Heading to Annapolis in March 09

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Hi all

Just a quick note to say that one of my Seven Sigma colleagues and I will be back in the USA again in the week of March 16. If anybody wants to catch up, discuss business, client meet’s, etc or anything like that, let me know as soon as possible, as I need to confirm my departure back to Australia. Available for seminars, training, beers or anything in between 🙂



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Mike’s code-monkey "SharePoint suitability" quiz

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Ah – this is exactly my sense of humour. My colleague Mike Stringfellow wrote a post called "Code Monkey Hates SharePoint" where he presents a quick multi-choice questionnaire of seemingly innocent questions that allows you to determine how predisposed your code-monkey is to completely butchering your SharePoint environment. Apparently there is not much difference between "the ideal SharePoint developer" and a serial killer 🙂

Good stuff – you can check it out here

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jQuery: SharePoint Blu-Tack

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A quick observation: Jeremy wrote a good post on the ins and outs of jQuery as a SharePoint band-aid. Having done a little messing with JavaScript (under duress) I had a peek at his well thought out post. After reading it however, I came away thinking that jQuery was more like blu-tack than a band-aid. I’m not sure why I felt this, but after reading the blu-tack article on wikipedia, I knew I was right.

I am now going to substitite "blu-tack" with "jQuery" and quote directly from wikipedia.

jQuery is a versatile, reusable putty-like pressure based adhesive

Check: When the project manager is breathing down your neck to "get that $%^%$ site out now", you can throw in some jQuery in a content editor web part and avoid writing anything server side.

But the clincher argument for me was this one…

jQuery can leave an oily stain on paper materials if attached for a long period of time.

Hehe! Although band-aids can hurt a lot when they come off, I think the oily stain metaphor is better 🙂

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Boy bands – how to understand the site definition/template debate

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Hi all

I’ve read a few blogs on site definitions vs site templates and reading some development centric articles, particularly the alternative presented by Raymond, and expanded by Mike and summarised neatly by Chris. Being a part time developer, I found that the explanation were a little…shall we say… geeky and I had to expend far too many brain cells.

So to assist the rest of the SharePoint community who are not developers, I am going to attempt to explain the whole sorry debate to you using a more suitable analogy – boy bands. That way you do not have to worry about developer-speak.

image image image

Boy-band "definition"

There are several mandatory characteristics of being a boy band.

  1. All have to be pretty-boys
      One is permitted to be tough in a non threatening way
      One is sensitive
  2. There must be 5 members
  3. All must be able to dance
  4. Playing a musical instrument is not permitted
  5. Clothes are always the latest fashion
  6. Members do not write their own songs
  7. Must do exactly what the record company tells them

When you create a new boy-band, you audition a bunch of hopefuls, using this core set-up and then just give them a nice radio friendly name.

Now, it really doesn’t matter which band it is, this is the formula that is followed by record producers with staggering success. But there is a catch! Change any of these parameters and the whole thing falls apart. For example, if we replace the non-threatening tough guy with a fat kid who can’t dance, teenage girls will rebel and the band will have to break up. It makes no difference which boy-band we are taking about either. You have broken the fundamental structure of how they work and the whole thing will disintegrate.

This, my friends, is a *site definition*.

Also – this is very important to note. The "boy-band" definition is an out-of-the box definition. In other words, no matter what environment that you are operating in, you will always find that the boy-band definition is there.

Boy-band templates

However, just because you have to follow this definition doesn’t mean you can’t make some changes here and there. For example, you can safely change a boy-band’s musical style from pop to light opera and "New Kids On the Block" effectively turns into "Il Divo". If "Il Divo" turns out to be popular among the user population, then the record company will want to produce more operatic boy bands. If we could take "Il Divo" and somehow save them as a template, then we can create new operatic boy-bands quickly and easily.

But the core fact remains that if you modify the original boy-band definition, this new template will crash and burn as well.

"Operatic boy-bands" and "Pop boy-bands" are therefore examples of "site templates".

Both bands are based on the underlying "boy-band" definition and as a result, cannot exist independently without that definition. So what if we want to use the "Operatic boy-band" template in another location?

Not a problem, because as I described earlier, the boy-band definition is out of the box in all locations, and therefore the templates will always be able to be used in other locations.

Unfortunately, sometimes there are limitations with boy-band templates. The bands themselves have "grown" and now realise the original *definition* they have based their template on is too restrictive and will not scale with their future "artistic requirements". There is only so much that you can do when tweaking the more limited options provided by the template model. But since they are based on the underlying boy-band definition, then we are stuck.

