This post comes to you during my reality check of returning to work after the bliss of 1 month of vacation in New Zealand. After walking on a glacier, racing around in jetboats and relaxing in volcanic hot springs, the thought of writing SharePoint blog posts isn’t exactly filling me with excitement right now. But nevertheless I am soldiering on, because as Ruven Gotz frequently tells his conference attendees – I do it because I love you all.
Now this is article ten (blimey!) in a series of posts about my insights of being a cross between a SharePoint architect and facilitator/sensemaker. In case this is your first time reading this series, I highly recommend that you go back to the beginning as we have covered a lot of ground to get to here. Inspired by the late, great Russell Ackoff, I used his notion of f-laws – sometimes inconvenient truths about what I think is critical for successful SharePoint delivery. At this point in proceedings, we have covered 6 f-laws across 9 articles.
- F-law 1: The more comprehensive the definition of governance, the less anybody will actually understand it
- F-law 2: There is no point asking users, who don’t know what they want, to tell you what they want
- F-law 3: The chances of SharePoint success is inversely proportional to how long it takes to come up with a measurable KPI
- F-law 4: Most SharePoint objectives are platitudes: They say nothing but hide behind words
- F-law 5: Confidence is the feeling you have until you understand the problem
- F-law 6: Geeks are far less important than they think they are
The next f-law we are going to cover is a bit of a mouthful. Are you ready?
F-Law 7: The degree of governance strictness is inversely proportional to the understanding of the chaos its supposed to prevent
So to explain this f-law, here is a question I often ask clients and conference attendees alike…
What is the opposite of governance?
The answer that most people give to this question is “Chaos”. So what I am implying? Essentially that the stricter you are in terms of managing what you deem to be chaos, the less you actually understand the root causes of chaos in the first place.
To explain, let’s revisit f-law 5, since this is not the first time the theme of chaos has come up in this series. If you recall f-law 5 stated that confidence is the feeling you have until you understand the problem. In that article, I drew the two diagrams below, both of them representing the divergence and convergence process that comes with most projects. The pink box labelled chaos illustrated that before a group can converge to a lasting solution, they have to cross the ‘peak’ of divergence. This is normally a period of some stress and uncertainty – even on quite straightforward projects. But commonly in SharePoint things can get quite chaotic with lots of divergence and very little convergence as shown by the rightmost diagram where there appears to be little convergence.
“Thou shalt not…”
There are clearly forces at play here… forces that push against convergence and manifest in things like scope creep, unreconciled stakeholder viewpoints and the stress of seeing the best laid plans messed with. The size and shape of the pink ‘chaos’ box reflects the strength of those underlying forces.
To manage this, many (if not most) SharePoint practitioners take a “thou shalt not” approach to SharePoint delivery in an attempt to head things off before they even happen. After the dissection in f-law 6 of how IT people channel Neo and focus on dial tone issues, it is understandable why this approach is taken. Common examples of this sort of thinking are “Thou shalt not use SharePoint Designer” or “Thou shalt use metadata and not folders” or “Thou shalt use the standard site template no matter what.”
These sort of commandments may be completely appropriate, but these is one really important thing to make sure you consider. If having no governance indeed results in chaos, then it stands to reason that we need to understand the underlying divergent forces behind chaos to mitigate chaos and better govern it. In other words, we need look inside pink box labelled chaos and see what the forces are that push against convergence. So lets modify the diagrams above and take a look inside the pink box.
For me, there are four forces that govern the amount of chaos in SharePoint projects, namely:
- Pace of Change
- Problem Wickedness
- Technical Complexity
- Social Complexity
Let’s examine each one in turn…
Pace of change
Remember the saying “The only certainty in life are death and taxes”? Outside of that, the future is always unpredictable. In between SharePoint 2003 and SharePoint 2007, the wave of web 2.0 and social networking broke, forever changing how we collaborate and work with information online. In between SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013, the wave of cloud computing broke, which is slowly but surely changing the way organisations view their IT assets (both systems and people). The implications of this are huge and Microsoft have to align their product to tap into these opportunities. Net result? We all have a heap of new learning to do.
If you read the last post, you might recall that pace of change was a recurring theme when people answered the question about what is hard with SharePoint. But let’s look beyond SharePoint for a second… change happens in many forms and at many scales. At a project level, it may mean a key team member leaves the organisation suddenly. At an organisational level, there might be a merger or departmental restructure. At a global level, events like the Global Financial Crisis forced organisations to change strategic focus very quickly indeed.
The point is that change breeds innovation yet it is relentless and brings about fatigue. Continual learning and relearning is required and even the best laid plans will inevitably be subject to changing circumstances. The key is not to fight change but accept that it will happen and work with it. In terms of SharePoint, this is best addressed by an iterative delivery model that has a high degree of key stakeholder involvement, recognises the learning nature of SharePoint and fosters meaningful collaboration.
Some problems are notoriously hard to solve because they evoke a lot of diverse, often conflicting viewpoints and it can be difficult even agreeing on what the core problem actually is. F-law 1 examined how we sometimes fixate on the means of governance when the end goal of SharePoint is uncertain. Over-reliance on definitions is the result. F-law 2 looked at how users understanding of a problem changes over time and f-Law 4 looked at the folly in chasing platitudes. The underlying cause for all of these f-laws is often the very nature of the problem you are trying to solve.
