Whatever you do, do not ignore legacy

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On the twitterverse recently, someone stated that because of a problem of excessive SharePoint site sprawl, they were going to institute a new site approval process. On the surface this remedy seems to be perfectly reasonable. After all, there is a clear problem that has emerged and in the name of governance, we have taken steps to address it via this new process.

There is only one small problem with this. It’s probably the wrong thing to do or at best, a minor facet of what to do.

Before I explain why, consider another scenario that I am sure all of us have experienced. You have a problem so you call your bank, ISP or some other provider of services that you have paid for. You encounter an operator or customer service representative who seems hell-bent on closing your call at all costs, whether you think the problem is solved or not. Common examples of how this plays out is the oft used “well I will close this call and you can call back and log a new one if there is still an issue” line. A more subtle, yet equally frustrating one that even Microsoft have used on me is the “well you logged the problem as X, but in reality its Y. So you will need to close this call and re-log a new call for problem Y”.

The underlying reason for this is very likely that the performance of the person on the other end of the line is judged on time spent handling your call. The logic would be that the speedier a call is closed, means the less time users have spent on tech support, which indicates good outcomes for customers.

Alas, if only that were true. Anybody who has been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment knows full well that the opposite happens. As a customer, you get frustrated and pissed off. More dangerously for the organization, this sort of indicator conveys a warped representation of reality. Essentially the operator has altered their behaviour to maximise their performance according to this measure of “effectiveness”. Customers who are paying the money are not necessarily satisfied. In fact they are more often than not dissatisfied. Therefore, the notion that length of support calls somehow lead to happier customers is a fallacy. In the longer term, customers will tire of crappy outcomes and take their business elsewhere.

This success indicator is a mirage, and in actual fact contributes to the nastier, longer term problems of customers ending up with competitors.

So with that said, lets go back to our Sharepoint site sprawl issue. Before instituting such a policy, I ask the following simple question.

So why are there lots of sites?

Now there will be various reasons, but the most common answer I get back from this is:

Users don’t know any better.

This assertion is pretty easy to test too. Take a look at the sites in the wild west of a chaotic SharePoint install. Since most site templates in SharePoint have a single document library, it is common to see many hundreds of sites with a single document library in them. Clearly, people simply aren’t aware that they can do things like add more libraries or lists to a site or they are unwilling or unable to do so. I have experienced users telling me that if they had have known, they would have never created a site for a particular collaborative activity.

Side Note: SharePoint’s own attempts to be “intuitive” is the problem here. For a start, sites build navigation by default so people get duped into using sites to create navigational structure when its wholly inappropriate. Secondly, creating a new site is inferred as the right thing to do. To see why, go to the site actions menu and what is a default action there? You guessed it – create a site. SharePoint out of the box actually contributes to users forming this mental model of how SharePoint hangs together).

So clearly, many instances of excess site sprawl is symptomatic of something deeper. Users do not know that there are potentially better alternatives. This leads us to a somewhat rhetorical, yet critical question:

What does an approval process do about users not knowing any better?

Many times such approval processes shift the burden of creating the site to an authorised party like IT, after a requestor’s boss has given it the go ahead. Naturally, people will have to do more paperwork to get approval and it might take longer. Furthermore, maybe their request will be rejected under certain circumstances. But at what point will they learn that there is more to life than sub sites? Even after instituting the approval process, we still may end up with a heap of sites with a single document library in them. Have we really addressed the real issue?

Do you see the parallel? The sort of thinking that decided an approval policy is the answer to site sprawl is the same sort of thinking that decided that call times are a reliable indicator of customer outcomes being met. Both treat the superficial, visible symptoms of a problem, not the underlying cause. Furthermore, both end up leaving stakeholders with crappy outcomes in the longer term. Your support calls are still frustrating and you are still using SharePoint in a sub optimal fashion.

More scarily though is that we have deluded ourselves into thinking we have dealt with the problem. SharePoint governance is often built around this sort of superficial thinking. If a governance plan weighs as much as a door stop, and gets about as much attention as a door stop, then you might be making this mistake.