New Kids On The block are a great case in point. In 1994, when they released their 4th studio album, they attempted to write their own songs to the detriment of their boy-band career. As we now know that violates rule 6 of the boy-band site definition and as expected, the group split up shortly after.

New site definitions and portability

image image image

So let’s just say that we want to make the first ever "hybrid death-metal boy band". We know that we cannot do this with a template alone because it will violate the boy-band definition and the world will explode. So we have to make up a new definition to accommodate this unique requirement. Suddenly we are faced with a lot more complexity here. Instead of just re-using a template we have to come up with a brand new definition and this requires specialised expertise. We already know that once we have made up our new definition that it can never be changed, so we had better make sure that we have it right the first time.

Now, let’s say that we create our first death-metal boy band called "New Kids on the Cannibal Corpse" and launch them in Sweden – where all the good metal bands come from. We create our new definition and then set up a new record label, hire PR guys, roadies, stylists, personal assistants and it all goes terrific. Sweden loves this new music sensation. But then when they try and break into the UK scene, it fails miserably. Why? Because we don’t have a record label there. They do not know how to properly deal with a new band based on this hybrid death-metal boy band definition because they have never seen this definition before.

This is one of the problems with making up new site definitions. Since it is not out of the box, if you try and move "New Kids on the Cannibal Corpse" to a new operating environment such as the UK, the definition is missing and therefore they have no idea how to handle it. This creates a dependency issue. Before "New Kids on the Cannibal Corpse" can be launched in the UK, we have to set up the "hybrid death-metal boy band" definition there *first*. Contrast this to "Il Divo" which can tour anywhere because the "boy band" definition is out of the box and therefore already set up by default at all locations.

Future Directions

Musical tastes change over time. Fads come and go, and alas, even boy-bands go out of favour. To achieve real longevity, all bands have to occasionally reinvent themselves – in effect go through a complete upgrade process and emerge as something completely new. The one advantage that boy bands have is that their popularity among teenyboppers means that the record industry will provide assistance to help them emerge as something new.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said with our poor hybrid death-metal boy band, who, being a custom designed product, will have no guarantees that the record company will help them reinvent.

Therefore, there are disadvantages to a custom band definition. Future upgrades are tougher. But if you have managed to remain on the boy-band definition, despite working with the reduced flexibility of being a customised template, you should be able to upgrade to a newer version with much less pain.

This is important because although you might have more flexibility when freed from the confines of a boy-band definition, you pay for it with future upgrade uncertainty.


So now you should be full-bottle on the difference between site definitions and site templates. So, which one should you use? At the end of the day, it depends on whether you want to be a one-hit-wonder or achieve long term staying power. However, remember the most important thing above all else…

Under no circumstances should you *ever* listen to boy-bands!


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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The one best-practice to rule them all – Part 3

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Gollum the Ring (2)

This is the third post in a series that focuses on what I think is the Holy Grail of project success – particularly SharePoint projects. Like everybody else, I am a product of my experiences, and one of these experiences was a project that included one of my greatest career teachers – “SharePoint-vs-Skype guy”. If you have not yet heard of this luminary of SharePoint folklore, then I suggest you go back to Part 1 of this series and start there. Starting here at part 3 really makes no sense at all…seriously.

I’ve spent two posts explaining my so-called journey to enlightenment and in part 2 of this series, I made the assertion that the *true* root cause of failed projects is usually a lack of shared understanding (and therefore shared commitment) among project participants. This root cause is often misdiagnosed because it is reflected in more visible symptoms such as scope creep, vague/incomplete requirements, mismatched expectations and general all-round unpleasantness. I also spoke about my journey toward “problem fundamentalism”, where I have come to believe very strongly that if you can achieve and maintain that illusive “shared understanding” of a problem among participants, then the actual process that you adopt to implement the solution really doesn’t matter that much. In essence I am echoing the inventor Charles F. Kettering when he once said

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Let’s now turn our attention to the “how” of shared understanding.

“Inappropriate methods”

Rittel and Conklin say that many groups fail to recognise that they are dealing with a wicked problem, or a problem that has taken on wicked tendencies. As a result, they apply inappropriate methods to deal with them. There are a few reasons for this, but two major ones stick out in my mind.

The first reason is the “unconscious incompetency” factor, which is training speak for “you do not know what you do not know”. In other words, if you have never heard of wicked problems and their nature, how are you supposed to know how best to deal with them? Thus, like any other form of enlightenment, you have to move from unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent (you now know that you do not know) before anything else. This series of posts hopefully is doing the trick here.

