Confessions of a (post) SharePoint architect: Yellow belt platitude kung-fu

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series confessions
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Hi all. It’s been a while I know, but it is time to continue along my journey of confessions of a post SharePoint architect. As I write this, the SharePoint community is in Vegas, soaking up the love of the biggest SharePoint conference yet. For the other twelve SharePoint professionals who are not there, I know your pain.

If this is your first  foray into this series of articles, consider it the closest I will ever get to a SharePoint governance book. Since all new knowledge is gained through the lens of existing knowledge, it is important to note that my world view has been shaped by the increasing amount of non IT work I do in various complex problem solving areas. Essentially this work has had a major effect on the lens that I view SharePoint projects and the approaches I use to steer them. When developing a class on the topic of SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture, I found a fun yet effective way to put coherence around things via Russell Ackoff’s concept of f-laws. These are simple home truths about the way people behave in organisations than explain much more than the complex ones proposed by theorists of various persuasions.

So far in this series we have explored three f-laws, namely:

The next f-law is straight from Ackoff himself and is a universal truth in any project, but absolutely chronic in SharePoint projects as well as many SharePoint slide decks:

F-Law 4: Most  SharePoint governance objectives are platitudes. They say nothing but hide behind words

Most people in the IT industry (with the obvious exclusion of sales guys, Office365 MVP’s and Google employees) tend to inwardly cringe or outrightly roll their eyes when the word “cloud” is uttered during conversation. This is because people instinctively know that what follows is either:

  • Gushing hyperbole squarely aimed at getting you to part with some cash
  • Gushing hyperbole squarely aimed at convincing you that they know what they are talking about
  • Gushing hyperbole in the form of FUD laden counter-arguments from server hugging sysadmins who reject “cloud” outright because they fear irrelevance

These reactions in such conversations result from the term “Cloud” being used in a platitudinal sense. In case you were not aware, a platitude is referred to as “a trite, meaningless, biased, or prosaic statement, often presented as if it were significant and original”. Platitudes are everywhere and usually unavoidable since many people use them unconsciously – especially politicians, senior executives and the aforementioned sales guys. Want proof? Just look on the wall behind the reception area of your office – chances are there is a mission statement there somewhere that would read something like:

“We are dedicated to ensuring a long-term commitment to stakeholder value from performance and improved returns at all levels.”

Does a mission like that sound familiar? What if I told you the line above was generated from a website that generates mission statements like a poker machine. Just pull the lever and within a few seconds, a random assortment of small quotes are mashed together to create a cool sounding sentence. If you enter your company name into it, you can even print a certificate.  I generated this  one for the Heretic’s Guide book. Neat, huh?


The problem, of course, with a platitude is that while it sounds significant, it doesn’t actually tell you much at all. So this f-law states that most SharePoint governance objectives are platitudes. One of the core reasons for this is a side effect of Microsoft’s marketing approach. Consider Microsoft’s SharePoint marketing material as it has evolved. Take a look at how many words survived the transition from Microsoft’s SharePoint pie of 2007, the Frisbee of 2010 and now the square of 2013. Do you see a pattern? What is the average shelf life of a word in each of these diagrams?

image image

Now, let me start out by stating that I have no problems with any of these diagrams. Microsoft is perfectly entitled to develop the message it wants to convey in whatever means it sees fit. The biggest travesty is when people frame the above words as deliverables. They take a superlative word like “improved”, “best practice” or “effective” and then add one of the above words to it. This combination inevitably forms the basis for the justification of putting SharePoint in.

The classic example that still pervades SharePoint projects to this day is the perennial mirage of “Improved Collaboration.” If we return to the “here” and “there” diagrams of the previous posts, it looks like this… note the aspiration goal has a happy smiley on it!


