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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7 Responses to The one best practice to rule them all – Part 2

  1. Paul K says:

    well said Theory-boy! I loved the part “what’s the difference between sharepoint and twitter” Haaa! looking forward to part 3

  2. Andrew Jolly says:

    I must say, the line “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”.” is spot on Paul. Nice work on this post look forward to the next.

  3. SuperSharePointHero says:

    It’s like that classic line
    If you were a superhero what power would you have?
    To which someone once answered


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