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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for the ‘Issue Mapping’ Category

From ambiguity to action – a paper preview

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The powerful documentary The Social Dilemma highlights the polarizing effect of social media, and how it hinders our collective ability to address problems that impact communities, societies and even nations. Towards the end of the documentary, the technology ethicist, Tristan Harris, makes the following statement:

“If we don’t agree on what is true or that there’s such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem beneath all other problems because if we can’t agree on what is true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

The central point the documentary makes is that the strategies social media platforms use to enhance engagement also tend to encourage the polarization of perspectives. A consequence is that people on two sides of a contentious issue become less likely to find common ground and build a shared understanding of a complex problem.

A similar dynamic plays out in organisations, albeit on a smaller and less consequential scale. For example, two departments – say, sales and marketing – may have completely different perspectives on why sales are falling.  Since their perspectives are different, the mitigating actions they advocate may be completely different, even contradictory. In a classic paper, published half a century ago, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term wicked problem to describe such ambiguous dilemmas.

In contrast, problems such as choosing the cheapest product from a range of options are unambiguous because the decision criteria are clear. Such problems are sometimes referred to as tame problems.  As an aside, it should be noted that organisations often tend to treat wicked problems as tame, with less-than-optimal consequences down the line. For example, choosing the cheapest product might lead to larger long-term costs due to increased maintenance, repair and replacement costs.

The problem with wicked problems is that they cannot be solved using rational approaches to decision making. The reason is that rational approaches assume that a) the decision options can be unambiguously determined upfront, and b) that they can be objectively rated.  This implicitly assumes that all those who are impacted by the decision will agree on the options and the rating criteria. Anyone who has been involved in making a contentious decision will know that these are poor assumptions. Consider, for example, management and employee perspectives on an organizational restructuring.

In a book published in 2016, Paul Culmsee and I argued that the difference between tame and wicked problems lies in the nature of uncertainty associated with the two. In brief, tame problems are characterized by uncertainties that can be easily quantified (e.g., cost or time in projects) whereas wicked problems are characterized by uncertainties that are hard to quantify (e.g., the uncertainties associated with a business strategy).  One can think of these as lying at the opposite ends of an ambiguity spectrum, as shown below:

Figure 1: The Ambiguity Spectrum

It is important to note that most real-world problems have both quantifiable and unquantifiable uncertainties and the first thing that one needs to do when one is confronted with a decision making situation is to figure out, qualitatively, where the problem lies on the ambiguity spectrum:

Figure 2: Where does your problem lie on the ambiguity spectrum?

The key insight is that problems that have quantifiable uncertainties can be tackled using rational decision making techniques whereas those with unquantifiable uncertainties cannot. Problems of the latter kind are wicked, and require a different approach – one that focuses on framing the problem collectively (i.e., involving all impacted stakeholders) prior to using rational decision making approaches to address it. This is the domain of sensemaking, which I like to think of as the art of extracting or framing a problem from a messy situation.

Sensemaking is something we all do instinctively when we encounter the unfamiliar – we try to make sense of the situation by framing it in familiar terms. However, in an unfamiliar situation, it is unlikely that a single perspective on a problem will be an appropriate one. What is needed in such situations is for people with different perspectives to debate their views openly and build a shared understanding of the problem that synthesizes the diverse viewpoints. This is sometimes called collective sensemaking.

Collective sensemaking is challenging because it involves exactly the kind of cooperation that Tristan Harris calls for in the quote at the start of this piece.

But when people hold conflicting views on a contentious topic, how can they ever hope to build common ground? It turns out there are ways to build common ground, and although they aren’t perfect (and require diplomacy and doggedness) they do work, at least in many situations if not always. A technique I use is dialogue mapping which I have described in several articles and a book co-written with Paul Culmsee.

Figure 3: An example dialogue (or issue) map

Regardless of the technique used, the point I’m making is that when dealing with ambiguous problems one needs to use collective sensemaking to frame the problem before using rational decision making methods to solve it. When dealing with an ambiguous problem, the viability of a decision hinges on the ability of the decision maker to: a) help stakeholders distinguish facts from opinions, b) take necessary sensemaking actions to find common ground between holders of conflicting opinions, and c) build a base of shared understanding from which a commonly agreed set of “facts” emerge. These “facts” will not be absolute truths but contingent ones. This is often true even of so-called facts used in rational decision making: a cost quotation does not point to a true cost, rather it is an estimate that depends critically on the assumptions made in its calculation. Such decisions, therefore, cannot be framed based on facts alone but ought to be co-constructed with those affected by the decision.  This approach is the basis of a course on decision making under uncertainty that I designed and have been teaching across two faculties at the University of Technology Sydney for the last five years.

In a paper, soon to be published in Management Decision, a leading journal on decision making in organisations, Natalia Nikolova and I describe the principles and pedagogy behind the course in detail. We also highlight the complementary nature of collective sensemaking and rational decision making, showing how the former helps in extracting (or framing) a problem from a situation while the latter solves the framed problem. We also make the point that decision makers in organisations tend to jump into “solutioning” without spending adequate time framing the problem appropriately.  

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the hard sciences have long recognized complementarity to be an important feature of physical theories such as quantum mechanics. Indeed, the physicist Niels Bohr was so taken by this notion that he inscribed the following on his coat of arms: contraria sunt complementa (opposites are complementary). The integration of apparently incompatible elements into a single theory or model can lead to a more complete view of the world and hence, how to act in it. Summarizing the utility of our approach in a phrase: it can help decision makers learn how to move from ambiguity to action.

For copyright reasons, I cannot post the paper publicly. However, I’d be happy to share it with anyone interested in reading / commenting on it – just let me know via a comment below.

Note added on 13 May 2022:

The permalink to the published online version is: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/MD-06-2021-0804/full/html

Written by K

May 3, 2022 at 7:59 am

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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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.


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.

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