Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 3: Who moved my cheese?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Maturity
Send to Kindle

Hi all

Welcome to part 3 in this series about rethinking what SharePoint “maturity” looks like. In the first post, I introduced the work of JR Hackman and his notion of trying to create enabling conditions, rather than attribute cause and effect. Hackman, in his examination of leadership and the performance of teams, listed six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place. Those conditions were:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

I then got interested in how applicable these conditions were to SharePoint projects. The first question I asked myself was “I wonder if Hackman’s conditions apply to collaboration itself, as opposed to teams.” To find out, I utilised some really interesting work done by the Wilder Research Group, that produced a book called “Collaboration: What Makes It Work.” This book distilled the wisdom from 281 research studies on collaborative case studies and their success or failure. They distilled things down to six focus areas (they ended up with the same number as Hackman). Their six were:

  1. Membership characteristics: (Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups)
  2. Purpose: (The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought)
  3. Process and structure: (Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context)
  4. Communication: (The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence)
  5. Environment: (Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control)
  6. Resources: (The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group)

If you want the fuller detail of Hackman and Wilder, check the first and second posts respectively. But it should be clear from even a cursory look at the above lists, that there is a lot of overlap and common themes between these two research efforts and we can learn from them in our SharePoint work. I strongly believe that this sort of material constitutes a critical gap in a lot of the material out there on what it takes to have a successful SharePoint deployment and offers some excellent ideas in further developing ideas around SharePoint maturity. I started to develop a fairly comprehensive Dialogue Map of both of these research efforts so I could synthesise them to create my own set of “conditions” in the way Hackman describes. While I was doing this, I met a fellow via LinkedIn who opened my mind to further possibilities. Everybody, meet Stephen Duffield

Duffield’s SYLLK model for lessons learnt

I met Steve because we both shared a common interest in organisational knowledge management. In, fact Steve is working on his PhD in this area, focussing on addressing the pitiful record of organisations utilising lesson learnt practices on projects and then embedding them into organisational  culture and practices. If you have ever filled out a lessons learnt form, knowing full-well that it will disappear into a filing cabinet never to be seen again, Steve shares your frustration. For his PhD, he is tackling two research questions:

  1. What are the significant factors that negatively influence the capture, dissemination and application of lessons learned from completed projects within project-based organisations?
  2. Can a systemic knowledge model positively influence the capture, dissemination and application of project management lessons learned between project teams within the organisation?

Now if you think it was impressive that Wilder researched 281 studies on collaboration, Steve topped them by miles. His PhD literature review covered over 500+ papers on the topics of project lessons learned, knowledge management, risk management and the like. 500! Man, that’s crazy – all I can say to that is I am sure as hell glad he did it and I didn’t have to!

So what was the result of Duffield’s work? In a nutshell, he has developed a model called “Systemic Lessons Learned Knowledge” (SYLLK), which was influenced by the Swiss Cheese model for risk management, originally proposed by Dante Orlandella and James T. Reason.

Why SYLLK is important for SharePoint

imageBefore I explain Duffield’s SYLLK model, it is important I briefly explain the Swiss Cheese model for risk management that inspired him. The Swiss Cheese Model (see the image to the left) for risk management is commonly used in aviation and healthcare safety. It is based on the notion that systems have potential for failure in many areas and these are analogous to a stack of slices of Swiss cheese, where the holes in each slice are opportunities for a process to fail. Each of the slices are “defensive layers” and while an error may allow a problem to pass through a hole in one layer, in the next layer the holes are in different places, allowing the problem to be caught before its impact becomes severe.

The key to the Swiss Cheese Model is that it assumes that no single defence layer is sufficient to mitigate risk. It also implies that if risk mitigation strategies exist, yet all of the holes are lined up, this is an inherently flawed system. Why? because it would allow a problem to progress through all controls and adversely affect the organisation. Therefore, its use encourages a more balanced view of how risks are identified and managed.

So think about that for a second… SharePoint projects to this day remain difficult to get right. If you are on your third attempt at SharePoint, then by definition you’ve had previous failed SharePoint projects. The inference when applying the Swiss cheese model is that your delivery approach is inherently flawed and you have not sufficiently learnt from it. In other words, you were – and maybe still are – missing some important slices of cheese from your arsenal. From a SharePoint maturity perspective, we need to know what those missing slices are if we wish to raise the bar.

So the challenge I have for you is this: If you have had a failed or semi-failed SharePoint project or two under your belt, did you or others on your team ever say to yourself “We’ll get it right this time” and then find that the results never met expectations? If you did, then Duffield’s (and my) contention is you might have failed to truly understand the factors that caused the failure.

Back to Duffield…

This is where Duffield’s work gets super interesting. He realised that the original Swiss cheese “slices” that resolved around safety were inappropriate for a typical organisation managing their projects. Like the Wilder work on collaboration, Steve reviewed tons of literature and synthesised from it, what he thinks are the key slices of cheese that are required to enable not only mitigation of project risks, but also focus people on the critical areas that need to be examined to capture the full gamut of lessons learnt on projects.

So how many slices of cheese do you think Steve came up with? If you read the previous two posts then you can already guess at the answer. Six!

There really seems to be something special about the number 6! We have Hackman coming up with 6 conditions for high performing teams, Wilder’s 6 factors that make a difference in successful collaboration and Duffield’s 6 areas that are critical to organisational learning from projects! For the record, here are Duffield’s six areas (the first three are labelled as people factors and the second three are system factors):

  1. Learning: Whether individuals on the team are skilled, have the right skills for their role and whether they are kept up-skilled
  2. Culture: What participants do, what role they fulfil, how an atmosphere of trust is developed in which people are encouraged, even rewarded for truth telling– but in which they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”
  3. Social: How people relate to each-other, their interdependence and how they operate as a team
  4. Technology: Ensuring that technology and data supports outcomes and does not get in the way
  5. Process: Ensuring the appropriate protocols drive people’s behaviour and inform what they do (gate, checklists, etc.)
  6. Infrastructure: Environment (in terms of structure and facilities) that enable project outcomes

Duffield has a diagram that illustrates the SYLLK model, showing how his six identified organisational elements of learning, culture, social, technology, process and infrastructure align as Swiss cheese slices. I have pasted it (with permission), below (click to enlarge).

Duffield states that the SYLLK model represents “the various organisational systems that collectively form the overall behaviour of the organisation. The various modes of social and cultural learning, along with the organisational processes, infrastructure and technology that support them.” Notice in the above diagram how the holes in each slice are not lined up when the project arrow moves right to left. This makes sense because the whole point of the model is the idea of “defence in depth.” But then the holes are aligned when moving from left to right. This is because each slice of cheese need to be aligned to enable the feedback loop – the effective dissemination and application of the identified lessons.


The notion of the Swiss cheese model for mitigating risk makes a heck of a lot of sense for SharePoint projects, given that

  • a) there is a myriad of technical and non technical factors that have to be aligned for sustained SharePoint success, and
  • b) SharePoint success remains persistently illusive for many organisations.

What Duffield has done with the SYLLK model is to take the Swiss Cheese model out of the cloistered confines of safety management and into organisational learning through projects. This is huge in my opinion, and creates a platform for lots of innovative approaches around the capture and use of organisational learning, all the while framing it around the key project management task of identifying and mitigating risk. From a SharePoint maturity perspective, it gives us a very powerful approach to see various aspects of SharePoint project delivery in a whole new light, giving focus to aspects that are often not given due consideration.

Like the Wilder model, I love the fact that Duffield has done such a systematic and rigorous review of literature and I also love the fact that his area of research is quite distinct from Hackman (conditions that enable team efficacy) and the Wilder team (factors influencing successful collaboration). When you think about it, each of the three research efforts focuses on distinct areas of the life-cycle of a project. Hackman looks at the enabling conditions required before you commence a project and what needs to be maintained. Wilder appears to focus more on what is happening during a project, by examining what successful collaboration looks like. Duffield then looks at the result of a project in terms of the lessons learnt and how this can shape future projects (which brings us back to Hackman’s enabling conditions).

While all that is interesting and valuable, the honest truth is that I liked the fact that all three of these efforts all ended up with six “things”. It seemed preordained for me to “munge” them together to see what they collectively tell us about SharePoint maturity.

… and that’s precisely what I did. In the next post we will examine the results.


Thanks for reading


Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Rethinking SharePoint Maturity Part 2: What Makes Collaboration Work

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Maturity
Send to Kindle

Hi all

Welcome to part 2 about my research efforts that has led me to thinking a little differently in how we understand and measure SharePoint and organisational “maturity”. In the first post, I gave a glimpse into the work of JR Hackman, who had presented some really interesting ideas about what leads to outstanding team performance. In case you have not read the first post (damn you!), Hackman presented the notion that trying in vain to come up with the causes of team efficacy was a rather dumb idea and instead, looking at the conditions that enable great teams was a much more productive approach.

This notion of conditions over causes is really important to understand, because we all routinely get suckered into conversations about whether one process, approach or model is objectively “better” than another. This sort of discussion frustrates me and I usually find it all rather pointless because it all but ignores the underlying conditions that enabled or disabled things. As a result, we misattribute success or failure of SharePoint to how we used methods, processes and models, rather than focus on what really matters – the conditions under which those methods, processes and models operated.

Now Hackman was not looking at SharePoint projects when he came to this realisation. He was looking at leadership and the performance of teams in general. He synthesised his years of research work down to six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place. Those conditions are:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time
  2. A compelling purpose: A purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members  and fully engages their talents
  3. Right people: People who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable
  5. A supportive organisational context: The team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance
  6. Appropriate coaching: The right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time

So I very much bought into Hackman’s conditions over causes argument, but wasn’t sure whether his six conditions were directly applicable to SharePoint projects. To find out, I got lucky, coming across some really great work on the subject of collaboration by the Wilder Research Group.

Collaboration: What Makes it Work

Earlier this year, I  bought a crapload of books on the topic of collaboration. One of them had the rather long title of “Collaboration: What Makes It Work, 2nd Edition: A Review Of Research Literature On Factors Influencing Successful Collaboration” written by Paul W. Mattessich, Marta Murray-Close, Barbara R. Morrisey and published by the Wilder Research Group.

This book is quite short – just over 100 pages, but it packs a heavy punch nevertheless. The core question asked in this book was “What makes the difference between your collaboration’s failure or success?” and it sought to answer the question by providing an in-depth review of lots (and lots and lots) of academic research on collaboration. In all, the authors examined more than 281 research studies on collaborative initiatives (and their success or failure) and synthesised them. I love these sort of meta-analysis studies, because I am lazy and its terrific when someone else has done the rigorous hard work!