The second reason is that the visible signs of wickedness manifest themselves as scope creep, incomplete requirements, wheel reinventing and the like. Since I have already asserted that these are actually symptoms and not the true root cause, the usual methods used to try and deal with them are treating those *symptoms* and not the true cause. At the very least, traditional techniques are inappropriate and at the very worst, they are going to make things significantly worse!

Jeff Conklin recently said this about shared commitment:

The ‘Holy Grail’ of effective collaboration is creating shared understanding, which is a precursor to shared commitment. If you accept that the crux of effective action is agreeing on what the problem is, then the challenge for organizations is coming to a shared understanding about what their particular dilemma is. Plenty has been written about how to get people ‘on board’ and create buy-in for a strategy; but the business of how to craft shared understanding – a deep and robust understanding of the circumstances – hasn’t been well understood. Shared understanding means that the stakeholders understand each other’s positions well enough to have intelligent dialogue about their different interpretations of the problem, and to exercise collective intelligence about how to solve it.

With Jeff’s quote in mind, let’s take a look at these traditional techniques and see how guilty we all are of using them 🙂 .

It’s the process stupid!

It is almost universal to blame all of the world’s faults on “process”. I went through this line of thinking as I was off in my “theory cave”, trying to make sense of “SharePoint vs Skype” guy and other mysteries of life. What logically follows from this is usually the implementation of some sort of best-practice methodology, in the guise of program or project management office. This in turn creates a lot of extra rigour around the activities and processes around *solving* problems. Don’t get me wrong. Process, structure and consistency are actually critical, but problem wickedness and shared understanding are in the *sensemaking* space. The problem is that most best-practice standards and methodologies are very much focused in the *solution space* and tend to work on a presumption of more shared understanding than is actually the case. Again, this is due to the focus on treating the symptoms of problem wickedness. For example: “You have a scope change? Well, let’s fill out a change request form then”.

As a result, the whole sensemaking half of the puzzle is entirely missing!

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: This is why a lot of SharePoint governance plans and information architecture exercises are misfocused or simply miss the point.

Nail the scope, baby!

The other common way to try and tame things is to restrict or lock down the scope. I’m sure all readers have engaged in this. The idea being that if we solve this smaller, more constrained bit of the problem, we can then solve the harder bits later. The great flaw in this logic is exposed once you understand the symbiotic relationship between problems and their solutions that I spoke about in part 2. To recap, each time you think of a potential solution, you will always have an effect on your understanding of the problem. This was Rittel’s first characteristic of a wicked problem and it fed the endless loop of the second wicked problem characteristic – the “no stopping rule”. Therefore, by restricting scope and implementing a smaller subset, you will likely significantly change the understanding of the problem among the participants to the point where you can be in an even more fragmented position than you were in the first place.

In other words, the goalposts have moved in the meantime and the scope is no longer relevant. Stakeholders with hindsight question the very logic of that original scope restriction!

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: It’s so easy in hindsight 🙂

The umpire is always right, right?

Sometimes a group will become so fragmented in their understanding of a problem and therefore become completely polarised on the various solutions. The positions become so intractable for some that even to talk about other options, gives those options more credence than deserved. For example, to an ardent mac or linux fanboy, Microsoft are so evil and nasty that you should not use their products like … ever, dude!

When this occurs, usually after a long, arduous and spiteful process of trying to reach consensus, parties will often give the problem to a “higher source” and agree to abide by their decision. This could be your mother, the CEO, or the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The point is that the decision process is transferred from many to a few. In doing so, we rely on the knowledge, expertise and authority of that higher source.

This does tend to speed things along because when buried in the mud of analysis paralysis (symptom of endless looping between problem and solution), the desire to “shut-up and make a decision already” can be very strong. The tradeoff with this approach however, is that the decision makers themselves are inherently subjective and may disregard what some see as critical considerations. Since this is a win/lose proposition, stakeholders can become disenfranchised and although the decision has been made, there is no true shared commitment to implementing that decision.

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: If there is no shared commitment then it doesn’t matter how technically valid the solution is. It’s still dead.

Selling Ice to Eskimos

Many organisations (and in particular, governments) use a competition based method to deal with complex problems. Just like the previous example with entrenched, seemingly intractable positions, outcome will be determined by the forces of competition. The theory is that the best ideas will stand up to scrutiny and rigour and via a process of natural selection, the best will survive.