What about legacy?

This problem is more common than you think. There is a more systematic pattern of delusion that can happen in project management. Check out the diagram below.


Seen this diagram before? It is very common on project management books and presentations. We have a pyramid that implying that to have quality, we have to have time, cost and scope balanced and understood. Like the site approval policy, this seems perfectly reasonable on the surface. But unfortunately, by its very nature can cloud us to what is really important.

Below is an example of a project output – the Sydney Opera House. During my classes, everyone recognises it and there is always someone who has been there. In fact people come to Sydney just to see it. In term of economic significance to Sydney, it is priceless and irreplaceable. the architect who designed it, Jørn Utzon, was awarded the Pritzker Prize (architecture’s highest honour) for it in 2003.


So I ask you the question:

Was this a successful project?

I ask this question to people all around the world and the answer is always a great big Yes. But if we look at this project through the lens of our quality triangle above, the view changes.


Well, here are a few fun filled facts about the Sydney Opera House.

  • The Opera House was formally completed in 1973, having cost $102 million.
  • The original cost estimate in 1957 was $7 million.
  • The original completion date set by the government was 1963.
  • Thus, the project was completed ten years late and over-budget by more than fourteen times.
  • Ultzon, the designer of the opera house never lived to set foot in it, having left Australia in disgust, swearing never to come back.

“Utzon soon found himself in conflict with the new Minister. Attempting to rein in the escalating cost of the project, Hughes began questioning Utzon’s capability, his designs, schedules and cost estimates. Hughes eventually stopped payments to Utzon. Unable to pay his staff, Utzon was forced to resign as chief architect in February 1966 and left the country never to return. Utzon has never seen the completed work that brought him international renown

Harsh huh? Clearly, when judged through the “quality” lens of time, cost and scope, this project was a unmitigated epic fail that makes SharePoint look like a walk in the park.

The example of the Sydney Opera House serves to remind us that when all is said and done, we judge quality across something deeper than time, cost and scope alone. That something is legacy.

People remember legacy, not scope

So when you look at the Opera house through the lens of the quality triangle, you are making the same mistake as the call-center KPI and the well intentioned site creation policy. You are taking a superficial view of things and in doing so, missing more subtle, but ultimately important factors. In fact you are treating symptoms and not looking for the “story beneath the story” that caused the visible symptoms in the first place.


Why do we go to the time, effort and cost to put in tools like SharePoint? It is because we see that it can take us to a better place than we are now. After all, if we didn’t believe this fundamental truth, then we wouldn’t spend the that time and money working on it. This notion of a “better place” implies that we are trying to escape a legacy of the past – such as poor information management practices, inefficient process, silo organisations and so forth.

As illustrated by the Opera House example, people do not remember time, cost and scope. What they do remember acutely however is legacy.

So what is a more reliable indicator of quality? Who visits the Opera house and takes a photo of it because it was such a breathtakingly bad example of project management 101? No, they take their photo because it is unique, has value and people want to experience it for themselves. Its the legacy that they remember, cherish and want to be a part of.

As a result, there is a critical lesson here for all SharePoint practitioners (from the nerdiest of nerds to the hippiest of web 2.0 pundits). Ask yourself, “what legacy is my governance actions going to leave”, because if you fail to consider the legacy of your approaches to SharePoint delivery, you are probably dooming your organisation to the very same legacy you wanted to escape in the first place!

And that’s just tragic.

So I think that PM 101 diagram needs to be redrawn because it misleads – especially for complex, adaptive or wicked problems. To me, considering time, cost and scope without legacy is delusional and plain dumb. Legacy informs time, cost and scope and challenges us to look beyond the visible symptoms of what we perceive as the problem to what’s really going on.


When I get time, I will post several examples of how I was able to utilise this sort of thinking in a future post, but I hope this gives you some food for thought.


Thanks for reading


Paul Culmsee



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