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Sep 10 2009

The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1

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For those who do not regularly read CleverworkArounds, I have a bit of a split career-personality where half my working life is spent as a SharePoint practitioner and the other half as a sort of facilitator, based around the craft of dialogue mapping. This series of articles will delve a little deeper into dialogue mapping and how I have used it.

I previously introduced the topic of IBIS and Issue Mapping to a SharePoint audience in the “One best practice” series of posts. That series of posts focussed on the issue mapping side of things because it dissected a debate that had already taken place (Joel’s ‘Just say “no” to site definitions’). While this is an effective demonstration of the way that IBIS can break down a seemingly complex argument into more easily digested chunks, I never really wrote about the craft of dialogue mapping, which is a much more difficult, mentally exhausting, yet ultimately fulfilling practice.

Now I have to tell you, as an IT consultant who has managed to not get *too* messed-up over the last 20 years, I don’t get too intimidated with IT these days. But first time dialogue mapping for a group of stakeholders on a non IT project, where I had no buy in to that project, and my sole purpose was to craft a good issue map to help them work through their complex issue, I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep the night before.

So first up, let’s clear up the terms I using so that we are all on the same page.

  • IBIS: The grammar that is used to create an issue map. When I talk about issues, ideas, pros and cons, I am describing the elements of IBIS grammar. You can read about this elsewhere on my blog, my mentor, Jeff Conklin or the amazing work by Kailash Awati.
  • Issue mapping: The craft of creating an map based on IBIS notation. Some examples are in this article.
  • Dialogue Mapping: The facilitation process where a facilitator works with a group to create an issue map and translate discussion into Issue Maps.

Why dialogue mapping?

If you have ever uttered the cliché “They don’t know what they want”, then you have your answer. Many problems are rather difficult to define and pin down because, even to define them, requires you to think about possible solutions to the problem. Based on our experience, values (and DNA), we will form our own interpretations of the problem space and then spend considerable time “fumbling around” when working with the rest of the group to clearly articulate our understanding to others, only to find that our understanding is not universal. Disagreements, therefore, are inevitable and are amplified by the sheer number of stakeholders, the fluidity of the problem space and the constraints around the problem, such as a time deadline. This has a way of making life unpleasant and stressful; a situation nobody particularly enjoys.

People deal with this in different ways. For many, the natural reflex to this situation is avoidance – to try and return to the “business-as-usual” or status quo that existed before. True believers may don the boxing gloves and spar for a few rounds with other true believers. Some may become the ninja, invisible and striking silently. Either way, this sort of chaos that represents organisational pain is fairly familiar to most.

Now, there are many methods that you can use to remedy this situation. But for me, there are some key ingredients required for the really effective methods.

  1. The method should not take you too far away from the problem space. So, for example, you are trying to grapple with a difficult organisational problem. You decide to adopt a methodology. Now you are focussing on learning the methodology, obsessing if you are doing it ‘right’ and then still trying to gain a shared understanding of the problem space.
  2. The method should be simple enough that people do not have to be trained just to participate.
  3. The method needs to be inclusive, and all voices (not just the metaphorical boxers) need to be heard
  4. The method should be easy to adapt and grow as understanding of the problem changes over time.
  5. Most importantly of all, the method needs to allow a group to start from what they know now. Half the battle with organisational chaos is the continual “going in circles” pain from feeling that all of the questions need to be answered now and if not, we are doing something wrong.

One of my clients recently summed it up well when he said to me “In dealing with complexity we persist in creating complex methods and wonder why its still complex.” – I found that very profound, but it might have been the beer I was drinking at the time.

Anyway, I digress. Below is an IBIS based issue map discussing Frodo’s dilemma. Note that I didn’t need to tell you how to read the map. it is inherently readable due to the symbolism in the nodes. This is the sort of output to expect from a dialogue mapping session in Middle Earth.


So, how would such a map be produced from a meeting or workshop?

Ideally the room would be set up as per the illustration below. This image below is from the Cognexus site, the home of Dialogue Mapping. Note how one person is sitting at a laptop, with a projected map behind them, facing the rest of the group. The rest of the group is interacting with the mapper and map, discussing arguments, asking for additions or modifications and building out a chain of logic around the problem space.


The facilitator is the key here. This person knows the IBIS grammar and is taking the group deliberations and translating it to the issue map in real-time. Using software and a projector, as opposed to flip charts, restructuring or refactoring the map live and on the fly is quick and painless. By using the IBIS grammar, the map is inherently readable and very clear, compared to a normal meeting where there is no tool to provide the sort of “holding environment” to allow people to keep collective focus and explore the different perspectives on the problem space.