This method of competition between potential solutions, and the stakeholders that propose them actually has some distinct benefits. For example, it can foster innovation, sharpen the sensemaking focus of participants and provide good solution choices.

Unfortunately, as with all forms of competition, someone has to lose, and as a result, people do not always like to play fair. Whether it is Olympic athletes drugging themselves with steroids or certain corporations taking illegal advantage of their dominant market position, competition is often a very dirty game. A great case in point is the debate around Intelligent Design. It is argued by some that intelligent design is a scientific theory and should be taught in schools. But critics argue that the concept is simply an ingenious way to get around the 1987 US Supreme court ruling that creationism based science being taught in science in public schools violated the constitution, because it advanced a particular religion. Whether the latter view is right or not, it is still a great case study in how the rules of the game can be manipulated.

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: Marketing has a lot to answer for!

The paradox of shared understanding

Given that complex problems have a lot of interlocking and multi-causal factors, combined with the social complexity of multiple stakeholders with different world views, is it any wonder that traditional methods of reining in haywire projects are largely ineffectual? Traditional thinking across many disciplines suggests that problem solving is a linear process. Whether you are trying to work out where to put a freeway offramp or install a SharePoint internet site, the process would usually start by defining the problem, gathering data, analysing that data and then planning and implementation of the solution. Call it “waterfall”, or the “scientific method” or whatever, this approach has been around since… forever.

I wrote in more detail about the perils of waterfall in the project fail series in the section “how we really solve problems”.

But here is the problem with that approach. Those complex, interlocking issues and social complexity cause significant differences in opinion on the best solution, yet we need all of the diverse views to really gain a true, deep understanding of the problem and obtain the critical shared commitment that we need. The “no stopping rule” means that it is exceedingly difficult to determine when participants have *sufficiently* defined the problem, gathered data or formulated a solution.

So, how can we reconcile this paradox?

Is it possible to have a holistic, systems approach to examining the deep structure of an issue, that somehow allows us all to see the illusive big picture, without the inefficiency of “analysis paralysis” and the endless loop of the “no stopping rule”? (not to mention and the other nine characteristics of wickedness that Rittel identified). How can we, as a diverse group of stakeholders, fully explore a problem and gain the deep understanding of an issue without social complexity and those wicked factors derailing everything?

This is a question that Horst Rittel spent a lot of time thinking about and by 1970, had developed a potential answer. In part 4 I will tell you what his answer was and what it has now become, thanks to Jeff Conklin.


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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Functional consultants vs *great* functional consultants

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Kristian Kalsing was written a really terrific post, not just because he quoted yet another bloody international standard that I will have to now read (ISO15489). But because, drawing on his experiences of the world of SAP, he has observed that there are some important lessons that can be learned for SharePoint engagements. SAP (okay, well Basis anyway) is a world that I experienced way back in 1999 and, boy, can I write some stories about social complexity and project failure about that era!

Kristian observes that on SAP projects, the roles of consultants are typically very clearly defined and discipline based. For example, there are infrastructure (Basis) consultants, developers and functional consultants. Even within functional consultants, there are sub-disciplines of expertise. (Hope you don’t mind me quoting you Kristian).

The point is that the consultant configuring the finance module is basically an accountant and the consultant configuring the HR module probably studied human resources at university. In the SAP world, it would be absurd to take someone who has configured materials management or plant maintenance with one client and ask them to configure HR with the next. In SAP, the specialisation does not stop with the functional areas of the product. There are also functional consultants building up experience in certain industries. E.g. supply chain management can be very different when talking coal mining compared to running supermarkets.

Kristian observed that this notion of functional consultants does not occur in the SharePoint world. However, he qualifies this by observing that SAP is much bigger than SharePoint and therefore a direct comparison is "bit of a stretch", yet lessons can be learned. On the ‘bigger’ point I actually disagree and think that the context of ‘bigger’ is relative (and I look forward to Kristians’ opinion on my take). SAP and ERP systems are massively bigger and more complex than SharePoint – without a doubt. SharePoint may not be as big as SAP in terms of feature-set and complexity, but it can actually be just as big as an ERP system in terms of the impact on the day-to-day workings of staff.

To paint a gross generalisation, with an ERP system, often all that many end-users will ever see is a system to enter their time-sheets and perhaps perform some HR functions such as apply for leave or check pay-slips. Not everyone directly sees or interacts with, say, financials, plant maintenance and the like. But you can be pretty damn sure that everyone saves files to G:\ drive on a daily basis. (Substitute whatever your drive letter is that represents your jungle that is the file system).

