Dialogue Mapping: The Ying to SharePoint Yang

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I don’t know about you, but as a SharePoint practitioner, I love the fact that I do not do SharePoint full-time anymore. I’d like to take some time to explain why this is the case, and how my non IT work helps me be a better SharePoint practitioner. To do so, I will talk about a recent non IT project I worked on. Who knows? This may give you some insights into how you view and approach collaborative work.

Western Australia is BIG

File:Kimberley region of western australia.JPGIn case you don’t know already, I live in Perth, Western Australia. You can see Perth if you squint at the map on your left and look to the south west area.

Western Australia is a bloody big land area and extremely isolated. One claim to fame about living in Perth is its distinction for being one of the most isolated cities in the world. In fact we has a population density is on par with Mongolia (this is dead-set true – I researched this fact). Of the 2.2 million people that live in the state, 1.8 million live in the Perth metropolitan area and the rest are scattered far and wide. In terms of distribution, there are no other major cities in Western Australia. The next most populated town outside of Perth is Mandurah with some 83,000 people. 

In the north of Western Australia, these towns are often separated by anywhere from a couple hundred to more than a thousand kilometres. The weather is very hot, the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful and the isolation here is hard to comprehend without visiting. The wealth of Western Australia (“GFC? What GFC?”) comes from the north of this vast state, via huge mineral deposits that China seems happy to buy from us, which in turn keep me and my colleagues busy putting in SharePoint around the place.

Now if you think Western Australia is big, get this: The Kimberley region of Western Australia (the top section marked in red) is almost as big as the entire country of Germany. For American readers, it alone is three fifths the size of Texas. For all that space, only around 45000-50000 people live there.

These wide distances create all sorts of challenges. At a most basic level, think about the cost of basic services to such a remote location with such a small population density. Cost of living is high and services like health care are always stretched and people living here have to accept that they will never be able to enjoy the same level of service enjoyed by their city slicker cousins.

Now that I have painted that picture in your mind, let me intersect that with one of Australia’s biggest wicked problems. The indigenous people’s of Australia have many social and health issues that have had a massive human cost to them. We are talking chronic alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse, depression, suicide and the whole range of mental illnesses. Families and communities tear themselves apart in a seemingly an endless negatively reinforcing cycle. Like many indigenous groups around the world, intervention approaches from earlier periods have had catastrophic long term consequences that were never considered at the time (a classic wicked problem characteristic). When you read the stories about the stolen generations, you cannot help but be deeply moved by the long term effects, the damage done and the sad legacy left behind.

And the point is?

Okay so I have set a scene. Presumably you might be wondering why am I telling you this?

Last week myself and Dr Neil Preston of Psyopus spent time in Broome, working with an amazing bunch of people who work in an area that takes true dedication and heart – mental health and drug/alcohol addiction. The passion and dedication that they bring, given the challenges that they have to deal with, with the scant resources that they have to leverage, is really quite inspiring and at the same time, mind-boggling in terms of complexity.  Neil tells me that there is a class of problems that are even more “wicked” than wicked problems and he calls them “toxic problems” and I think he is spot on with mental health in rural and regional Australia.

Neil and I were engaged to facilitate two days of strategic planning for the Kimberley Mental Health Service via dialogue mapping. Around 45 people were in attendance from various locations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. In short, dialogue mapping is made for this sort of strategic planning work and it was a privilege to be able to play a part in it. As a dialogue mapper, this is the ultimate test because on top of working with a large group, my background lies in IT infrastructure and I have little discipline background to help me map these topics (Jeff Conklin himself would tell you this is a very challenging ask).  Fortunately though, I have worked with Neil a lot before this, in a tandem role where he facilitates the group and I map. This allows us to work with much bigger groups than either of us could handle alone.

Neil’s facilitation style is more akin to the principles of dynamic facilitation as he seems to have a sixth sense around the dynamics of the group and instinctively knows when to push here and there, as well as when to back off and let things emerge of their own accord. Many facilitators do not do this well at all – and really push hard for convergence while a group is diverging because of fear that the group may not meet the stated outcome by a set time.

Feedback from participants on this particular engagement has been wonderful, with many articulating the very things that attracted me to the craft in the first place (“It was great to be heard”, “it makes it so much easier to follow what’s happening” and the like). I look forward to be back here soon to work with such an inspiring group of professionals.

The reason why I enjoy this work is that this is real collaboration. Diverse stakeholders working together on a complex, multifaceted problem to deliver better outcomes under difficult circumstances. While strategic planning for regional mental health might seem very far away from SharePoint, there are many lessons that can be learned and applied back in the IT world. So if you are a super smart SharePoint guru who dazzles with technical prowess, or even fancy yourself as a Business Analyst or Enterprise Architect and use fancy words like “the business”, you might be interested in some of the many lessons I draw from this type of work.

