are often made on the basis of quantitative information that is based on questionable assumptions.
  3. Finally, the problem may be wicked – i.e. complex, multi-faceted and difficult to analyse using formal decision making methods. Classic examples of wicked problems are climate change (so much so, that some say it is not even a problem) and city / town planning. Such problems cannot be forced into formal decision analysis frameworks in any meaningful way.

The main theme running through all of these is uncertainty. Most of the decisions we are called upon to make in our professional lives are fraught with uncertainty – it is what makes it hard to rate options, adds to the subjectivity of ratings (where they are possible) and magnifies the wickedness of the issue.

Decision making in projects and the need for systematic deliberation

The most important decisions in a project are generally made at the start, at what is sometimes called the “front-end of projects”. Unfortunately this is where information availability is at its lowest and, consequently, uncertainty at its highest.  In such situations, decision makers feel that they are left with little choice but to base their decisions on instinct or intuition.

Now, even when one bases a decision on intuition, there is some deliberation involved – one thinks things through and weighs up options in some qualitative way. Unfortunately, in most situations, this is done in an unsystematic manner. Moreover, decision makers fail to record the informal reasoning behind their decisions. As a result the rationale behind decisions made remain opaque to those who want to understand why particular choices were made.

A brief introduction to IBIS

Clearly, what one needs is a means to make the informal reasoning behind a decision explicit. Now there are a number of argument visualisation techniques available for this purpose, but I will focus on one that I have worked with for a while: Issue-Based Information System (IBIS). I will introduce the notation briefly below. Those who want a detailed introduction will find one in my article entitled, The what and whence of issue-based information systems.

IBIS consists of three main elements:

  • Issues (or questions): these are issues that need to be addressed.
  • Positions (or ideas): these are responses to questions. Typically the set of ideas that respond to an issue represents the spectrum of perspectives on the issue.
  • Arguments: these can be Pros (arguments supporting) or Cons (arguments against) an issue. The complete set of arguments that respond to an idea represents the multiplicity of viewpoints on it.

The best IBIS mapping tool is Compendium – it can be downloaded here.  In Compendium, the IBIS elements described above are represented as nodes as shown in Figure 1: issues are represented by green question nodes; 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.

IBIS Elements

The IBIS grammar can be summarized in a few 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.

Figure 2: Legal Links in IBIS

The rules are best illustrated by example-   follow the links below to see some illustrations of IBIS in action:

  1. See or this post or this one for examples of IBIS in mapping dialogue.
  2. See this post or this one for examples of argument visualisation (issue mapping) using IBIS.

The case studies

In my talk, I illustrated the use of IBIS by going through a couple of examples in detail, both of which I have described in detail in other articles. Rather than reproduce them here, I will provide links to the original sources below.

The first example was drawn from a dialogue mapping exercise I did for a data warehousing project. A detailed discussion of the context and process of mapping (along with figures of the map as it developed) are available in a paper entitled, Mapping project dialogues using IBIS – a case study and some reflections (PDF).

The second example, in which I described a light-hearted example of the use of IBIS in a non-work setting,  is discussed in my post, What should I do now – a bedtime story about dialogue mapping.

Benefits of IBIS

The case studies serve to highlight how IBIS encourages collective deliberation of issues. Since the issues we struggle with in projects often have elements of wickedness, eliciting opinions from a group through dialogue improves our chances arriving at a “solution” that is acceptable to the group as a whole.

Additional benefits of using  IBIS in a group setting include:

  • It adds clarity to a discussion
  • Serves as a simple and intuitive discussion summary (compare to meeting minutes!)
  • Is a common point of reference to move a discussion forward.
  • It captures the logic of a decision (decision rationale)

Further still, IBIS disarms disruptive discussion tactics such as “death by repetition” – when a person brings up the same issue over and over again in a million and one different ways. In such situations the mapper simply points to the already captured issue and asks the person if they want to add anything to it. The disruptive behaviour becomes evident to all participants (including the offender).

The beauty of IBIS lies in its simplicity. It is easy to learn – four nodes with a very simple grammar. Moreover, participants don’t need to learn the notation. I have found that most people can understand what’s going on within a few minutes with just a few simple pointers from the mapper.

Another nice feature of IBIS is that it is methodology-neutral. Whatever your methodological persuasion – be it Agile or something  that’s  BOKsed – you can use it to address decision problems in your project meetings.

Getting started

The best way to learn IBIS is to map out the logic of articles in newspapers, magazines or even professional journals. Once you are familiar with the syntax and grammar, you can graduate to one-on-one conversations, and from there to small meetings. When using it in a meeting for the first time, tell the participants that you are simply taking notes. If things start to work well – i.e. if you are mapping the conversation successfully – the group will start interacting with the map, using it as a basis for their reasoning and as a means to move the dialogue forward. Once you get to this point, you are where you want to be – you are mapping the logic of the conversation.

Of course, there is much more to it than I’ve mentioned above. Check out the references at the end of this piece for more information on mapping dialogues using IBIS.

Wrap up

As this post is essentially covers a talk I gave at a conference, I would like to wrap up with a couple of observations and comments from the audience.

I began my talk with the line, “A central myth about decision making in organisations is that it is a rational process.”  I thought many in the audience would disagree. To my surprise, however, there was almost unanimous agreement! The points I made about uncertainty and problem wickedness also seemed to resonate. There were some great examples from the audience on wicked problems in IT – a particularly memorable one about an infrastructure project (which one would normally not think of as particularly wicked) displaying elements of wickedness soon after it was started.

It seems that although mainstream management ignores the sense-making aspect of the profession, many practitioners tacitly understand that making sense out of ambiguous situations is an important part of their work.  Moreover, they know that this is best done by harnessing the collective intelligence of a group rather than by enforcing a process or a solution

References:

  1. Jeff Conklin, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, John Wiley, New York (2005). See my review of Conklin’s book here
  2. Paul Culmsee & Kailash Awati, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations, iUniverse: Bloomington, Indiana (2011).
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