More staff = more social diversity = more differing opinions = more complexity = bigger scope = more options = even bigger scope = wicked problem

Therefore, it is not a case that "lessons can be learned from the SAP world", but it is a case of "lessons should be learned from the SAP world".

But here is one additional (admittedly subjective) point to consider.

ERP systems have a really bad failure rate. Does the fact that there are discipline specific functional consultants involved really hold the key to project success?

Don’t get me wrong. I think that SharePoint functional consultants are a critical piece of the puzzle and, by god, the world can do without Microsoft gold partners throwing one of their "technical" people at what is essentially a project with a huge training and advisory component. But succeeding in SharePoint – or any other discipline involving complexity and a large diversity of stakeholders, goes deeper than that.

The difference between a "functional consultant" and a "great functional consultant" is not only domain specific knowledge. It is the art of helping diverse stakeholders to disentangle complex problems from a cluttered maze of overlapping issues, the moving target of requirements into an environment where all participants have a shared understanding.

I’ll have more to say about this as I delve deeper into the "One best practice…" series.


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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The one best practice to rule them all – Part 2

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Hi all

This is part of a somewhat self-indulgent story of how I came to practice a craft that has made a profound difference on how I approach and manage SharePoint projects. If you have not read part 1, then I suggest you stop now and read that first. This post will really not make a lot of sense, otherwise :-).

In my last exciting instalment, I had concluded with the time where I discovered the term “Wicked problems” and the work of Horst Rittel, who coined the term. In his landmark 1973 paper, Rittel identified ten common characteristics of wicked problems. I remember quite distinctly, reading through that list for the first time, having this strange sense of relief. Of the characteristics, most of them had *clearly* manifested in my SharePoint-gone-haywire project. The relief stemmed from the fact that it was a recognised phenomena with a tendency to defy traditional problem solving techniques. The characteristics with which I immediately identified are marked in bold below.

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

But the real clincher – the moment that made me realise that my frustrating journey through standards, methodologies and best practices was finally coming to an end was the 5th characteristic. “Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one -shot operation”. When I read that one, it was as if my famous “Skype-vs-SharePoint” guy suddenly materialised in front of me and mooned me saying over and over again “I can collaborate on Skype, too!”

For those of you who skipped part 1 despite warnings, “We only have one shot at this” was pretty much a word-for-word quote on what was said to me in the haywire project that started all of this.

Is it any surprise that I felt I was onto something here?

Digging deeper

When I read Rittel’s 1973 paper, I began to get a deeper understanding of what he meant by his first two characteristics that I didn’t immediately identify with. Namely “there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” and “wicked problems have no stopping rule”.

I soon realised that these two characteristics were actually the most *prevalent* characteristics of complex IT projects and therefore, the list was even *more* relevant to me than I had originally thought. After that, I was a convert. Rittel explained the first characteristic as follows…

The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it. That is to say: In order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The reason is that every question asking for additional information depends upon the understanding of the problem–and its resolution–at that time. Problem understanding and problem resolution are concomitant to each other.

The second characteristic, “no stopping rule”, is a natural consequence of the above issue. Again, quoting Rittel from 1973…

Because (according to Proposition 1) the process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature, because there are no criteria for sufficient understanding […] , the would-be planner can always try to do better. Some additional investment of effort might increase the chances of finding a better solution.

Skype-vs-SharePoint guy, who now has the credit of being one of the most significant unwitting teachers of my career, went from not knowing any difference between SharePoint and Skype, to suggesting work items that already existed in the project plan, to telling us how we should build our information architecture based on 1990’s era document management systems. It was crystal clear that he went through this iterative process of changing his understanding of the problem based on how much thought he had put into the solution.

The sad fact was that Skype-vs-SharePoint guy was not unique. He might have been an extreme case, but in reality, he was simply the latest in a long line of users and stakeholders who I would have previously dismissed as idiots, computer illiterate or just plain tossers. Is it any wonder why we have the scourge of “scope creep” and “vague and incomplete requirements” that are so commonly cited as project failure factors? How many times have you banged your head against the wall thinking “How can we build a system when they don’t know what they want!”?

Problem fundamentalism

So in a way, we, as solution architects, developers and consultants, are just as much at fault as those users who we chastise because they “don’t know what they want”. Why? We fail to recognise or account for the immutable fact that understanding of a problem is not cut-and-dry. It almost certainly will change over time as people mull over, work through, learn from and grapple with the nature of a problem and the complexities of the interlocking issues that form the problem. To make matters worse, we all do this *individually* and at *different speeds* with *different value sets*. Inevitably, we arrive at different conclusions based on different paths we take on making sense of it all.