Why Wilder matters for SharePoint

The intent of the report is to help readers expand their thinking about ways to help projects succeed, gain background information before beginning a collaboration, compare their situation with others, determine collaboration strategy including necessary ingredients, uncover and resolve trouble spots. It also provides a tool called the “The Collaboration Factors Inventory which allows you to self-assess how your collaboration is doing against the success factors they came up with. Examples are also provided of how organizations have used the inventory as well as a case study illustrating how one collaboration assessed itself and how it  used the results to take action to improve its success.

Thus, it should be fairly obvious why this particular work should be of interest to SharePoint practitioners. After all, improving collaboration in organisations and teams is one of the core value propositions that underpins SharePoint and has done so for years now. Under the guise of “governance”, we do lots of work and produce processes (and usually lots of documentation) in the hope that we have put in the necessary plumbing for collaboration to take root and blossom. So when someone has taken the time to distil the learnings from 281 research efforts into collaborative success, there is bound to be valuable takeaways to be had for us SharePoint peeps – especially if our organisations have bought heavily into “social” features of the product.

Now while that all sounds good, there is another less obvious, but cooler reason to be interested in this book – especially given my examination of Hackman in part 1. The Wilder team found a total of 20 factors that were identified as “ingredients” for successful collaboration and guess how many categories they distilled them down to?

Six! – precisely the same number of conditions that Hackman distilled for great team performance. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much overlap there is between what Hackman says are the six conditions for great teams versus Wilder’s six “differences” between collaboration failure and success?

I thought so too…

Back to the Wilder team…

So what are the factors that make a difference in successful collaboration identified by Wilder? Below are their twenty ingredients, divided into the aforementioned six categories…

  • 1. Membership characteristics: (Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups)
    • – Mutual respect, understanding and trust: Members of the collaborative group share an understanding and respect for each other and their respective organizations: how they operate, their cultural norms and values, limitations, and expectations.
    • – Appropriate cross section of members: To the extent that they are needed, the collaborative group includes representatives from each segment of the community who will be affected by its activities.
    • – Members see collaboration as in their self interest: Collaborating partners believe that they will benefit from their involvement in the collaboration and that the advantages of membership will offset costs such as loss of autonomy and turf.
    • – Ability to compromise: Collaborating partners are able to compromise, since the many decisions within a collaborative effort cannot possibly fit the preferences of every member perfectly.
  • 2. Purpose: (The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought)
    • – Concrete, attainable goals and objectives: Goals and objectives of the collaborative group are clear to all partners, and can realistically be attained.
    • – Shared vision: Collaborating partners have the same vision, with clearly agreed-upon mission, objectives, and strategy. The shared vision may exist at the outset of collaboration, or the partners may develop a vision as they work together.
    • – Unique purpose: The mission and goals or approach of the collaborative group differ, at least in part, from the mission and goals or approach of the member organizations.
  • 3. Process and structure: (Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context)
    • – Members that share a stake in both process and outcome: Members of a collaborative group feel “ownership” of both the way the group works and the results or product of its work.
    • – Multiple layers of participation: Every level (upper management, middle management, operations) within each partner organisation has at least some representation and ongoing involvement in the collaborative initiative
    • – Flexibility: The collaborative group remains open to varied ways of organising itself and accomplishing its work
    • – Development of clear roles and policy guidelines: The collaborating partners clearly understand their roles, rights, and responsibilities, and they understand how to carry out those responsibilities.
    • – Adaptability: The collaborative group has the ability to sustain itself in the midst of major changes, even if it needs to change some major goals, members, etc., in order to deal with changing conditions.
    • – Appropriate pace of development: The structure, resources, and activities of the collaborative group change over time to meet the needs of the group without overwhelming its capacity, at each point throughout the initiative.
  • 4. Communication: (The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence)
    • – Open and frequent communication: Collaborative group members interact often, update one another, discuss issues openly, and convey all necessary information to one another and to people outside the group.
    • – Established informal relationships and communication links: In addition to formal channels of communication, members establish personal connections — producing a better, more informed, and cohesive group working on a common project.
  • 5. Environment: (Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control)
    • – History of collaboration or cooperation in the community: A history of collaboration or cooperation exists in the community and offers the potential collaborative partners an understanding of the roles and expectations required in collaboration and enables them to trust the process
    • – Collaborative group seen as a legitimate leader in the community: The collaborative group (and by implication, the agencies in the group) is perceived within the community as reliable and competent—at least related to the goals and activities it intends to accomplish.
    • – Favourable political and social climate: Political leaders, opinion-makers, persons who control resources, and the general public support (or at least do not oppose) the mission of the collaborative group
  • 6. Resources: (The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group)
    • – Sufficient funds, staff, materials and time: The collaborative group has an adequate, consistent financial base, along with the staff and materials needed to support its operations. It allows sufficient time to achieve its goals and includes time to nurture the collaboration.
    • – Skilled leadership: The individual who provides leadership for the collaborative group has organizing and interpersonal skills, and carries out the role with fairness. Because of these characteristics (and others), the leader is granted respect or “legitimacy” by the collaborative partners.

Now that you have seen Wilders six factors that influence successful collaboration, think about where you focus on your SharePoint projects in the name or guide of “governance”. How many of these factors did you consider when you started on your quest to use SharePoint for improved collaboration? Which of these really scream out at you as something worth pursuing? Go back in time and with hindsight, imagine if you had considered these and acted on it… Would it had led to better outcomes?


I have previously stated that collaboration is a classic SharePoint platitude, and chasing goals like “improved collaboration” are a sure fire way to create elaborate SharePoint solutions that miss the mark. Thus, this work by Wilder is a crucial resource in helping organisations determine what collaboration means to them. Furthermore, anyone interested in assessing SharePoint “readiness” (whatever your interpretation of readiness), would be well served to think about how they can incorporate the Wilder work into their readiness or maturity models. After all, how many other meta analyses of 281 studies on the topic have been done, eh?

Consider also that the Wilder team asked themselves a different question than Hackman. While Hackman framed his question around “What are the enabling conditions?” the Wilder team asked “What makes the difference?” This more broader question posed by the Wilder team explains a lot about their results. Some of their collaboration success factors can be seen as potential enabling conditions as Hackman described, whereas others are a more retrospective look on what successful collaboration looks like during and after collaboration has taken place. Consider also Hackman and the Wilder team used very different areas of research to come up with their answers. Wilder examined 281 case studies on successful collaboration, whereas Hackman used decades of research in teamwork and leadership. While research on collaboration might seem related to teamwork and leadership, in the world of academic research, you are talking about completely different bodies of knowledge.

Nevertheless, if you compare Hackman’s six conditions to Wilder’s six collaboration factors, there are more overlaps than there are differences. This I find exciting because it tells me that these independent research efforts are coalescing around the same themes. But I am going to defer a detailed examination of them both in context till a future post, because as I started to synthesise Hackman and Wilder together, I came across a third area of research that also led to some important insights – perhaps the most important ones of all… the work of PhD candidate Stephen Duffield in the area of risk and organisational learning on projects.

That my friends, is the topic of the next post…



Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Confession of a (post) SharePoint architect… “Thou shalt NOT”

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hi all


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.

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.

Ouch! Really?

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.

image  image

“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:

  1. Pace of Change
  2. Problem Wickedness
  3. Technical Complexity
  4. 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.

Problem “Wickedness”


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:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  2. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  3. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  7. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  8. 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.
  9. Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  10. The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  11. 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


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.

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.

Key takeaways…

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

Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Confession of a (post) SharePoint architect… What are you polishing?

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hi and welcome to the latest exciting instalment in my epic series of posts on my confessions of a post SharePoint architect. I was motivated to write this series because the mild mannered shrinking violet known as Bjorn Furuknap wrote an insightful series of articles on what it takes to be a SharePoint professional. I had always planned to write on this topic as well and opted to frame it as SharePoint “confessions” because some of my approaches do not always seem mainstream (but work!) so it feels like I am confessing my sins for using them. I chose to use the word “(post)” because SharePoint is not my fulltime gig anymore. I am very lucky to do a lot of non IT work, helping organisations deal with highly complex problems. This side of my work is where most of my insights have come from and what inspired the Heretics Guide to Best Practices book.

Thus far, we have traversed a fair bit of territory via the use of f-laws – home truths about successful SharePoint delivery that focuses on areas often overlooked for various reasons. In case this is your first visit to this series, we have covered 6 f-laws so far and I strongly suggest that you read them first…

In this post, we are continuing with f-law 6, focusing on aspects to SharePoint delivery where geeks have a habit of being crap…

No matter how much you polish it…

In Australia, there is an old saying, that no matter how much you try and polish a turd, it will always be a turd. In the last post, I more or less stated that some geeks have a tendency to polish turds. They do this because of a combination of an inflated view of their self-importance, mental scars from ghosts of disaster recoveries past, and a bias toward something I termed dial tone governance.

Dial tone governance refers to all of the stuff that ensures that the SharePoint platform remains pristine, consistently reliable and high performing. I noted in the previous post that this echoes what quality assurance aspires to do. This type of IT assurance for SharePoint is completely necessary, but it is definitely not sufficient. If it was, lavish praise would be heaped upon us heroic geeks for consistent fantastic SharePoint delivery.

In the last post I also channelled Neo from the Matrix and suggested that being a hero like Neo is a thankless job since, for many stakeholders, the assurance of dial tone is assumed to be there. Whether this is right or wrong is not the point, because geeks do not survive their own hypocrisy on this matter. After all, no one thanks the telephone company for providing them with dial tone when they pick up the phone to make a call – they just get pissed when it is not there.

Now while I can sympathise with unloved telephone company engineers, they actually have it easy because once they provide dial tone, their job is done. This also applies to tools like Microsoft Exchange, Virtualisation, IP networks and storage. Unfortunately with SharePoint, successful delivery is not judged on whether the level of dial tone is appropriate. At the end of the day no amount of turd polishing via awesome support, consistent process or fast response time will make a crap solution anything other than a crap solution.

So this raises a couple of questions that readers should consider:

  1. Am I focusing too much (or too little) on dial tone governance?
  2. What are the other governance areas that I need to focus on?

As it happens, I have some data we can use to answer them.

The hardest thing…

In 2009 I created my SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture class. The class is attended by a wide variety of roles, from BAs to PMs, CIOs as well as developers and tech dudes. It has been delivered around the world with students representing just about every industry sector (including Microsoft employees). This combination of varied audience, varied industry sectors and geographic location has provided a lot of insight, because at the start of every class, I ask students to introduce themselves, and tell the class what they feel is the hardest thing about SharePoint delivery and I dialogue map the answers.

Can you see the logic of this question? By listing all of the areas that is hard about SharePoint delivery, what should emerge are the areas we should be focusing on. Why? Well the hard bits are likely to be the areas of most risk when it comes to a failed or stressed deployment.

So let’s go through the answers given to me from a few SPGovIA classes. Maybe there are some consistent patterns that emerge. It will also be interesting to see how much of it is dial tone governance.

