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

  1. Pingback: SharePoint Daily for February 24, 2009 - SharePoint Daily - Bamboo Nation

  2. That most methodologies only cover solution delivery and do not address problem formulation is a great observation. As you say, it is usually assumed that all stakeholders understand the problem, but this is quite often not the case, especially not when talking SharePoint projects.

  3. Andrew Jolly says:

    Nice one Paul, looking forward to post 4, also my Project Manager wanted to know where you got the photograph of him that you used at the top of this article. 🙂

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