That cyclical nature of understanding the problem, based on understanding the solution, does not automatically stop once the scope document has been signed off, either. It will continue over and over again as a perfectly natural part of the learning process. With that in mind, consider all of the studies that have looked into factors causing project failure (uncle google shows up many studies). All of the usual suspects are there. For example…

  • Scope creep
  • Incomplete requirements
  • Unclear objectives
  • Lack of user involvement
  • Unrealistic or overly optimistic time frames
  • Lack of resources

blah…blah…blah – I am sure that you have seen these before.

If you accept Rittel’s assertion that the problem and the solution are intertwined and concomitant, then it is clear that the sorts of factors listed above are merely *symptoms*, not causes. *Of course* there are incomplete requirements and scope creep. There would have to be incomplete requirements and scope creep almost by *definition* for a complex project. For a long time I had instinctively felt this way, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… until SharePoint-vs-Skype guy, Horst Rittel and Jeff Conklin showed me the way.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:

Projects fail principally because there is a lack of *shared understanding* among the participants of that project. Additionally, shared understanding is a prerequisite before the key thing that makes or breaks a project – shared commitment.


(Stunned silence … Paul hears pin drop)

I can imagine some reader comments at this point:

  • “Big $%#$ deal, tell me something I don’t know”.
  • “What the….you made me read through one and a half blog posts for *that*?”
  • “So what theory-boy, tell me *how* to actually develop shared understanding”
  • “Paul can you tell me the difference between SharePoint and Twitter?” 🙂

To be fair, I think most people know instinctively that a lack of shared understanding is the major cause of projects being comatose before they barely got off the ground. But if it was so obvious why does scope continue to creep? Why are objectives still unclear? And, why are requirements and specifications incomplete? To answer that, we need to turn the “shared understanding” assertion around and ask it in this way.

Let’s suspend reality and just assume for a minute that all participants have an *identical* deep and tacit understanding of a really complex problem. Would we still have the incomplete requirements, unclear objectives, scope creep, unrealistic time frames that are cited as project failure factors?

I say “no” from a philosophical standpoint, but a “Well, yes… but much less than what normally happens” from a pragmatic standpoint.

Thus, I started to look at my SharePoint engagements through different eyes and became what I now think should be called a “problem fundamentalist”. I began to believe that if you could achieve the utopian dream of complete shared understanding among participants at the very start of a project, then really, you could use any methodology you like to actually manage the problem and implement the solution. The common factors of project failure would fall drastically.

So finally for now, is it simply just a matter of dealing with the little question of *how* to actually achieve this goal of shared understanding?

We will talk about that in part 3…


Thanks for Reading

Paul Culmsee

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The one best practice to rule them all – Part 1

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This is a post or three that I have really been looking forward to writing, and it is a long time in the making for various reasons. Some of you, after reading it, will no doubt wonder if I have been taking magic mushrooms or something similar, but if the feedback from the SharePoint Best Practices conference is anything to go by, then maybe a couple of readers will have the same sense of realisation and clarity that I had.

I am going to tell you the first best practice that you should master. If you master this, all of the other best practices will fall into place. It goes beyond SharePoint too. Failure to do this, and all of your other best practices may not necessarily save you. In fact they can actually work against you. Hence the “Lord of the Rings” inspired title of this post.

Before we begin, I have to make a confession. I am not a 100% full time SharePoint consultant anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I still do, and will continue to perform a *heck* of a lot of SharePoint advisory and pick through the wreckage of many a chaotic installation. But I have worked hard to develop a new skill over the last year that has proven to be particularly powerful and profound in my SharePoint practice. The response of those SharePoint clients with whom I have used this craft has been overwhelmingly positive. The thing is though, this craft has started to take on a life of its own and now I am being called on to use it outside the SharePoint realm – despite SharePoint being the whole reason I found it in the first place.

So to explain this craft I really need to explain how I came to find it.

“I don’t know what I am delivering anymore”

Back in  late 2006, I was the infrastructure architect at a mid sized MOSS early adopter. This organisation came from a place of pretty low maturity around their document, knowledge and information management practices. As I have subsequently come to understand and recognise, many organisations coming from this place have a tendency to try to boil the ocean, via a phenomena that I previously termed the “panacea effect“. At one level, a big ambitious SharePoint platform was brilliant learning for me personally because I got to put in a multi-server farm as well as the IBM SAN storage, clustered SQL, network load balanced web front end servers, extranet config, custom authentication, publishing and just about everything in between. All in all the perfect site for the tech geek to learn the guts of SharePoint infrastructure and develop an early instinct for governance at that level.