Brisbane 2012 and Melbourne 2010

First up, here are the answers I captured from a small class in Brisbane in 2012:

  • Explaining what SharePoint is
  • User uptake (“People do not like new things”)
  • Managing proliferation of SharePoint sites
  • Too much IT ownership (“Sick of IT people telling me that SP is the solution”)
  • Users don’t know what they want
  • Difficulties around SP ownership because of a lack of accountability

For me some interesting things emerge already, but before we get into detail, let’s look at a Melbourne class answering this question two years earlier and see if any consistent patterns.

  • Every project is “new” (“Traditional ASP.NET web site development is ‘same old same old’)
  • In SharePoint you can do things in many ways so the initial design takes longer
  • The solution is never the same as the initial design and the end client may not realise this. The implication is gaps between expectation and delivery
  • Stakeholders don’t know what they want (“First time around what they sign off on is not what they want “)
  • Projects launched as “IT projects” with no clear deliverable and no success indicators
  • Lack of visibility as to what other organisations are doing
  • Determining limits and boundaries (“Doing anything ‘practically’ in SharePoint is hard”).
    • For example: We improved Ux in certain areas, but to extend to the entire feature set would take too long”
  • Managing expectations around SharePoint.
    • Clients with no experience think it can do everything
    • Difficulties getting information from and translating into design, so it can be implemented
  • Legacy of bad implementations makes it hard to win the business owner
  • Lack of governance
    • Viral spread of unmanaged sites
    • No proper requirements of “why”
    • No-one managing it

Some analysis…

The first thing that I notice is that if you go back to the start of this post and review the six f-laws, four are clearly represented here. We have stakeholders not knowing what they want which makes design hard (f-law 2), the gap between expectation and delivery (f-law 5), the problem of SharePoint projects being done as “IT projects” (f-law 6) with “no clear deliverables and no success indicators” (f-law 3). Other themes include lack of accountability and managing viral growth of sites, but the overwhelming theme that comes through for me is that of managing user expectations and buy-in.

A telling part about what is listed is that aside from the ever present issue of managing site sprawl, not too much of it is dial tone at this point. To see if this pattern continues, let’s head to Auckland New Zealand and see if the Kiwis are any more geeky than their Australian cousins…

Auckland 2011

  • Gap between expectations and reality
  • Accountabilities and role clarity around delivery
  • Knowledge transfer and ongoing maintenance (“Not everything is written down and when people leave, key critical information is lost. For example: Business rules set up at the start are lost over time”)
  • Helping people change practices (“Getting people to use it “)
  • Managing the growth over time (“the challenge of a large user base wanting to use it in different ways”)
  • It’s a big, complex product
  • The perception of “mystique” around SharePoint (“hard to know what not to do”)
  • Seen as another “IT service”
    • product selected because it’s Microsoft
    • the people who chose the product/delivering the product are IT
  • Translating the capabilities of the product to the needs of the user
    • Getting the business to understand SharePoint’s capability
    • Restrictions vs freedom
  • Ramp up time: The learning curve across all roles (tech and non tech)
  • The challenge of user requirements: Knowing the right questions to ask

Some more analysis…

It is clear that the themes that emerged from the two classes in Australia are also consistent here. The issue of stakeholder expectations came up straight away as well as the “IT driven project” issue (“seen as another ‘IT’ service”). Once again, the only real dial tone governance issue was the problem of managing site growth over time, but even then, it was framed more of an expectations issue (“the challenge of a large user base wanting to use it in different ways”). F-law 4 also copped a mention in terms of knowing the right questions to ask to get the right user requirements.

The additional themes that I noted from this group were:

  • complexity (“It’s a big, complex product“)
  • change management (“helping people change practices”)
  • the high learning curve of SharePoint for users
  • knowledge transfer over time the challenge of a large user base wanting to use the product in different ways.

<geek alert>Now if you are reading this and you manage complex infrastructure, let me assure you that tech people were in the classes</geek alert>. Also, since Australia and New Zealand are culturally quite similar to each other, it could be argued that we are not taking into account different cultures. So let’s find out what a 2012 class in Singapore had to say…

Singapore 2012

  • Trying to deal with the sheer number of features
  • “A totally different kind of concept”
    • A little knowledge can be dangerous
    • If you start with the wrong footing, you end up messing it up
  • Trying to deal with “I need SharePoint”
  • SharePoint for an external web site was difficult to use. Unfriendly structure for a public facing website
  • Trying to get users to use it (Steep learning curve for users)
  • The need for “deep discussion” to ensure SharePoint is put in for the right reasons. Without this, the result is messy, disorganised portals
  • The gap between the business and IT results in a sub optimal deployment
  • Demonstrating value to the business (SharePoint installed, but its potential is not being realized)
  • Stakeholders not appreciating the implication of product versus platform
  • You are working across the entire business (The disconnect between management/coalface)
  • “Everything hurts with SharePoint”
  • Facilitating the discussion at the business level is hard when your background is IT

Final Analysis

Once again the answers provided by Singapore attendees is extraordinarily consistent with the other three classes we looked at. User expectations and adoption were at the forefront, complexity was there, as was the business/IT disconnect as well as demonstrating business value. The theme of platitudes (f-law 4) and confusing the means from the ends (f-law 1) was apparent with the comment about dealing with the “I need SharePoint” issue.

I also note that the Singapore group seemed to have a greater recognition of their weaknesses – particularly with SharePoint as a “totally different type of concept” quote and last comment about difficulties facilitating discussion “when your background is IT”. I also noted one potential dial-tone comment about the difficulty of deploying SharePoint as a public facing website. Another emergent complexity related theme here is the perennial problem of SharePoint’s ample supply of features (and caveats) which risks an inappropriate up-front design decision that has negative consequences later (“Trying to deal with the sheer number of features,“ “A little knowledge can be dangerous” & “If you start with the wrong footing, you end up messing it up.”)

Finally, I particularly liked the comment about the “need for “deep discussion” to ensure SharePoint is put in for the right reasons” – that one was made by one of the Microsofties who attended the class.

Conclusions and takeaways

My own conclusion from this examination is that the responses from class attendees illustrate that dial tone governance (which is best termed as IT assurance) is necessary, but certainly not sufficient. The focus on IT assurance is a reflection of the lens that IT looks through. After all, when your performance is judged on keeping things running smoothly and reliably, it makes sense that you will focus on this.

But as illustrated by the responses, it seems that IT assurance isn’t all that hard. If it was, then why didn’t dial tone topics come up with more frequency in the responses?

So IT people, always remember f-law 1. The word ‘govern’ means to steer. We aim to steer the energy and resources available for the greatest benefit to all. Assurance on the other hand provides confidence in a product’s suitability for its intended purpose. It is a set of activities intended to ensure that customer requirements are satisfied in a systematic, reliable fashion. (I didn’t make that up by the way – that is how the ISO9000 family of standards for quality management described assurance).

The key takeaway is that to be effective and successful you actually need to apply both governance and assurance. You cannot have one without the other. Whether you have the balance right between dial tone and all the other stuff is for you to decide. So rather than focus on the stuff you already know well, perhaps it is worth asking yourself what you find hard and focus there as well.


Thanks for reading


Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Confessions of a (post) SharePoint architect: The dangers of dial tone governance…

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hi all and welcome to the next exciting instalment of my confessions from my work as a SharePoint architect and beyond. This is the eighth post and my last for 2012, so I will get straight into it.

To recap, along the way we have examined 5 f-laws and learned that:

Now, as a preamble to today’s mini-rant, I need to ‘fess up. I know this might come as a shock, but there was once a time when I was not the sweet, kind hearted, gentle soul who pens these articles. In my younger days, I used to judge my self-worth on my level of technical knowledge. As a result of this, I knew my stuff, but was completely oblivious to how much of a pain in the ass I was to everyone but geeks who judged themselves similarly. Met anyone like that in IT? Smile

This brings me onto my next SharePoint governance f-law – one that highlights a common blind spot that many IT people have in their approach to SharePoint governance.

F-Law 6: Geeks are far less important than they think they are

All disciplines and organisational departments have a particular slant on reality that is based on them at the centre of that reality. If this was not true, then departments would not spend so much time bitching about other departments and I would have no Dialogue Mapping work. The IT department is no better or worse in this regard than any other department, except that the effects of their particular slant of reality can be more pronounced and far reaching on everyone else. Why? Because the IT slant of reality sometimes looks like a version of Neo from the Matrix. Many, if not most people in IT, have a little Neo inside of them.


We all know Neo – an uber hero. He is wise, blessed with super powers, can manipulate your very reality and is a master of all domains of knowledge. Neo is also your last hope because if he goes down, we all go down. Therefore, everything Neo does – no matter how over the top or what the consequences are – is necessary to save the world from evil.

All of the little Neos in IT have a few things in common with bullet stopping big Neo above. Firstly, little Neo has also been entrusted with ensuring that the environment is safe from the forces of evil. Secondly, Little Neo can manipulate the reality that everybody else experiences. And finally, little Neo is often the last hope when things go bad. But that is where the similarities end because big Neo has two massive advantages over little Neo. First, big Neo was a master of a lot of domains of knowledge because he had the convenience of being able to learn any new subject by downloading it into his brain. Little Neo does not have this convenience, yet many little Neos still think they are all-knowing and wise. Secondly, big Neo was never mentally scarred from a really bad tequila bender…

Bad tequila bender? What the…

Never again…

Years ago when I was young and dumb, I was at a party drinking some tequila using the lemon and salt method. My brother-in-law thought it would be hilarious to switch my tequila shots with vodka double shots. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t notice because the lemon and salt masked the taste. I downed a heap of vodkas and the net result for me was not pretty at all. Although I wasn’t quite as unfortunate as the guy in the picture below I wasn’t that far off. As a result, to this day I cannot bring myself to drink tequila or vodka and the smell of it makes me feel sick with painful memories best left supressed.


I’m sure many readers can relate to a story like this. Most people have had a similar experience from an alcohol bender, eating a dodgy oyster or accidentally drinking tap water in a place like Bali. So take a moment to reflect on your absolute worst experience until you feel clammy and queasy. Feeling nauseous? Well guess what – there is something even worse…

Anyone who has ever worked in a system administrator role or any sort of infrastructure support will know the feeling of utter dread when the after hours pager goes off, alerting you some sort of problem with the IT infrastructure on which the business depends. Like many, I have lived through disaster recovery scenarios and let me tell you – they are not fun. Everyone turns to little Neo to save the day. It is high pressure and stressful trying to get things back on track, with your boss breathing down your neck, knowing that the entire company is severely degraded until you to get things back online.

Now while that is bad enough, the absolute nightmare scenario for every little Neo in IT is having to pick up the pieces of something not of their doing in the first place. In other words, somehow a non-production system morphed into production and nobody bothered to tell Little Neo. In this situation, not only is there the pressure to get things back as quickly as possible, but Little Neo has no background knowledge of the system being recovered, has no documentation on what to do, never backed it up properly and yet the business expects it back pronto.