This notion of the holding environment also is critically important. If you are lucky enough to work in a job you love, with a team you love, for a visionary CEO who you admire and respect, then that CEO has created the ultimate holding environment and you should consider yourself very lucky (and your CEO is worth all that money they earn). For the other 99.9% of us, we have to make do with what we have. The point here is that any tool or method you use needs to augment the understanding process, not complicate it. If it is over-complicated it will not improve understanding and the group will fall back to business-as-usual and participants will likely wind up resenting the method.

Consider dialogue mapping as a holding environment versus traditional meeting decorum. Inevitably, a group will start out with one question, and fairly quickly realise there are underlying or deeper questions that also need to be answered. In a regular meeting governed by a strict agenda and roles (as is recommended by many books and facilitators), problem exploration will be stifled. All too often, changes in understanding of the problem is seen as an unwanted tangent that derails the agenda of the meeting. In other words, the system works against the problem exploration space and that sort of meeting decorum is a poor option for this sort of exploration. Why did we invent such systems to keep meetings on track? Because meetings alone are a crappy container for problem exploration! However with the IBIS grammar and the shared space of the dialogue map, underlying questions can be captured and explored with an organised, evolving point of reference.

The shared space also has a positive effect on the decorum of exploring prickly issues. The group’s attention is now fixed on an evolving map on the wall. A skilled dialogue mapper can utilise IBIS grammar to take a lot of the heat out of argumentation and the process becomes more about building a chain of logic, than cheap point scoring. Typical meeting tactics like pulling rank or personal attacks thinly veiled as “questions” are easily dealt with by the dialogue mapper and never make it to the map in the form intended. The desire to pull back to business is usual is mitigated by the neutrality of the IBIS language and the improved quality of deliberation.

Perhaps the most important benefit of all, is the capture of rationale, or organisational memory. For me, this is precisely where my SharePoint world intersects with this craft because IBIS maps have for me been one of the best artefacts I have seen for the capture of implicit or tacit knowledge. These maps ultimately are an extremely rich exploration of a given problem and demonstrate very effectively, the circumstances and understanding of a problem at that point in time. With issue maps, gone are the days of looking at a process, policy or report years later and wondering “what the hell were they thinking?”.


So finally for part 1, let’s sum up by examining dialogue mapping in relation to my earlier criteria for the really effective methods of collaborating on difficult problems.

The method should not take you too far away from the problem space. So, for example, you are trying to grapple with a difficult organisational problem, so you decide to adopt a methodology. Now you are focussing on learning the methodology, obsessing if you are doing it ‘right’ and then still trying to gain a shared understanding of the problem space.

With Dialogue Mapping, only the mapper needs any training. All other participants do not need any previous IBIS or Issue Mapping experience. Participants do not need to wonder if they are doing it right, because just by articulating their opinion on issues, ideas and arguments, they are doing it right.

The method should be simple enough that people do not have to be trained just to participate.

Cut and paste my last answer. Aside from the mapper, all other participants do not need any previous IBIS or Issue Mapping experience. 

The method needs to be inclusive, and all voices (not just the metaphorical boxers) need to be heard

Two things that positively kill meetings is death by repetition and grenade lobbing. Death by repetition is when we tend to find a way to suggest our solution, no matter what question is asked. This behaviour has the opposite effect than intended on other participants. But once an idea is captured, it idea is visible along with all of the other ideas. If the repetition continues, all the dialogue mapper needs to do is ask the person if they have anything more to add to the map for that idea. This is surprisingly effective as the disruptive behaviour becomes very obvious to the serial repeater.

Grenade lobbing happens when someone challenges the whole context of the conversation in some way. When this is a dialogue mapped meeting or workshop, the map comes into its own. The dialogue mapper will capture the challenge as an issue and restructure the map to accommodate this issue. The previous disruptive power of the grenade lob is significantly mitigated and the map now has richer argumentation.

The method should be easy to adapt and grow as understanding of the problem changes over time.

IBIS is founded on the principle that problems and solutions are intertwined closely and that exploration of one will change the other in a cyclical fashion. As discussed, refactoring maps over time is critical to managing a problem that is a moving target. But also being able to save the state of understanding at a given point in time, and then being able to examine the evolution of that understanding and rationale (tacit knowledge) over time is capturing a snapshot of organisational memory. Even better, put that snapshot into SharePoint, classify it with metadata and now your collaborative portal includes findable, organised tacit knowledge!

Most importantly of all, the method needs to allow a group to start from what they know now.

The exploration of what we know now actually can offer a lot of clarity and insights when integrated into a coherent map. Instead of a long, laborious meeting where various people have lost the thread of the conversation, we have a point of reference on the wall. Furthermore, in breaking down the arguments into simple to follow IBIS structure, participants are better equipped to make the sort of connections between chains of logic to better understand the frame of reference of the other participants. The map is an output of this collective effort, which is visible and available for others to explore. Rather than starting out by trying to peel the onion of problems understanding in ever widening scope, we simply start. We put up a question on the map and attempt to answer it.