Platitude detection 101

So the first thing you have to do as a SharePoint architect or practitioner is to develop a finely tuned platitude radar. The thing to be aware of is that platitudes come in many forms – some which are obvious and some much more subtle. Thus we will start your platitude radar calibration via a quick and easy method that Ackoff came up with. Years ago, Russel Ackoff critically examined mission statements and said that a mission statement that merely restates the obvious does not say anything that is truly aspirational. To quote from Ackoff:

They often formulate necessities as objectives: For example, ‘to achieve sufficient profit’. This is like a person saying his mission is to breathe sufficiently.

Ackoff’s test to judge the quality of a mission statement was to inverse the statement and see it still made logical sense. If you could not reasonably disagree with this negative version, then the original statement was a platitude. As an example, consider this mission statement from a well-known global organisation:

… our mission and values are to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.

So, our inverse here is that we are working to hinder people and businesses to realise their full potential. Who in the hell would ever do that? Well – given this is Microsoft’s mission statement, suddenly Windows Vista is finally starting to make sense to me. Smile

Now, go and take any word from the 3 diagrams above and put a superlative like “biggest”, “best”, “optimum” or “improved” in front. If I use my example – “Improved Collaboration” – Ackoff’s inversion approach results in “Worse Collaboration” and is therefore a platitude. I mean – aside from the odd command and control boss, would anybody seriously want to make collaboration less effective?

So, to put it simply – stop stating the bloody obvious! If your SharePoint goal doesn’t satisfy Ackoff’s simple platitude test, you have a problem.

The seeds of doom are sown at the start…

Now that I have wired up your platitude detector via Ackoff’s inversion test, you will start to notice how utterly pervasive they are in SharePoint projects and beyond. As Kailash and I state in the Heretics Guide book:

A platitude is a mental shortcut we take, a deceptively quick way to cut through uncertainty. We clump our unclear, unarticulated aspirations in a bunch of platitudes. It is easy to do and it gives us a sense of achievement. But it is a mirage because the objective is not clear and we cannot define sensible measurements of success if the goal is fuzzy. It never fails to amaze us that many organisational endeavours are given the go-ahead on the basis of platitudinous goals. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

What is really amazing and sad at the same time is how badly the platitude problem is misattributed. One of my students at a recent SPGovIA class said that with SharePoint projects “the seeds of doom are sown at the very beginning”. He’s right too…project teams will commit significant time and money into a project that is chasing a platitude, and when things inevitably go haywire, will blame the process, methodology, people… everything but the mirage at the root of it all.

The seduction of a platitude is strong. Many have been entranced by some nice sounding desirable future state incorporating some superlative like “Improved quality” or “Best practice collaboration”. But the key point is this: The platitude becomes a sort of proxy for the end in mind rather than the real end. We have no shared understanding of what where we want to get to. Empty words preclude a shared understanding because they mean nothing at all.

The image below illustrates the effect of a platitude being confused with the actual desired state. We do not have an aspirational future state at all. Instead, we have many possible, fuzzily-defined future states.


If you look really closely, the future state is a sad smiley. This is because the visible symptoms of a project with a divergent understanding among participants are well documented. Scope creep and vague requirements mean that the project will start to unravel, yet the platitude-driven journey towards the mirage will continue. The project will lurch from crisis to crisis, with scope blowing out, tensions and frustrations rising. This is accompanied by classic blame-shift or hind-covering moves that people make when they realise that their ship’s taking water.

How to defeat a platitude…

I am going to conclude this post at this point because it is starting to get too long. But I will leave you with a teaser about the next post…

One of the most important things about dealing with a platitude is knowing what *not* to do. I know that what I am about to say may sound counter intuitive to many readers, but trust me when I tell you that there are two things you should avoid doing.

  1. Never, never, never ask someone what they mean when they use a platitude
  2. Never try and come up with a definition for a platitude

In the next post, I will elaborate on these two contentions and provide you with a much better way to get past the seductive danger of platitudes, so you can find out what really matters to your stakeholders.

Until then, thanks for reading…


Paul Culmsee

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