So what do you expect will happen in the aftermath of a situation like the one I described above? Like my aversion to tequila, Little Neo will develop a pathological desire to avoid reliving that sort of pain and stress. It will be an all-consuming focus, overriding or trivialising other considerations. Governance for little Neo is all about avoiding risk and just like Big Neo, any actions – no matter how over the top or what the consequences are – will be deemed as necessary to ensure that risk is mitigated. Consequently, a common characteristic of lots of little Neos is the classic conservative IT department who defaults to “No” to pretty much any question that involves introducing something new. Accordingly, governance material will abound with service delivery aspects such as lovingly documented physical and logical architecture, performance testing regimes, defining universal site templates, defining security permissions/policies, allowed columns, content types and branding/styling standards.

Now all of this is nice and needs to be done. But there is a teeny problem. This quest to reduce risk has the opposite effect. It actually increases it because little Neo’s notion of governance is just one piece of the puzzle. It is the “dial tone” of SharePoint governance.

The thing about dial tone…

What is the first thing you hear when you pick up the phone to make a call? The answer of course is dial tone.

Years ago, Ruven Gotz asked me if I had ever picked up the phone, heard dial tone and thought “Ah, dial tone… Those engineers down at the phone company are doing a great job. I ought to bake them a  cake to thank them.” Of course, my answer was “No” and if anyone ever answered “Yes” then I suspect they have issues.

This highlights an oft-overlooked issue that afflicts all Neos. Being a hero is a thankless job. The reality is that the vast majority of the world could not care less that there is dial tone because it is expected to be there – a minimum condition of satisfaction that underpins everything else. In fact, the only time they notice dial tone is when it’s not there.

Yet, when you look at the vast majority of SharePoint governance material online, it could easily be described as “dial tone governance.” It places the majority of focus on the dial tone (service delivery) aspects of SharePoint and as a result, de-emphasises much more important factors of governance. Little Neo, unfortunately, has a governance bias that is skewed towards dial tone.

Keen eyed readers might be thinking that dial tone governance is more along the lines of what quality assurance is trying to do. I agree. Remember in part 2 of this series, I explained that the word ‘govern’ means to steer. We aim to steer the energy and resources available for the greatest benefit to all. Assurance, according to the ISO9000 family of standards for quality management, provides confidence in a product’s suitability for its intended purpose. It is a set of activities intended to ensure that requirements are satisfied in a systematic, reliable fashion. Dial tone governance is all about assurance, but the key word for me in the previous sentence is “intended purpose.”

Dial tone governance is silent on “intended purpose” which provides opportunities for platitudes to fetser and governance becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

and finally for 2012…

So, all of this leads to a really important question. If most people do not care about dial tone governance, then what do they care about?

As it happens, I’m in a reasonable position to be able to answer that question as I’ve had around 200 people around the world do it for me. This is because in my SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture Class, the first question I ask participants is “What is the hardest thing about SharePoint delivery?”

The question makes a lot of sense when you consider that the hardest bits of SharePoint usually translate to the highest risk areas for SharePoint. Accordingly, governance efforts should be focused in those areas. So in the next post in this series, I will take you through all the answers I have received to this question. This is made easier because I dialogue mapped the discussions, so I have built up a nice corpus of knowledge that we can go through and unpack the key issues. What is interesting about the answers is that no matter where I go, or whatever the version of SharePoint, the answers I get have remained extremely consistent over the years I have run the class.

Thanks for reading…


Paul Culmsee

p.s I am on vacation for all of January 2013 so you will not be getting the next post till early Feb

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect: A pink box called chaos…

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hi all and welcome back to my ever growing series which attempts to codify a lot of learning over a long period of time into something that I hope is readable, rigorous and is useful to anyone tasked with successful SharePoint project delivery. This is the 7th post in a what is turning out to be a large series. It is large for a good reason: SharePoint is complex and the problems it attempts to solve (collaboration) are complex as well. If this is your first article, I super-strongly suggest you take it from the beginning as these articles build on each-other.

My motivation for getting this stuff out there is to tap into the shift I now sense in how organisations approach the SharePoint platform. Through a combination of organisations living through SharePoint project failure, practitioners experiencing SharePoint fatigue syndrome, as well as the strength and congruence of the messages of many wise people in the SharePoint community, organisations now realise that SharePoint is a “different” kind of project.  This realisation represents the first stage of any form of learning where people have moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.  These terms sound rather confronting but are common in training-speak…

  • Unconscious incompetence refers to people who do not realise they lack certain skills and therefore don’t realise they need training to address the gap. That explains pretty much every IT centric SharePoint deployment based on the “built it and they will come” delivery model (and we all know how much fun those projects are).
  • Conscious incompetence means that people now see the gap between their knowledge and know they need help. Much of my company’s work is in this area – as is our close friends at Dynamic Owl and 21apps. Aside from our own clients, all of us are often sought out by other Microsoft partners who have learnt the hard way that the classic model of sales guy, project manager, business analyst and developer doesn’t always crack the SharePoint nut.

So newfound realisation among clients and consultants is there and that’s all well and good. Now the issue is to get past the cover story and take it to the next level. We have to go beyond the oft-used hippie clichés like “It’s all about the business, man” and make the art of SharePoint delivery real, pragmatic, rigorous and tangible. This series aims to be my attempt to do just that, complimenting leaders like Andrew Woodward, Ruven Gotz, Michal Pisarek and Sue Hanley. To that end, as I continue writing the series I hope that you:

  • laugh at the various truths behind the various SharePoint governance f-laws;
  • smile knowingly at the folly of some of the elaborate project and governance rituals you have to do now;
  • have your own biases challenged as you either cringe in embarrassment or think “he has gone too far with *that* comment”; and
  • have enough solid ammo to get through to influence other key stakeholders in your organisation

Allrighty then! Let’s get down to business. Our f-law for today’s article comes from Woody Allen. I have never actually watched one of his movies, but I have to give him credit for this pearl of wisdom…

F-Law 5: Confidence is the feeling you have until you understand the problem

Most projects start with a honeymoon phase. A newly formed team gets to deliver some new technology that is high profile and bolster their CV’s while “taking the business to the next level” (platitude black belts take note!) Morale is high and the team feel the sort of excitement one feels when going on a first date. Like a bad first date however, it doesn’t take long for the slow but relentless imposition of reality to take hold. Accordingly, as understanding of the problem grows, uncertainty grows commensurately. This in turn tests the initial project assumptions which an optimistic budget was likely pinned to. Most people can’t handle this sort of uncertainty because it confers risk of blame – something we all seek to avoid if we can. Thus on a complex project where the problem has elements of wickedness, blame avoidance results in things becoming quite dysfunctional and often project teams lose confidence that they can solve the problem.

There is an underlying phenomenon at work here that seems to be part of the human condition. Check out these two diagrams below as both of them show the same pattern. The left image is by Gartner and is their famous hype cycle that they pin technology fads to. The other won a Nobel prize for the originators and refers to a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Gartner_Hype_Cycle_svg    Snapshot

The diagrams should be self explanatory as both are a representation of increasing ones understanding of a problem over time. Both diagrams powerfully illustrate that as understanding grows, one never regains the same level of confidence that one had at the start! Take a look at the red line which reflects level of understanding of a problem. In both cases, the red line never reaches the same peak as it did at the very start when confidence was high and understanding was low. In other words, as your understanding grows and you become more informed about a problem, you will never be as certain as you would like to be.

Now in my mind, anyone who tries to argue against truth of the above patterns have fallen victim to the pattern. Furthermore, if you are dealing with someone who fits that level of optimistic naivety like a command-and-control project manager or CIO, just tell them that this has Nobel prize winning backing. For those CIO types who get all of their gospel from Gartner, use the hype cycle instead. After all, what would those Nobel dudes know eh? 🙂

So here is a tip. Next time you are kicking off a SharePoint project and need to assess risk, try this: First up, explain platitudes as described in the last two posts. Then draw one of the above diagrams on a whiteboard and ask your stakeholders to place an X on the above diagrams where they see the project team, themselves and where they see others! I guarantee much fun and frivolity will ensue…

Divergence and Convergence

Now if you work for an organisation where the idea of ranking ones naivety is a bit confronting, let me offer you something gentler. This alternate way of looking uncertainty over time is similarly powerful to the images above. I first saw this diagram used by Jeff Conklin, who got it from a book by Sam Kaner called the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. My diagram below was modified from Kaner for my own purposes.


Like the Gartner and Dunning-Kruger diagrams above, the X axis represents time, with a problem at one end and the solution on the other. The Y-axis represents the level of uncertainty and it illustrates that project teams typically go through a cycle of divergent thinking, followed by a period of convergent thinking as the team becomes more aligned and the problem is better understood. What is interesting to note is that the point where divergence ends and convergence starts is never clear. No-one ever stops and pronounces “Okay guys, I think we have sufficiently diverged. Let’s converge now.”

To converge, one has to cross over the ‘hump’ of divergence. Imagine climbing a mountain and there are thick clouds that obscure the peak. For all you know, the peak might be a couple hundred feet further, but equally so, you might only be halfway up. For this reason I draw a box in the middle rather than connect the arrows. it is important to note that when I draw the box in the middle, I make a point of asking people to tell me the sort of words they would use to convey what they are feeling during this time. Without fail, I always get negative responses like “confusion,” “irritability,” “stress” and “uncertainty.”

Now consider this: Some projects tend to diverge sharply and convergence seems almost impossible. No attempts to reign things in by asserting control seem to work. In fact, they usually make things worse. Accordingly, SharePoint projects commonly look like the figure below. They are highly divergent with little convergence as a result of the varied implicit assumptions that stakeholders have about SharePoint that have not been aired and reconciled. The power of those pesky platitudes, eh?


When I show this version of the diagram to people, I always ask a simple question:

  • If you do not have governance for SharePoint, what do you have?

The answer I get is always “Chaos,” which I write in the box as you can see above. My next question to the group is this:

  • “So by definition, to understand SharePoint governance, we all have to metaphorically open this box we have labelled “Chaos” to understand the forces that create the divergence?

So far, nobody has disagreed with that logic. So I then I hit people with the punch line…

  • “So how can you tell me that your governance approach is addressing the forces of divergence if you don’t know what’s in the box?“

That is usually the great silence moment… Despite the logic of my argument, most organisations never open the damn box and then approach SharePoint project delivery in a manner that is very likely to exacerbate the problem, rather than address it.