Hopefully, I have managed to convey a little of what the dialogue mapping experience looks like. In part 2, I will expand upon this topic and discuss my baptism of fire experience with dialogue mapping, the factors that have helped me improve my skills in it, as well as working with the master in action – Jeff Conklin

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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19 Responses to “The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1”

  1. The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 · FN power says:

    […] More: The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 […]

  2. The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 - LZ power says:

    […] Excerpt from:  The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 […]

  3. The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 - earth viewer says:

    […] Read the original here:  The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 1 […]

  4. CleverWorkarounds » The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 2 says:

    […] and non SharePoint work. In the “One best practice” series of articles, I explained IBIS. In part 1 of this series, I introduced the facilitation part that goes along with IBIS. In this article, […]

  5. CleverWorkarounds » Am I a Business Analyst? What about those calling themselves BAs? says:

    […] methods for translating are fundamentally inclusive. In other words, I do not “translate” anything, “take” it to another party and “relay” […]

  6. CleverWorkarounds » The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 3 says:

    […] welcome to part 3 of my series on the practice of Dialogue Mapping in the real-world. To recap, in part 1, I provided a brief overview of Dialogue Mapping and in part 2, I described a common real world […]

  7. Building project knowledge – a social constructivist view « Eight to Late says:

    […] reality. For me this view strikes a particular chord because of it is akin to the stated aims of dialogue mapping, a technique that I have described in several earlier posts (see this article for an example […]

  8. CleverWorkarounds » The practice of Dialogue Mapping – Part 4 says:

    […] I stated in part 1 of this series, Dialogue Mapping is a very useful holding environment on its own, but it can be […]

  9. CleverWorkarounds » SharePoint, Debategraph and Copenhagen 2009 – Collaboration on a global scale says:

    […] in sense-making and collaboration on wicked problems some time back, and through the craft of Dialogue Mapping, we have had the opportunity to help diverse groups successfully work through some very challenging […]

  10. CleverWorkarounds » Why I’ve been quiet… says:

    […] journey took an interesting trajectory, as I started getting into sensemaking and acquiring the skills necessary to help groups deal with really complex, wicked problems. My original intent was to reduce the […]

  11. kids boxing says:

    Nice post . i am going to try this dialogue mapping. looks very interesting

  12. SharePoint: Yes You Can (do the right thing for your client) | says:

    […] used my Issue Mapping skills (see Paul Culmsee’s blog for details on this) to produce a map of options along with the arguments in favour or against each […]

  13. kare anderson says:

    What a powerful tool to facilitate self-organized projects teams and other kinds of collaboration in this increasingly complex, connected and bottom-up world. I re-read this 3 times and am beginning to see its wide application – even beyond helping a group get in-sync or for “accelerating this course of collective learning

  14. admin says:

    Hi Kare

    Thanks for the comment. If you liked these articles, then I hope that you will really like the book I am writing with Kailash Awati (



  15. SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture Master Class says:

    […] f-Laws. This module focused us on the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the solution. It introduced the IBIS dialogue mapping technique as an aid to eliciting requirements. I really enjoyed this particular module as it was interesting […]

  16. CleverWorkarounds » The facets of collaboration part 5: It’s all Gen-Y’s fault – or is it? says:

    […] on this blog I have spent time explaining that there are different types of problems that require different approaches to solving them (wicked vs. tame). My conjecture is that collaboration itself is exactly the same […]

  17. Driving Business Value with Enterprise Collaboration – Part 3: Setting the Direction for Companywide Collaboration « Ben McMann's Weblog says:

    […] The practice of dialogue mapping […]

  18. CleverWorkarounds » Why can’t users find stuff on the intranet? In IBIS synthesis–Part 1 says:

    […] Dialogue Mapping is essentially Issue Mapping a conversation live, where the mapper is also a facilitator. When it is done live it is powerful stuff. As participants discuss a problem, they watch the IBIS map unfold on the screen. This allows participants to build shared context, identify patterns in the dialogue and move from analysis to synthesis in complex situations. What makes this form of mapping compelling is that everything is captured. No idea, pro or con is ignored. In a group scenario, this is an extremely efficient way of meeting what social psychologist Hugh Mackay says is the first of the ten human desires which drives us – this being the desire to be taken seriously. Once an idea is mapped, the idea and the person who put it forth are taken seriously. This process significantly reduces “wheel spinning” in meetings where groups get caught up in a frustrating tangled mess of going over the same old ground. It also allows the dialogue to move more effectively to decision points (commitments) around a shared understanding. […]

  19. Francisco d'Anconia says:

    Very Interesting post on dialogue mapping. Gives me something to think about in the future.

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