A warning on “tame” metaphors

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Often people use metaphors to describe various aspects of SharePoint. I am guilty as charged here. One of the many that I use for SharePoint, is the metaphor of an Ikea modular storage solution to describe the new paradigm of moving from folders to document libraries, columns, views, workflow, sites, content types and the like.

But, I see a very common mistake with a lot of SharePoint metaphors that you must be careful with. People use tame metaphors for SharePoint, and this misleads.

Confused? Well consider this. There are two main types of problems in this world. Tame problems and wicked problems.

This is what a tame problem looks like according to Conklin.

  • A tame problem has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement.
  • A tame problem has a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when the solution or a solution is reached.
  • A tame problem has a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.
  • A tame problem belongs to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar manner.
  • A tame problem has solutions which can be tried and abandoned.

A wicked problem on the other hand looks a little different.

  • A wicked problem is not understood until after formulation of a solution.
  • Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding a wicked problem.
  • A wicked problem can be explained in different ways
  • A wicked problem is always considered a symptom of another problem. 
  • Constraints and resources to solve the problem change over time.
  • The problem is never solved.

Yeah, I know – it’s a rhetorical question, but which category do you think many SharePoint projects fall under? 🙂

Wicked metaphors

So, just like problems, there are two types of metaphors in the world too, tame ones and wicked ones.

The reason that my Ikea metaphor works has nothing to do with Ikea itself. The point I am  making is that even with the most spectacular modular Ikea storage solution, installing it is not that hard. I mean, if you read the instructions and take your time it can be done. Even if you rush, you might have a few scratches and hit your thumb with the hammer a few times, but you will get it installed. Even so, many prefer to get an Ikea guy to come in and do it.

But, here is the rub – the Ikea guy can’t help you agree with your dysfunctional family about whose underpants should go where. Guess what – *that* is the wicked bit! Wickedness has little to do with the Ikea furniture itself. It is all about the social complexity of those who have to work with it together.

So, be careful if you say something like “SharePoint is like building a house, you need to lay the foundations first…” Why? Remember that building a house is actually a very tame problem. People do them all the time and we pretty much follow the same script. Many collaborative solutions are not tame in this way. Therefore, this metaphor misleads and is completely inappropriate.

In fact, if you wanted a more accurate house metaphor, you need to add the social complexity and organisational chaos element to it. In my version, it is still a house building exercise, but this time you are the foreman and the construction crew consists of your mother in law, Homer Simpson, Eric Cartman, Tom Cruise and Paris Hilton.

I pity the project manager who has to deal with that combination of personalities!

image image image image


Thanks for reading!

Paul Culmsee


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7 Responses to A warning on “tame” metaphors

  1. Paul, you’ve inspired me to start taking the list of the couple dozen SharePoint metaphors I’ve been collecting on my whiteboard for 2 years and start blogging about them, mindful of your caveats. Thanks for the “big think.”

    Look forward to hearing you muse on a combination of themes you’ve explored here in the past: estimating effort (e.g., to get to cost/ROI) of wicked problems…

  2. Paul, Another excellent post. I have always thought that if Homer wasn’t the nuclear power plant inspector he’d be a SharePoint Consultant. 😛

  3. admin says:

    Yeah Michael – Homer describes many so-called SharePoint consultancies. *blank look* “can I have my money now?” 🙂

  4. admin says:

    Hi Mike

    Risk was the next topic on the agenda, but I have a lot to say on IBIS, Dialogue Mapping and wicked problems for a while…



  5. My preferred SharePoint metaphor is an image 😉

  6. Paul, Another excellent post thanks..

  7. Felix says:

    This is great. And it can be applied to Project Management perfectly…
    Thanks for your posts, I love reading them.

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