False convergence…

Check out the figure below. It is a variation of the divergence/convergence figure and represents a common approach to rein in SharePoint going haywire. If you look closely, you can see that an attempt has been made to force convergence. This manifests in different ways, but is most often the scenario when a sponsor or key stakeholder starts to make key decisions on behalf of others. In the short term, this approach tends to feel good because there is a sense of momentum and something is “being done” to get things under control. Project managers stop palpitating for a time because their Gantt charts start to see some progress…


After explaining this diagram, I then ask my audience. “So has this dealt with divergence?”. To this day, not a single person I have ever asked has said yes. In fact, everyone implicitly seems to realise that this is a false convergence and the underlying divergent forces have not truly been addressed at all. There is usually a short term feeling that things are getting back on track, but it doesn’t last long because it is actually little better than an illusion and things starts to get fishy – both on the project and in my diagram as shown below…


So eventually we will be smacked by the chaos baseball bat whether we like it or not. Despite this, many organisations will persist with the forced convergence approach many times (with a different set of consultants each time) and of course continue to get crappy results. Eventually though, the attrition of this approach will exceed the commitment of stakeholders and something gives. It is at this point where some organisations react by doing another dumbass thing…

Overly constraining divergence…

Once there is a realisation that an elite coterie (like the IT department or a single champion in the business) cannot solve the information management problems for the entire organisation via false convergence approaches, the next approach seems to artificially constrain the divergence via controlling the terms of reference – aka lock the crap out of the scope. This is seductively tempting since scope creep is the quintessential symptom of stakeholders who are still in divergent thinking.

While I have no problem with determining an appropriate scope, as we all operate within time, people and budgetary limits. But it has to be done for the right reasons and constraining divergence is not a good reason. Why? Because it means that stakeholders have very little shared understanding at the point scope is decided. This is a problem because ideally, divergent thinking should be reconciled to be able to decide on scope. From a diagrammatic point of view, this is like putting clamps around the level of allowable uncertainty. The classic example of this approach is when an organisation opts for the installation and deployment of SharePoint itself as phase 1 of the project. Ever done that before? Smile


Like the previous example, I ask my audience whether this approach deals with divergence. Also like the first example, the answer is a universal no. The underlying divergent forces have not truly been addressed at all and things are still fishy – although on the diagram below it is a difference species of fish! 🙂 In fact what you are doing here is penalising people for their learning – something I warned against doing in part three.


Key takeaways

I hope that you find these diagrams useful when discussing SharePoint delivery with your own stakeholders. By explaining SharePoint delivery in terms of divergence, convergence and a pink box labelled “chaos” we are able to provide a frame to show why artificially constraining divergence often has the opposite effect of what is intended. It is also worth pointing out that both of the above approaches are not particularly collaborative either – which tends to go against what one is trying to do with SharePoint in the first place.

Many SharePoint projects proceed on the assumption that the problem is well understood – that divergence has peaked and we are heading down the slope of convergence. If this is indeed the case, then the SharePoint project should go reasonably well since all of the tools for managing and delivering projects are convergence tools and do a good job in assisting this process. When this is not the case however, those same approaches have a bad habit of getting in the way by precluding the sort of learning and exploration needed for stakeholders to align around a problem. Returning to my mountain climbing metaphor I used earlier, these tools are like gravity assist to help you get down the mountain, but they weight a lot when you are trudging up a steep mountain and when clouds are obscuring the peak.

My takeaway for f-law 5 is not to jump straight to convergence. It might give you an initial sense of certainty and momentum, but only for a short time. I have said it many times and I will say it again. While there is a lack of shared understanding among participants of a problem, you will never get the shared commitment you need to see a solution through. Shared commitment is critical because without it, projects lose their energy and momentum to be seen to conclusion. Persistent divergence is a sign of a lack of shared understanding so the trick of course, is to harness divergence and turn it into something positive. Create the conditions that allows for some uncertainty, reduce the blame culture and tolerate mistakes. Invest in tools and methods that allow collective sensemaking and give people safety and structure to raise and reconcile their concerns.

Achieving shared understanding of the problem is for me the essence of SharePoint governance. In the doctors vs. midwives post in this series I explained how the goal of an architect is to create the right conditions for SharePoint success. The conditions to manage and harness divergence is a critical skill.

If you can achieve this end you should be bloody proud of yourself – as you have done 80% of the work of SharePoint delivery already.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

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

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hello kung-fu students and thanks for dropping by to complete your platitude training. If you have been dutifully following the prior 5 articles so far in this series, you will have now earned your yellow belt in platitude kung-fu and should be able to spot a platitude a mile away. Of course, yellow belt is entry level – like what a Padwan is to a Jedi. In this post, you can earn your black-belt by delving further into the mystic arts of the (post) SharePoint architect and develop simple but effective methods to neutralise the hidden danger of platitudes on SharePoint projects.

If this is your first time reading this series, then stop now! Go back and (ideally) read the other articles that have led to here. Now in reality I know full well that you will not actually do that so read the previous post before proceeding. Of course, I know you will not do that either, so therefore I need to fill you in a little. This series of articles outline much of what I have learnt about successful SharePoint delivery, strongly influenced from my career in sensemaking. I have been using Russell Ackoff’s concept of f-laws – truth bombs about the way people behave in organisations – to outline all of the common mistakes and issues that plague organisations trying to deliver great SharePoint outcomes.

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

In the last post, we took a look at the danger of conflating a superlative (like biggest, best, improved and efficient) with a buzzword like (search, portal, collaboration, social). The minute you combine these and dupe yourself into thinking that you now have a goal, you will find that your project starts to become become complex, which in turn results in over-engineered solutions solving everything and anything, and finally your project will eventually collapse under its own weight after consuming far too many financial (and emotional) resources.

This is because the goal you are chasing looks seductively simple, but ultimately is an illusion. All of your stakeholders might use the same words, but have very different interpretations of what the goal actually looks like to them. The diagram that shows the problem with this is below. On the left is the mirage and to the right is the reality behind the mirage. Essentially your fuzzy goal actually is a proxy for a whole heap of unaligned and often unarticulated goals from all of your stakeholders.

Snapshot   Snapshot

Now in theory, you have read the last post and now have a newly calibrated platitude radar. You will sit at a table and hear platitudes come in thick and fast because you will be using Ackoff’s approach of inverting a goal and seeing if a) the opposite makes any logical sense and b) could be measured in any meaningful way. As an example, here are three real-world strategic objectives that I have seen adorning some wordy strategic plans. All three set off my platitude radar big time…

“Collaboration will be encouraged”

“A best-practice collaboration platform”

“It’s a SharePoint project” Smile

I look at the first statement and think “so… would you discourage collaboration? Of course not.” Ackoff would take a statement like that and say “Stop telling me what you need to do to survive, and tell me what you need to do to thrive”.

What do you mean by?

So if I asked you how to unpack a platitude into reality, what might you do?

For many, it might seem logical to ask people what they really mean by the platitude. It might seem equally logical to come up with a universal definition to bring people to a common understanding of the platitude. Unfortunately, both are about as productive as a well-meaning Business Analyst asking users “So, what are your requirements?”

With the “what do you mean by [insert platitude here]” question, the person likely won’t be able to articulate what they mean particularly well. That is precisely why they are unconsciously using the platitude in the first place! Remember that a platitude is a mental shortcut that we often make because it saves us the cognitive effort of making sense of something. This might sound strange that we would do this, but in the rush to get things done in organisations, it is unsurprising. How often do you feel a sense of guilt when you are reflecting on something because it doesn’t feel like progress? Put a whole bunch of people feeling that way into a meeting room and of course people will latch into a platitude.

By the way, the “mental shortcut” that makes a platitude feel good seems to be a part of being human and sometimes it can work for us. When it works, it is called a heuristic, When it doesn’t its called a cognitive bias. Consult chapter 2 in my book for more information on this.

Okay, so asking what someone means by their platitude has obvious issues. Thus, it might seem logical that we should develop a universal definition for everyone to fall in behind. If we can all go with that then we would have less diversity in viewpoints. Unfortunately this has its issues too – only they are a little more subtle. As we discovered in part 2 of this series appropriately entitled “don’t define governance”, definitions tend to have a limited shelf life. Additionally, like best-practice standards, there are always lots of them to choose from and they actually have an affect of blinding people to what really matters.

So is there a better way?

It’s all in the question and its framing…

If there is one thing I have learnt above all else, is that project teams often do not ask the right question of themselves. Yet asking the right question is one of the most critical aspects to helping organisations solve their problems. The right question has the ability to cast the problem in a completely different light and change the cognitive process that people are using when answering it. In other words, the old saying is true: ask a silly question, get a silly answer.

Let me give you a real life example: Chris Tomich is a co-owner of Seven Sigma and was working with some stakeholders to understand the rationale for how content had been structured in a knowledge management portal. Chris is a dialogue mapper like me – and he’s extremely good at it. One thing Dialogue Mapping teaches you is to recognise different question types and listen for hidden questions. The breakthrough question in this case when he got some face time with a key stakeholder and asked:

  • What was your intent when you designed this structure for your content?

The answer he got?

  • “Well, we only did it that way because search was so useless”
  • “So if I am hearing you, you are saying that if search was up to scratch you would not have done it that way”
  • “Definitely not”

Neat huh? By asking a question that took the stakeholder back to the original outcome sought for taking a certain course of action, we learnt that poor search was such a constraint they compensated by altering page template design. Up until that point, the organisation itself did not realise how much of an impact a crappy search experience had made. So guess where Chris focused most of his time?

In a similar fashion, my platitude defeater question is this:

So if we had [insert platitude here], how would things be different to now?

Can you see the difference in framing compared to “what do you mean by [insert platitude here]?”. Like Chris with his “What was your intent”, we are getting people to shift from the platitude, to the difference it would make if we achieved the platitude. No definitions required in this case, and the answer you will get almost by definition has to be measurable. This is because asking what difference something would make involves a transition of some kind and people will likely answer with “increased this”  or “decreased that”.

Now be warned – a hard core middle manager might serve you up another platitude as an answer to the above question. To handle this, just ask the question again and use the new platitude instead. For example:

  • Me: Okay so if you had improved collaboration, how would things be different to now?
  • Them: We would have increased adoption
  • Me: And what difference would that make to things?

I call this the KPI question because if you keep on prodding, you will find themes start to emerge and you will get a strong sense of potential Key Performance Indicators. This doesn’t mean they are the right ones, but now people are thinking about the difference that SharePoint will make, as opposed to arguing over a definition. Trust me – its a much more productive conversation.

Now to validate that these emerging KPI’s are good ones, I ask another question, similarly framed to elicit the sort of response I am looking for…

What aspects should we consider with this initiative to [insert platitude here]?

This question is deliberately framed as neutral is possible. I am not asking for issues, opportunities or risks, but just aspects. By using the term aspects I open the question up to a wider variety of inputs. Like the KPI question above, it does not take long for themes to emerge from the resulting conversation. I call this the key focus area question, because as these themes coalesce, you will be able to ensure your emerging KPI’s link to them. You can also find gaps where there is a focus area with no KPI to cover it. As an added bonus, you often get some emergent guiding principles out of a question like this too.