Learn from outside of your discipline (perspective)

One of the greatest benefits for me is being able to work with groups that normally I’d unlikely get to work with. Also, rather than listen to them ask for their SharePoint requirements, I get to help them grapple their toughest issues. If you want serious context then sit in a room for a day or two of these type of sessions! Whether it is the insight from a participant that can be used in SharePoint projects or learning some technique for aligning expectations between stakeholders, I get to reap the benefit of the wisdom of many crowds. These are life skills that can be applied in many situations. The value that these skills add to my SharePoint work and the perspective I gain is invaluable.

Apart from becoming a much more informed citizen on various topics, I say to people now that I’ve learned more about getting SharePoint right from outside of IT than within it.

Listen for the conversation beneath the conversation

The second lesson learned is that we do not listen properly. I’ve previously said that to have shared commitment (ie buy-in), you need shared understanding. Attaining shared understanding is not going to happen in a stuffy meeting room with a bunch of nodding stakeholders who feel too intimidated or uncomfortable to raise difficult issues. Earlier I mentioned Neil’s facilitation style, and lamented that many facilitators push too hard to converge before people are ready for it. When this happens, the facilitator is not really listening to what is being said. Getting to the sometimes, unarticulated fear, concern or key aspects behind the dialogue on the surface is the key. Then putting a name to that fear, concern or aspect is even better because it provides a context for a group to grasp onto.

As I mentioned, Neil has this down to a fine art. I found that the more I worked with him, the better my own radar got. A while back we were both working with a group where once again, was not an IT issue and therefore not my discipline area. Yet at one point during the dialogue, a participant said something that to me was very important, but I couldn’t really tell you why. I just sensed something the comment and I was about to interject with a “this is important, I need to make sure I have this right”, but Neil sensed the same thing and dived into that comment and uncovered the key to the conversation.

Later I asked Neil about this and he said “you’re starting to sense the patterns in group conversation”. Returning to SharePoint work some weeks later, I was dialogue mapping to envision a SharePoint based solution for an educational institution. During that conversation I became acutely aware what the crux to the success of the install would be. Although it was never mentioned explicitly, teachers value themselves via their relationship with students. Any information management system that devalued teachers (judged by the number of students in class versus staying home and downloading the class notes) was never going to fly. The system had to support and enhance the student-teacher experience. This was brought to the surface, named for what it was and turned into one of 5 key focus areas that underpinned the resulting SharePoint project and was accordingly featured highly in the SharePoint governance plan.

Ask the right questions (stop overlooking legacy)

In the last section I referred to hearing something that felt “important”. Neil calls this getting to the second and third order goals. The first order goals come from project management 101 (time, cost and quality). I feel that around 95% of our conversation are on first order goals. A good example of a 3rd order goal is legacy – what sort of legacy will our solution be leaving behind for others to grapple with. Take the stolen generation example I started with. When you look at this problem, it is the legacy it has left us that we lament (for all we know, it was done on time, scope and budget – but no-one cares about that do they?). Yet as we come up with new solutions to try and address the legacy of the past, we fall into the trap of spending all our time and energy focusing on the first order goals!

Therefore, legacy rarely gets a look-in. This is pretty messed up when you think about it, especially when SharePoint is often thrown at a problem because of a legacy of poor collaboration and information management in the first place!

By simply asking what sort of legacy that a project should leave behind is so important to its governance. It frames things in such a way that orients people to not only the end in mind, but how that end fits into the broader scheme of things. Without this perspective, are you governing the means or the end? This sort of question is so much better than “so, what are your requirements”?

Asking the right questions is a very important topic that I cover in my forthcoming book with Kailash and will post more in due course

Celebrate your wins

When referring to legacy, we tend to focus on the things we did not do well. Whether this is a cognitive bias or the reality of a high incidence of project failure I don’t know. But one nice thing about dialogue mapping is that it has a better memory than the stakeholders who create the maps. During the mental health work, stakeholders reviewed the progress of all of the initiatives from the previous year and a lot of goodwill was generated to see words put into action and actions turn into results. In SharePoint, recently we were called into a new project where we had previously been engaged. A combination of staff turnover as well as staff just generally being busy, resulted in a loss of corporate memory. One aspect of the project was causing concern and the team members (including some of the original team) had anchored to that. Yet when we loaded up the original maps from 18 months prior, we are able to review all of the listed goals, constraints and rationale for decisions back then.  It became clear to the team soon that they actually did a terrific job and nailed pretty much everything else they set out to do. This perspective was vital to helping the group to see how far they had come from humble beginnings. It allowed them to say “you know, we did do a pretty good job after all”.

Seeing progress and goals being met is vital. Just like the daily news reports, negative dominates positive. Celebrating those wins cultivates a sense of purpose that binds people together and helps people to see that the legacy they are creating is the one they want.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee


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