But that wasn’t the problem area – that was actually the *tame* part of the SharePoint project. This project started to unwind pretty quickly for other reasons. Under pressure and eager to produce, the Microsoft enamoured sponsor pushed hard. Each stakeholder had *radically* different world views of what we were doing, and pinning down scope and requirements was an exercise in futility, project time estimates were crashed by more than half because they were more than the sponsors original naive estimate that went to the board of directors. The thoroughly frustrated project manager said to me one day “I don’t know what I am delivering anymore”.

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: Stop now – just stop now.

Around this time I decided to have a chat with some of the major stakeholders because I was really worried about this project to the point that I was thinking of resigning. It seemed that the various stakeholders never actually spoke to each other, instead using the project manager as a kind of proxy. I thought that maybe a few one-on-one, more casual meetings might break a few deadlocks and frustrations.

So, sitting in a coffee place with one particular stakeholder, I was asked the question that was the catalyst for where I am today.

“Paul, can you tell me the difference between SharePoint and Skype?”

(When I told the audience this at the Best Practice conference, I was met with disbelieving laughter. I can tell you that at the time I didn’t laugh – I was so taken aback by the question I just about choked on my double-shot latte!). 

“Well”, he explained, “I can collaborate with anybody in the world using Skype for free, and even call regular land lines very cheaply. Why should I pay half a million bucks for SharePoint to collaborate?”

CleverWorkarounds’ Hindsight Rating: Project participants can hide a lack of understanding longer than you think. Have you ever been in a meeting where you are unsure or do not feel fully informed? It is very common for people to sit quietly rather than stop and say “Sorry, I don’t understand this.”

I spent a lot of time with this stakeholder after that, and little by little I was able to get across various SharePoint basics like libraries, lists, columns and views. What happened next though was that this stakeholder started to suggest we do things that were already in the project plan (he never read it originally because he didn’t understand it). Later he gave me a records based taxonomy from a company that he used to work for in the mid nineties. It was one of those library inspired, record centric taxonomies like what I described in the document management/death metal article. He had decided that all document libraries farm-wide should use 5 common site columns – no more.

He said another thing to me around this time which was also very influential.

“We have one shot to get this right. If we get this wrong, we are going to set the company back years”.

You will understand the significance of this comment soon enough…

Off to the cave…

I think I have told enough of this story that you already know the outcome. There were other stakeholders of course with their own peculiar views of the world, and there were various things we could have done better at all levels. But fundamentally, I was dealing with a guy who’s understanding of the problem clearly changed, the more he learned and the more he thought about the collaboration problem. All of the other stakeholders went through this thought/learning process as well.

This project was something that stuck in my mind for a long time after and I was determined to never ever let this happen again. I mean, we all know SharePoint is technically complex, but the “SharePoint vs Skype” conversation for me was a watershed moment. If I were the PM, how could I have seen this coming and mitigated it early? How could we have gotten into the implementation phase for someone to ask such a question? He sat in all the meetings with everyone else and he saw the famous SharePoint pie chart like everyone else. What was wrong with our processes? Did we need to use a best-practice methodology? Did I need to learn to train people better?

It was time to go off to the metaphorical cave and meditate for a while. (Jeremy Thake once called me the theory master – now you know why).

I dug out my PMBOK books. “Maybe the PMO was implemented too rigidly or with too much dogma?” I thought. But after re-reading that stuff I still couldn’t satisfactorily reconcile the Skype question. We spent days and days developing the project management plan – it was a good plan for its time and anticipated a lot of stuff. It was clear that at least one of the stakeholders never read it beyond a basic skim or perhaps the executive summary.

So I looked at COBiT as it was supposed to be about controls and oversight. I really liked COBiT, especially the RACI charts and the maturity model. To this day I think it is one of the best designed and most elegantly constructed standards out there, but it suffers from being *so* high level and abstract that is really only useful at CIO/board level. In fact COBiT really is an umbrella that sits across all of the other ones, so by itself I think it is next to useless. Thus, it really wasn’t going to be a practical help in dealing with this problem of stakeholder understanding.