The thing to note is that rather than follow up with “what are the risks?” and “what should our guiding principles be?”, I try and get participants to synthesize those from the answers I capture. I can do this because I use visual tools to collect and display collective group wisdom. In other words, rather than ask those questions directly, I get people to sort the answers into risks, opportunities and principles. This synthesis is a great way to develop a shared understanding among participants of the problem space they are tackling.

If we were unconstrained, how would we solve this problem?

This is the purpose question and is designed to find the true purpose of a project or solution to a problem. I don’t always need to use this one for SharePoint, but I certainly use it a lot in non IT projects. This question asks people to put aside all of the aspects captured by the previous question and give the ideal solution assuming that there were no constraints to worry about. The reason this question is very handy is that in exploring these “pie in the sky” solutions, people can have new insights about the present course of action. This permits consideration of aspects that would not otherwise be considered and sometimes this is just the tonic required. As an example, I vividly recall doing some strategic planning work with the environmental division of a mining company where we asked this exact question. In answering the question, the participants had a major ‘aha’ moment which in turn, altered the strategy they were undertaking significantly.

Note: If you want some homework, then check Ackoff’s notion of idealised design and the Breakthrough Thinking principle called the purpose principle. Both espouse this sort of framed question.

Sharpening the saw…

Via  the use of the above questions, you will have a  better sense of purpose, emergent focus areas and potential measures. That platitude that was causing so much wheel spinning should be starting to get more meaty and real for your stakeholders. For some scenarios, this is enough to start developing a governance structure for a solution and formulating your tactical approaches to making it happen. But often there is a need to sharpen the saw a bit and prioritise the good stuff from the chaff. Here are the sort of questions that allow you to do that:

No matter what happens, what else do we need to be aware of?

This question is called the criterial question and I learnt it when I was learning the art of Dialogue Mapping. When Dialogue Mapping you are taught to listen for the “no matter what…” preamble because it surfaces assumptions and unarticulated criteria that can be critical to the conversation and will apply to whatever the governance approach taken. Thus I will often ask this question in sessions, towards the end and it is amazing what else falls out of the conversation.

What are the things that keep you up at night?

I picked this up from reading Sue Hanley’s excellent whitepaper a while back and listening to hear speak at Share2012 in Melbourne reminded me why it is so useful. This question is very cleverly framed and is so much better than asking “What are your issues?”. It pushes the emotive buttons of stakeholders more and gets to the aspects that really matter to them at an gut level rather than purely at a rational level. (I plan to test out dialogue mapping a workshop with this as the core question sometime and will report on how it goes)

What is the intent behind [some blocker]?

This is the constraint buster question and is also one of my personal favourites. If say, someone is using a standard or process to block you with no explanation except that “we cannot do that because it violates the standards”, ask them what is the intent of the standard. When you think about it, this is like the platitude buster question above. It requires the person to tell you the difference the standard makes, rather than focus on the standard itself. As I demonstrated with my colleague Chris earlier, the intent question is also particularly useful for understanding previous context  by asking users to outline the gap between previous expectation and reality.


To there you go – a black belt has been awarded. Now you should be armed with the necessary kung-fu skills required to deflect, disarm and defeat a platitude.

Of course, knowing the right questions to ask and the framing of them is one thing. Capturing the answers in an efficient way is another. For years now, I have advocated the use of visual tools like mind mapping, dialogue mapping and causal mapping tools as they all allow you to visually represent a complex problem. So as we move through this series, I will introduce some of the tools I use to augment the questions above.

Thanks for reading


Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

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

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

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

Falling Books Stack

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect: The self-fulfilling governance prophecy

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series confessions
Send to Kindle

Hi and welcome to another SharePoint (post) architect confessional post. In case you are here via the good grace of whatever Google’s search relevance algorithm feels like doing today, I need to give you a little context to this post and the larger series of which it is a part. These days, I spend a lot of time working on projects beyond the cloistered confines of SharePoint; in fact, beyond the confines of IT altogether. Apart from being a cathartic release from SharePoint work, I’ve had the privilege to work with various groups on solving some very complex problems in a collaborative fashion. As a result of these case studies, I’ve become a bit of a student of various collaborative problem solving approaches and recently released a business book on the subject called “The Heretics Guide to Best Practices” co-written with mild-mannered mega-genius Kailash Awati. Despite (or because of) the book having no absolutely SharePoint content whatsoever, it managed to win an Axiom Business Book award and I feel it’s indirectly a good SharePoint governance book in its own right.

Now, for the rest of you who have been following my epic rant thus far, you will now be familiar with the notion of Ackoff’s f-laws: “truths about organisations that we might wish to deny or ignore – simple and more reliable guides to everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists, sociologists, politicians and philosophers.” Via the f-law metaphor, you now also understand why midwives are more valuable than doctors, the word “governance” should not be defined if you actually want people to understand it and that people should not be penalised for their learning.

The next f-law that we will explore provides an explanation to why organisations so consistently and persistently apply the wrong approaches to SharePoint-type projects. IT departments have genetic predisposition to falling into this trap, as do other service delivery departments such as Finance and HR when they put in ERP systems. To explain my assertion, we are going to revisit the governance diagram that I used in the first f-law. You can see it below:

I used the above diagram to to explain f-law 1 which was “The more comprehensive the definition of governance is, the less it will be understood by all”. The above diagram serves to point out that governance is not the end in mind, but the means by which you achieve a desirable future state. Without any context to an end in mind, we have to accommodate many vague potential ends. To deal with this uncertainty, we inevitably look to definitions to provide clarity about what governance means. Unfortunately, this form of “definitionisation” tends to confuse more than clarify because it sneakily starts to drive the end, rather than be the means. This inevitably results in over-engineered, over-complicated and likely inappropriate governance approaches that do more harm than good.

It should be noted that “governance” is by no means the only word that falls into this trap. Words like quality, effective, “best practice” and even “SharePoint” should all be put in the green star above too because all of these words have no inherent meaning until they are applied to a given situation or context. This point is echoed by people like Andrew (“SharePoint by itself knows nothing”) Woodward, Dux (“SharePoint doesn’t suck – you suck.”) Sy and Ruven (“Can I use this diagram in my Information Architecture book?”) Gotz.

To that end, our next  f-law expands on this notion of means vs. ends and provides you with a practical way to assess the clarity of a SharePoint goal or outcome.

F-Law 3: The probability of SharePoint success is inversely proportional to the time taken to come up with a measurable KPI

Hmm… f-law 3 is a mouthful isn’t it. For a start I used the acronym of “KPI”, which in case you are not aware, stands for Key Performance Indicator – something that we can measure to visibly demonstrate that we have not sucked and actually achieved what we have set out to do. In essence, this f-law states that the longer it takes to determine a reasonable and measurable indicator that SharePoint has been a success, the less likely your SharePoint project is to succeed.

To demonstrate this, I am going to give you one of my patent pending techniques that is highly useful in client engagements to get people to think a little differently about their approach. Let’s reuse my “from here to there” diagram above to perform a basic experiment. Check out the project below and tell me … what project is this?


Hopefully, it did not take you long to work out that this project is the Apollo moon missions. Now, for the experimental bit. Grab a stopwatch, start the clock and answer this question:

“How do you know you have succeeded with this project?”

Once you have your answer, stop the clock and note the time. I’m willing to bet that you gave one or two answers:

  • You successfully landed a person on the moon
  • You got the person back to Earth again

I am also willing to bet that you worked out that answer within 2 to 15 seconds of pondering my diagram. Am I right?

Now, consider for a moment the sheer scale of of this project in terms of size, risk, innovation and level of expertise required to land a person on the moon and bring them back safely. Imagine the sheer number of projects within multiple programs of work that had to be aligned. Imagine the tens of thousands of people who directly and indirectly worked on this epic project. It is mind boggling when you think about it and it is little wonder that putting a man on the moon is regarded one of mankind’s greatest technical achievements.

And then we have SharePoint…

Now let’s contrast the moon project with another one likely to be very familiar with readers. So once again, tell me what project this is…


This one takes some people a bit longer to answer, but when I ask this in workshops and conferences I sometimes get people jokingly saying “my SharePoint project!” or “a nightmare.” So once again I want you to answer the following question:

“How do you know you have succeeded with this project?”

I bet this one has you a little more stumped and is much harder to answer than the moon example above. What is funny with this one is that, when you consider that in terms of scope and size, using SharePoint to improve collaboration is a mere pimple on the butt of sending a rocket to the moon. Yet, despite the moon example being much larger in scope, cost, degree of innovation and engineering, the success criteria is clear and unambiguous to all. People can identify what success looks like very quickly. No-one will point to Venus and say “I think that’s the moon.”  You either got there or you didn’t.

Yet, when I show a SharePoint project that is framed like the above example, people have a much (much) harder time describing what success would look like. In fact, I have asked this question many times around the world and most of the answers I am offered do not hold up to any serious form of scrutiny. Consider these common suggestions of SharePoint success and my response to them:

  • “People are using it.” My response: “Yeah, but people use email and the file system now, so why are you putting SharePoint in?”
  • “People are happy.” My response: “I bet if I replaced the crappy coffee with a top of the range espresso machine I could make people really happy and it’s a fraction of the cost of SharePoint.”

Sorry folks, but this isn’t good enough… in fact it’s a recipe for a situation where, in the name of “governance,” you deliver a bloated, over-engineered failure.

When problems are complicated…

My two project examples above highlight a particular characteristic of problems that is at the root of the difference between the moon and SharePoint example. Consider the following common IT projects:

  • Replacing your old email system with Microsoft Exchange
  • Consolidating Active Directory
  • Replacing your old phone system with Voice over IP system
  • Upgrading your storage area network  to new infrastructure

All of these are like the moon example. None of them are easy – in fact you need specialist expertise to get them successfully implemented. But when you put each of these in the green star of my “here to there” picture, criteria for success is fairly clear and unambiguous. For example, if email comes in and goes out of everyone’s inboxes, Exchange is a usually success. If you can pick up the phone, get a dial tone and make a call, then the VOIP upgrade has been a success.

These are all examples of complicated problems. With complicated problems, the criteria for success is clear and unambiguous and there is a strong relationship between cause and effect. You can be highly confident that doing X will lead to Y. In these sorts of problems, experts can come together and analyse the problem by breaking the problem down neatly into its parts to develop a high-confidence solution. Furthermore, there are likely to be many best practices that have emerged from years of collective wisdom of implementing solutions because of that relationship between cause and effect.