You might have heard me talk about wicked problems or read about it in my blog or my book. In short, some problems are exceptionally tough to solve. Just trying to explain the problem can be hard, and analysis-paralysis is common because it seems that each time the problem is examined, a new facet appears which seemingly changes the whole concept of the problem. This phenomenon was named as a wicked problems by Horst Rittel in 1970. One of the most extreme examples right now of a wicked problem in the USA would be the gun control debate since depending on your values and ideology, you would describe the underlying problem in different ways and therefore, the potential solutions offered are equally varied and contentious.
While there are actually many different management gurus who have also come up with alternate names for this sort of complexity (“mess”, “adaptive problem”, “soft systems”), the term wicked problem has become widely used to describe these types of problems. I suspect this is because Rittel listed a bunch of symptoms that suggest when your problem has elements of wickedness. Here are some of the commonly cited ones:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
- The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
- Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
- The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
- The problem is never solved definitively
Can you tick off some of those symptoms with SharePoint? I’ll bet you can… I’ll also bet that for other IT projects (say MS Exchange deployments) these symptoms are far less pronounced.
Guess what the implication is of wicked problems. They tend to resist the command-and-control approach of delivery and require meaningful collaboration to get them done. That is kind of funny when you think about it since SharePoint is touted as a collaboration tool yet falls victim to wicked elements. That suggests that there was not enough collaboration to deliver the collaboration platform!
Technical complexity involves difficulties in fact finding, technical information and the systematic identification and analysis of options and their likely consequences. It is an understatement to say that SharePoint is full of technical complexity. In fact, it is one of the most complex products that Microsoft has ever produced (and that’s before you get to dependencies like SQL Server, IIS, FIM, Federated authentication and the myriad of other things you need to know)
A typical characteristic of technical complexity is information overload in fact finding. There is far too much information to make sense of and as a result, no one person has the cognitive capacity to understand it all. Thus, stakeholders have to rely on each other and, on occasions, rely on outside experts to collaboratively work towards a solution. Technical complexity requires a lot of cognitive load to manage and it is easy to get caught up in the minute detail and lose the all important bigger picture.
Problems also arise when different technical experts come to opposite conclusions. This gives rise to the last and most insidious divergent force underlying SharePoint chaos and the governance that goes with it – social complexity.
The first three symptoms tend to create a perfect storm of complexity, since we have a situation where there is a lot of uncertainty. Many people hate this because unknown unknowns creates fear if sufficient trust does not exist between all key parties. Developing trust is made all the harder because we are all a product of our experiences, with different values, cultural beliefs, personality styles and biases so reconciling different world views on various issues can be difficult. Then you have the issue that many organisations have a blame culture and people position themselves to avoid it. This my friends is social complexity and I know that all of you live this sort of stuff everyday.
Yet under the right circumstances, groups can be remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in group. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart – in fact diversity of group makeup is a much more important factor than individual IQ. Without this diversity, groups are less likely to arrive at a good answer to a given problem because they are likely to fall into groupthink. Groupthink is when highly cohesive groups make unsound decisions due to group pressures, ignoring possible alternatives. Every management team that only wants to hear the good news is likely to have fallen foul of groupthink. The same applies to dismissing all SharePoint governance except for the dial tone stuff.
However, there is an inherent paradox here:
- The more parties involved in a collaboration, the more socially complex;
- The more different these parties are, the more diverse, the more socially complex; and
- This creates tension, resentment and lack of communication and a strong desire to go back to business as usual
This paradox between diversity and harmony is the toughest aspect of the four forces to tackle.
Way back in the very first post I stated that a key job of a SharePoint architect is to architect the conditions by which SharePoint is delivered. By this I mean that the architect has to grease the gears of collaboration between stakeholders and provide an environment that has the safety and structure for people to raise their issues, speak their truths and not get penalised for improving their understanding of the problem.
To enable this to happen, we need to tackle all four of the forces behind chaos that we have covered here. In short, if you focus governance efforts only on one of the forces you will simply inflame the others. Accordingly, the final diagram illustrates the key takeaway from f-Law 7. Since the four forces behind chaos push out and create divergence, our governance efforts needs to push back. But the important thing to note is the direction of my arrows. It is not necessarily appropriate to provide a direct counterforce via the “thou shalt not” type of all-or-nothing approach. Governance always has to steer towards the solution. The end always drives the means and not the other way around! Arbitrarily imposing such restrictions is often done without due consideration of the end in mind and therefore gets in the way of the steering process. This is why my arrows point inwards, but always push toward the solution on the right.
In this context, it can be seen why envisioning, stakeholder and goal alignment is so critical. Without it, its too easy for governance to become a self fulfilling prophecy. So when you look at your own projects, draw my divergence/convergence diagram and estimate how big the pink box is. If you sense that there is divergence, then look at where your gaps are and make sure you create the conditions that help mitigate all of the forces and not just one one of them.
Thanks for reading