What about ISO9001? I mean, it is all about quality right? Maybe we had a quality issue? Maybe some insights were to be found there? Would a quality management plan have helped? Maybe a little bit – I mean I learned the fun you can have with the non conformance clauses. But the issue was *not* what to do once I found a quality problem. The fact that it had become a quality issue means that by definition, something went unnoticed or ignored and then caused some unwanted event to occur. Thus, I needed to recognise it much, much earlier than when it becomes a quality issue.

(ISO9001, if you have not yet read it, will cure even the most hard-core insomniac – guaranteed).

Hmmm, perhaps the answer lies in process improvement? Maybe if we used a best-practice methodology to map out and understand our processes, it would have resulted in a more optimal information architecture exercise. I had watched teams argue over process and accountabilities when we started talking to them about metadata and workflows during the information architecture sessions. So I hit the books on process improvement and business process modelling methodologies – a very crowded space with many standards and theories.

Three things popped up here. IBM’s BPMN (Business Process Modelling Notation), the process improvement methodology Six Sigma (and its variants) and a great book by Geary Rummler called “Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart (Jossey Bass Business and Management Series)“.

I became excited as this was definitely getting closer to what I was looking for. As I read more, I saw potential. BPMN was simply a method to create consistent, easy to understand process flow diagrams and in fact, one of my colleagues has become a master at this craft. But that didn’t address the ‘art’ of process improvement. I found that often when trying to map a process with a group, the group would often start to recognise flaws or flat out disagree on how the process ran within the organisation. Inevitably, as a process mapper, you would sit back and “process debates” would take over the meeting. Clearly there was a step missing.

I also liked the emphasis on data centric decision making of Six Sigma and the emphasis on measurement. I went very low-brow and bought Six Sigma for Dummies and devoured it. As I read it, I started to remember my old high school maths because Six Sigma is very analytical and data driven. Much of what Six Sigma teaches is very, very good from a philosophical standpoint, but it did seem so “epic” and seemed to be geared around “big bang” change.

All of process improvement methodologies were process-heavy and structure-heavy. I feared that the same dogma that I had seen derail the good intentions of PMBOK would affect Six Sigma in the sorts of organisations that I had involvement with. I read a great online document later that suggested Six Sigma in real life had more of a two sigma success rate which I found unsurprising.

I also looked at Lean/Kaizen and a zillion variants. In the end I started to get lost and frustrated. Process improvement (and by association, strategy theory) is an insanely crowded place and some other time, I will write about the various fads as they have come and gone.

The Eureka Moment

Okay so I read a lot of stuff (and now have forgotten most of it). All of the methodologies and practices that I studied had some excellent parts to them, and in fact, most *encourage* you to take the bits that make logical sense for you. As I wrote in Part 8 of the “SharePoint Project Failure…” series, I found it ironic that implementation of many of these methodologies fell victim to the same sorts of “people” issues that derail the original project. The whole ‘big bang’ style approach, whether it was a software project or a best-practice methodology seemed to suffer the same sort of hit-or-miss fate.

Then in one of those times when you randomly surf wikipedia (the fountain of all authoritive knowledge 😉 ), I came across the term “Wicked problems” and the work of Horst Rittel from the early 1970’s. In Rittel’s era, he was talking about a particular class of social policy and planning problems like “What shall we do about the global financial crisis” or “What should we do about global warming”, “What should we do to solve the Palistinian issue?”. Such problems are insanely tough to solve. But as I read about the *characteristics* of a wicked problem as described by Rittel, and subsequently by his student Conklin, I realised that both were describing *exactly* my first MOSS 2007 project.

While I am not suggesting a MOSS project is a wicked problem the way that Rittel or Conklin envision it to be, those “characteristics” or “properties” of wicked problems were so applicable to my experience that is was scary.


Since I have been waffling on far too long, I’ll stop things now, and in the next post, I will delve into wicked problems in more detail, both Rittel and Conklin’s definitions, as well as my own definition, that I used at my Best Practices SharePoint Conference session.


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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SharePoint ROI Slide Deck and Sample Scenario worksheet published

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Hot off the press (okay – well SlideShare magic),  I’ve just posted by Best Practices Conference slide deck for the "speak to your CFO" session, along with the ROI spreadsheet for the PMIS scenario that I used during the demonstration. Like the "wicked problems" slide deck, slideshare conversion isn’t quite there, so just contact me if you want a pptx version.

…and the spreadsheet. Just remember you scary MBA and finance types. I *know* this is a simple sheet and you can pick all sorts of holes in it. It is really for training and guidance purposes only. (Therefore see the obligatory "don’t come crying to me if this gets you into trouble" disclaimer below).


Use at your own risk!


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