Wouldn’t it be nice if reality was always like this. Project Managers and tech people would actually get on with each other! But of course, reality paints a different picture…

When complicated approaches fail…

In a 2002 discussion paper about reform of the Canadian health system, authors Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman make a statement that is completely applicable to how most organisations approach SharePoint:

In simple problems like cooking by following a recipe, the recipe is essential. It is often tested to assure easy replication without the need for any particular expertise. Recipes produce standardized products and the best recipes give good results every time. Complicated problems, like sending a rocket to the moon, are different. Formulae or recipes are critical and necessary to resolve them but are often not sufficient. High levels of expertise in a variety of fields are necessary for success. Sending one rocket increases assurance that the next mission will be a success. In some critical ways, rockets are similar to each other and because of this there can be a relatively high degree of certainty of outcome. Raising a child, on the other hand, is a complex problem. Here, formulae have a much more limited application. Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next. Although expertise can contribute to the process in valuable ways, it provides neither necessary nor sufficient conditions to assure success. []

In this paper we argue that health care systems are complex, and that repairing them is a complex problem. Most attempts to intervene [] treat them as if they were merely complicated. [] We argue that many of these dilemmas can be dissolved if the system is viewed as complex.

The key point in the above quote is that the tools and approaches that work well with complicated problems actually cause a lot of trouble in complex problems, where certainty of an outcome is much less clear. My point is that while the notion of using SharePoint to get from “poor collaboration” to “improved collaboration” might seem logical on the surface, it is hard to come up with any sensible criteria for success. Therefore you are setting yourself up for a fail because you have made SharePoint take on the characteristics of complex problems. Without unpacking these implicit assumptions about “Improved Collaboration,” our aspirational future state will look like the diagram below. The reality is we have many aspirational future states, all hidden beneath the seductive veneer of “improved collaboration” that in reality tells us nothing.


What blows me away is that to this day most project governance material published consistently fail to realise this core issue while trying to treat the very symptoms caused by this issue!  They provide you with the tools, means and methods to chase goals which are little better than an illusion, with no means to measure progress and therefore guide the very decisions that are made in name of governance.

Without unpacking and aligning all of these different future states above, how can any SharePoint architect be sure that they are providing the right SharePoint-based enabler? If you cannot tell me the difference made by implementing a project, how can anyone else know the difference? Even if you can, how do you know that everybody else sees it the same way as you?

Is it little wonder then, that after more than a decade of trying, SharePoint projects (complex problems) continue to go haywire? While approaches to governance force a complicated lens on a complex problem and assume the goal as stated is understood by all, governance itself will be one of the root causes of poor outcomes. Why? Because governance will require people to focus in all the areas except the one that matters. When this gap in focus manifests visibly (for example SharePoint site sprawl), governance is seen as the means to address the gap. Thus governance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy “We will get it right this time” is the mantra, all the while, we still chase those rainbows of “improved collaboration.”

Conclusion and coming next

I do not recall where I first heard the distinction between “Complicated” and “Complex” problems because I came across it some time after I discovered the term “wicked problem.” I suspect that it was the Cynefin model that first pushed my cognitive buttons on the idea, although I distinctly recall Russell Ackoff also making the distinction between complex and complicated. Irrespective of the source, I find this a hugely valuable frame of reference to examine problems and understand why SharePoint projects are routinely tackled in an inappropriate manner. With it, I have been able to give IT departments in particular, a frame of reference to understand why they have trouble with particular kinds of projects like SharePoint.

Many people in organisations do not discern the difference between a complicated and complex problem and use the tools of the “complicated problem toolkit” to address complex problems when they are inappropriate at best and will kill your project at worst. I will expand on why this happens in the next and subsequent posts. But my key takeaway is that addressing the issue of multiple interpretations of the future is not only the key SharePoint governance challenge, it is the key challenge for any complex project.

The sorts of tools and approaches that are part of the “complex problem” utility belt are numerous and are really starting to gain traction which is great. There is plenty to read on this topic elsewhere on this blog as well as people like Andrew Woodward and Ruven Gotz. The great irony is that if you do manage align people to a shared sense of what the end in mind will look like, things that might have been seen as complex will now become complicated and the traditional tools and approaches will have efficacy because outcomes are clear and the path to get there makes more sense.

In the next post and f-law, I am going to outline another chronic issue that further explains why we get suckered into chasing false goals…


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee


 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle

Demystifying SharePoint Performance Management Part 11 – Tales from the Microsoft labs

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Perf
Send to Kindle

Hi all and welcome to the final article in my series on SharePoint performance management – for now anyway. Once SharePoint 2013 goes RTM, I might revisit this topic if it makes sense to, but some other blogging topics have caught my attention.

To recap the entire journey, the scene was set in part 1 with the distinction of lead and lag indicators. In part 2, we then examined Requests per Second (RPS) and looked at its strengths and weakness as a performance metric. From there, we spent part 3 looking at how to leverage RPS via the Log Parser utility and a little PowerShell goodness. Part 4 rounded off our examination of RPS by delving deeper into utilising log parser to eke out interesting RPS related performance metrics. We also covering the very excellent SharePoint Flavored Weblog Reader utility, which saves a bunch of work and can give some terrific insights. Part 5 switched tack into the wonderful world of latency, and in particular, focused on disk latency. Part 6 then introduced the disk performance metrics of IOPS, MBPS and their relationship to latency. We also looked at typical SharePoint and SQL Server disk IO characteristics and then examined the pros and cons of RPS, IOPS, Latency, MBPS and how they all relate to each other. In part 7 and continuing into part 8, we introduced the performance monitor counters that give us insight into these counters, as well as introduced the SQLIO utility to stress test disk infrastructure. This set the scene for part 9, where we took a critical look at Microsoft’s own real-world findings to help us understand what suitable figures would be. The last post then introduced a couple of other excellent tools, namely Process Monitor and Windows Performance Analysis Toolkit that should be in your arsenal for SharePoint performance.

In this final article, we will tie up a few loose ends.

Insights from Microsoft labs testing…

In part 9 of this series, I examined Microsoft’s performance figures reported from their production SharePoint 2010 deployments. This information comes from the oft mentioned SharePoint 2010 Capacity Planning Guide. Microsoft are a large company and they have four different SharePoint farms for different collaborative scenarios. To recap, those scenarios were:

  1. Enterprise Intranet environment (also described as published intranet). In this scenario, employees view content like news, technical articles, employee profiles, documentation, and training resources. It is also the place where all search queries are performed for all of the other the SharePoint environments within the company. Performance reported for this environment was 33580 unique users per day, with an average of 172 concurrent users and a peak concurrency of 376 users.
  2. Enterprise intranet collaboration environment (also described as intranet collaboration). In this scenario, is where important team sites and publishing portals are housed. Sites created in this environment are used as communication portals, applications for business solutions, and general collaboration. Performance reported for this environment was double the first environment with 69702 unique users per day. Concurrency was more than double, with an average of 420 concurrent users and a peak concurrency of 1433 users.
  3. Departmental collaboration environment. In this scenario, employees use this environment to track projects, collaborate on documents, and share information within their department. Performance reported for this environment was a much lower figure of 9186 unique users per day (which makes sense given it is departmental stuff). Nevertheless, concurrency was similar to the enterprise intranet scenario with an average of 189 concurrent users and a peak concurrency of 322 users.
  4. Social collaboration environment. This is Microsoft’s My Sites scenario, connecting employees with one another and presenting personal information such as areas of expertise, past projects, and colleagues to the wider organization. This included personal sites and documents for collaboration. Performance reported for this environment was 69814 unique users per day, with an average of 639 concurrent users and a peak concurrency of 1186 users

Presented as a table, we have the following rankings:

Scenario Social Collaboration Enterprise Intranet Collaboration Enterprise Intranet Departmental Collaboration
Unique Users 69814 69072 33580 9186
Avg Concurrent 639 420 172 189
Peak  Concurrent 1186 1433 376 322

When you think about it, the performance information reported for these scenarios are lag indicator based. That is, they are real-world performance statistics based on a pre-existing deployment. Thus while we can utilise the above figures for some insights into estimating the performance needs of our own SharePoint environments, they lack important detail. For example: in each scenario above, while the SharePoint farm topology was specified, we have no visibility into how these environments were scaled out to meet performance needs.

Some lead indicator perspective…

Luckily for us, Microsoft did more than simply report on the performance of the above four collaboration scenarios. For two of the scenarios Microsoft created test labs and published performance results with different SharePoint farm topologies. This is really handy indeed, because it paints a much better lead indicator scenario. We get to see what bottlenecks occurred as the load on the farm was increased. We also get insight about what Microsoft did to alleviate the bottlenecks and what sort of a difference it made.

The first lab testing was based off Microsoft’s own Departmental collaboration environment (the 3rd scenario above) and is covered on pages 144-162 of the capacity planning guide. The other lab was based off the Enterprise Intranet Collaboration Environment (the 2nd scenario above) and is the focus of attention on pages 174-197. Consult the guide for full detail of the tests. This is just a quick synthesis.

Lab 1: Enterprise Intranet Collaboration Environment

In this lab, Microsoft took a subset of the data from their production environment using different hardware. They acknowledge that the test results will be affected by this, but in my view it is not a show stopper if you take a lead indicator viewpoint. Microsoft tested web server scale out initially by starting out with a 3 server topology (one web front end server, one application server and one database server). They then increased the load on the farm until they reached a saturation point. Once this happened, they added an additional web server to see what would happen. This was repeated and scaled from one Web server (1x1x1) to five Web servers (5x1x1).

The transactional mix used for this testing was based on the breakdown of transactions from the live system. Little indication of read vs. write transactions are given in the case study, but on page 152 there is a detailed breakdown of SharePoint traffic by type. While I won’t detail everything here, regular old browser traffic was the most common, representing 36% of all test traffic. WebDAV came in second (WebDAV typically includes office clients and windows explorer view) representing 28.12 of traffic and outlook sync traffic third at 7.04%.

Below is a table showing the figures where things bottlenecked. Microsoft produce many graphs in their documentation so the figures below are an approximation based on my reading of them. It is also important to note that Microsoft did not perform tests while search was running, and compensated for search overhead by defining a max CPU limit for SQL Server of 80%.

1*1*1 2*1*1 3*1*1 4*1*1 5*1*1
Max RPS 180 330 510 560 565
Sustainable RPS 115 210 305 390 380
Latency .3 .2 .35 .2 .2
IOPS 460 710 910 920 840
WFE CPU 96% 89% 89% 76% 58%
SQL CPU 17% 33% 65% 78% 79%

For what its worth, the sustainable RPS figure is based on the server not being stressed (all servers having less than 50% CPU). Looking at the above figures, several things are apparent.

  1. The environment scaled up to four Web servers before the bottleneck changed to be CPU usage on the database server
  2. Once database server CPU hit its limits, RPS on the web servers suffered. Note that RPS from 4*1*1 to 5*1*1 is negligible when SQL CPU was saturated.
  3. The addition of the fourth Web server had the least impact on scalability compared to the preceding three (RPS only increased from 510 to 560 which is much less then adding the previous web servers). This suggests the SQL bottleneck hit somewhere between 3 and 4 web servers.
  4. The average latency was almost constant throughout the whole test, unaffected by the number of Web servers and throughput. This suggests that we never hit any disk IO bottlenecks.

Once Microsoft identified the point at which Database server CPU was the bottleneck (4*1*1), they added an additional database server and then kept adding more webservers like they did previously. They split half the content databases onto one SQL server and half on the other. It is important to note that the underlying disk infrastructure was unchanged, meaning that total disk performance capability was kept constant even though there were now two database servers. This allowed Microsoft to isolate server capability from disk capability. Here is what happened:

4*1*1 4*1*2 6*1*2 8*1*2
RPS 560 660 890 930
Latency .2 .35 .2 .2
IOPS 910 1100 1350 1330
WFE CPU 76% 87% 78% 61%
SQL CPU 78% 33% 52% 58%

Here is what we can glean from these figures.

  1. Adding a second database server did not provide much additional RPS (560 to 660). This is because CPU utilization on the Web servers was high. In effect, the bottleneck shifted back to the web front end servers.
  2. With two database servers and eight web servers (8*1*2), the bottleneck became the disk infrastructure. (Note the IOPS at 6*1*2 is no better than 8*1*2).

So what can we conclude? From the figures shown above, it appears that you could reasonably expect (remember we are talking lead indicators here) that bottlenecks are likely to occur in the following order:

  1. Web Server CPU
  2. Database Server CPU
  3. Disk IOPS

It would be a stretch to suggest when each of these would happen because there are far too many variables to consider. But let’s now examine the second lab case study to see if this pattern is consistent.

Lab 2: Divisional Portal Environment

In this lab, Microsoft took a different approach from lab we just examined. This time they did not concern themselves with IOPS (“we did not consider disk I/O as a limiting factor. It is assumed that an infinite number of spindles are available”). The aim this time was to determine at what point a SQL Server CPU bottleneck was encountered. Based on what I have noted from the first lab test above, unless your disk infrastructure is particularly crap, SQL Server CPU should become a bottleneck before IOPS. However, one thing in common with the last lab test was that Microsoft factored in the effects of an ongoing search crawl by assuming 80% SQL Server CPU as the bottleneck indicator.

Much more detail was provided on the transaction breakdown for this lab. Page 181 and 182 lists transactions by type and and unlike the first lab, whether they are read or write. While it is hard to directly compare to lab 1, it appears that more traffic is oriented around document collaboration than in the first lab.

The basic methodology of this was to start off with a minimal farm configuration of a combined web/application server and one database server. Through multiple iterations, the test ended with a configuration of three Web servers, one application server, one database server.  The table of results are below:

1*1 1*1*1 2*1*1 3*1*1
RPS 101 150 318 310
Sustainable RPS 75 99 191 242
Latency .81 .85 .6 .8
Users simulated 125 150 200 226
WFE CPU 86% 36% 76% 42%
APP CPU NA 41% 46% 44%
SQL CPU 18% 32% 56% 75%

Here is what we can glean from these figures.

  1. Web Server CPU was the first bottleneck encountered.
  2. At a 3*1*1 configuration, SQL Server CPU became the bottleneck.  In lab 1 it was somewhere between the 3rd and 4th webserver.
  3. RPS, when CPU is taken into account, is fairly similar between each lab. For example, in the first lab, the 2*1*1 scenario RPS was 330. In this lab it was 318 and both had comparable CPU usage. The 1*1*1 test, had differing results (101 vs 180) , but if you adjust for the reported CPU usage, things even up.
  4. With each additional Web server, increase in RPS was almost linear. We can extrapolate that as long as SQL Server is not bottlenecked, you can add more Web servers and an additional increase in RPS is possible.
  5. Latencies are not affected much as we approached bottleneck on SQL Server. Once again, the disk subsystem was never stressed.
  6. The previous assertion that bottlenecks are likely to occur in the the order of Web Server CPU, Database Server CPU and then Disk subsystem appears to hold true.

Now we go any further, one important point that I have neglected to mention so far is that the figures above are extremely undesirable. Do you really want your web server and database server to be at 85% constantly? I think not. What you are seeing above are the upper limits, based on Microsoft’s testing. While this helps us understand maximum theoretical capacity, it does not make for a particularly scalable environment.

To account for the issue of reporting on max load, Microsoft defined what they termed as a “green zone” of performance. This is a term to describe what “normal” load conditions look like (for example, less than 50% CPU) and they also provided RPS results for when the servers were in that zone. If you look closely in the above tables you will see those RPS figures there as I labelled them as “Sustainable RPS”.

In case you are wondering, the % difference between sustainable RPS and peak RPS for each of the scenarios ranges between 60-75% of the peak RPS reported.

Some Microsoft math…

In the second lab, Microsoft offers some advice on how translate their results into our own deployments. They suggest determining a users to RPS ratio and then utilising the green zone RPS figures to estimate server requirements. This is best served via their own example from lab 2: They state the following:

  • A divisional portal in Microsoft which supports around 8000 employees collaborating heavily, experiences an average RPS of 110.
  • That gives a Users to RPS ratio of ~72 (that is, 8000/110). That is: 72 users will amount to 1 RPS.
  • Using this ratio and assuming the sustainable RPS figures from lab 2 results, Microsoft created the following table (page 196) to suggest the number of users a typical deployment might support.


A basic performance planning methodology…

Okay.. so I am done… I have no more topics that I want to cover (although I could go on forever on this stuff). Hopefully I have laid out enough conceptual scaffolding to allow you to read Microsoft’s large and complex documentation regarding SharePoint performance and capacity guide with more clarity than before. If I were to sum up a few of the key points of this 11 part exploration into the weird and wonderful world of SharePoint performance management it would be as follows:

  1. Part 1: Think of performance in terms of lead and lag indicators. You will have less of a brain fart when trying to make sense of everything.
  2. Part 2: Requests are often confused with transactions. A transaction (eg “save this document”) usually consists of multiple requests and the number of requests is not an indicator of performance. Look to RPS to help here…
  3. Part 3 and 4: The key to utilising RPS is to understand that as a counter on its own, it is not overly helpful. BUT it is the one metric that you probably have available in lots of detail, due to it being captured in web server logs over time. Use it to understand usage patterns of your sites and portals and determine peak usage and concurrent usage.
  4. Part 5: Latency (and disk latency in particular) is both unavoidable, yet one of the most common root causes of performance issues. Understanding it is critical.
  5. Part 6: Disk latency affects – and is affected by – IOPS, IO size and IO patterns. Focusing one one without the others is quite pointless. They all affect each other so watch out when they are specified in isolation (ie 5000 IOPS).
  6. Part 6, 7 and 8:  Latency and IOPS are handy in the  sense that they can be easily simulated and are therefore useful lead indicators. Test all SQL IO scenarios at 8k and 64K IO size and ensure it meets latency requirements.
  7. Part 9: Give your SAN dudes a specified IOPS, IO Size and latency target. Let them figure out the disk configuration that is needed to accommodate. If they can make your target then focus on other bottleneck areas.
  8. Part 10: Process Monitor and Windows Performance Analyser are brilliant tools for understanding disk IO patterns (among other things)
  9. Part 9 and 11: Don’t believe everything you read. Utilise Microsoft’s real world and lab results as a guide but validate expected behaviour by testing your own environment and look for gaps between what is expected and what you get.
  10. Part 11: In general, Web Server CPU will bottleneck first, followed by SQL Server CPU. If you followed the advice of points 6 and 7 above, then disk shouldn’t  be a problem.

Now I promised at the very start of this series, that I would provide you with a lightweight methodology for estimating SharePoint performance requirements. So assuming you have read this entire series and understand the implications, here goes nothing…

If they can meet this target, skip to step 8.  🙂

If they cannot meet this, don’t worry because there are two benefits gained already. First, by finding that they cannot get near the above figures, they will do some optimisation like test different stipe sizes and check some other common disk performance hiccups. This means they now better understand the disk performance patterns and are thinking in terms of lead indicators. The second benefit is that you can avoid tedious, detailed discussions on what RAID level to go with up front.

So while all of this is happening, do some more recon…

  • 4. Examine Microsoft and HP’s testing results that I covered in part 9 and in this article. Pay particular attention to the concurrent users and RPS figures. Also note the IOPS results from Microsoft and HP testing. To remind you, no test ever came in over 1400 IOPS.
  • 5. Use logparser to examine your own logs to understand usage patterns. Not only should you eke out metrics like max concurrent users and RPS figures, but examine peak times of the day, RPS growth rate over time, and what client applications or devices are being used to access your portal or intranet.
  • 6. Compare your peak and concurrent usage stats to Microsoft and HP’s findings. Are you half their size, double their size? This can give you some insight on a lower IOPS target to use. If you have 200 simultaneous users, then you can derive a target IOPS for your storage guys to meet that is more modest and in line with your own organisations size and make-up.

By now the storage guys will come back to you in shock because they cannot get near your 5000 IOPS requirement. Be warned though… they might ask you to sign a cheque to upgrade the storage subsystem to meet this requirement. It won’t be coming out of their budget for sure!

  • 7. Tell them to slowly reduce the IOPS until they hit the 8ms and 1ms latency targets and give them the revised target based on the calculation you made in step 6. If they still cannot make this, then sign the damn cheque!

At this point we have assumed that there is enough assurance that the disk infrastructure is sound. Now its all about CPU and memory.

  • 8. Determine a users to RPS ratio by dividing your total user base by average RPS (based on your findings from step 5).
  • 9.  Look at Microsoft’s published table (page 196 of the capacity planning guide and reproduced here just above this conclusion). See what it suggests for the minimum topology that should be needed for deployment.
  • 10. Use that as a baseline and now start to consider redundancy, load balancing and all of that other fun stuff.

And there you have it! My 10 step dodgy performance analysis method.  Smile

Conclusion and where to go next…

Right! Although I am done with this topic area, there are some next steps to consider.

Remember that this entire series is predicated on the notion that you are in the planning stage. Let’s say you have come up with a suggested topology and deployed the hardware and developed your SharePoint masterpiece. The job of ensuring performance will work to expectations does not stop here. You still should consider load testing to ensure that the deployed topology meets the expectations and validates the lead indicators. There is also a  seemingly endless number of optimisations that can be done within SharePoint too, such as caching to reduce SQL Server load or tuning web application or service application settings.

But for now, I hope that this series has met my stated goal of making this topic area that little bit more accessible and thankyou so much for taking the time to read it all.


Paul Culmsee

 Digg  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Technorati  Slashdot  Twitter  Sphinn  Mixx  Google  DZone 

No Tags

Send to Kindle