Rediscovering my curiosity at Creative Melbourne

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As I write this I am somewhere over the middle of Australia, flying back to Perth after participating in a 3 day event that was fun, challenging and highly insightful. The conference was Creative Melbourne, and I am proud to say I was one of the inaugural speakers. If they want me back again, I will do it in a heartbeat, and I hope a lot of you come along for the ride.

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The premise: practical co-creation…

First the background… I have known the conference organiser, Arthur Shelley, for a few years. We first met at a Knowledge Management conference in Canberra and though I have no recollection of how we got talking, I do recall we clicked fairly quickly. At the time I was starting to explore the ideas around ambiguity, which eventually formed my second book. Back then I had a chip on my shoulder about how topics like complexity, Design Thinking and collaboration were being taught to students. I felt that the creative and fun parts glossed over the true stress and cognitive overload of wicked problems. This would produce highly idealistic students who would fall flat on their face once they hit a situation that was truly wicked. I therefore questioned whether anything was being built into students mental armory for the inevitable pain to come.

Now for some people who operate and teach in this space, making such a statement immediately and understandably gets their defenses up. But not Arthur – he listened to everything I had to say, and showed me examples of how he structured his courses and teachings to deal with this challenge. It was impressive stuff: every time his students thought they had a handle on things, Arthur would introduce a curveball or a change they were not anticipating. In other words, while teaching the techniques, he was building their capacity for handling ambiguous situations. Little did I know his conference was about to do the same to me…

One thing about Arthur that blows me away constantly is his incredible network of practitioners in this space. Arthur has long had a vision for bringing a constellation of such practitioners together and he hand-picked a bunch of us from all over the world. The premise, was to create an event that had a highly practical focus. He wanted practitioners to help attendees “Discover creative techniques to enhance performance and engage your team back at the office to increase productivity.”

Now where did I leave my curiosity?

While I am a sensemaking practitioner, I’ll admit straight up that I get irritated at the “fluffiness” and rampant idealism in this space. A good example is Design Thinking in this respect. While I like it and apply ideas from it to my practice, I dislike it when Design Thinking proponents claim it to be suited to wicked problems. The reality is the examples and case studies often cited are rarely wicked at all (at least in the way the term was originally conceived). When I see this sort of thing happening, it leaves me wondering if proponents have truly been in a complex, contingent situation and had the chance to stress test their ideas.

Now I don’t apologise for critically examining the claims made by anyone, but I do apologise for the unfortunate side effect – becoming overly contrarian. In my case, after all these years of research, reading and practice in this field, I am at the point where I see most new ideas as not actually new and are rediscoveries of past truths. Accordingly, it has been a long time since I felt that sense of exhilaration from having my mental molecules rearranged from a new idea. It makes sense right? I mean, the more you learn about something, the more your mental canvas has been painted on. In my case I already have a powerful arsenal of useful tools and approaches that I call upon when needed and more importantly, I was never on a spiritual quest for the one perfect answer to the mysteries of organsiational life anyway.

In short, I have what I need to do what I do. The only problem is somewhere along the line I lost the very sense of curiosity that started me along the path in the first place. It took Arthur, fellow presenters like Stuart French, Jamie Bartie, Jean-Charles Cailliez, Meredith Lewis, Brad Adriaanse, Vadim Shiryaev and a diverse group of participants to help me rediscover it…

Disrupting the disruptor…

Imagine someone like me participating in day 1, where we did things like build structures out of straws, put on silly hats, used the metaphor of zoo animals to understand behaviors, arm-wrestled to make a point about implicit assumptions and looked at how artists activate physical space and what we could learn from it when designing collaborative spaces. There was some hippie stuff going on here and my contrarian brain would sometimes trigger a reflexive reaction. I would suddenly realise I was tense and have to tell myself to relax. Sometimes my mind would instinctively retort with something like “Yeah right… try that in a politicised billion dollar construction project…” More than once I suppressed that instinct, telling myself “shut up brain – you are making assumptions and are biased. Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”

That evening I confided to a couple of people that I felt out of place. Perhaps I was better suited to a “Making decisions in situations of high uncertainty and high cognitive overload” conference instead. I was a little fearful that I would kill the positive vibe of day 1 once I got to my session. No-one wants to be the party pooper…

Day 2 rolled around and when it was my turn to present. I held back a little on the “world according to Paul” stuff. I wanted to challenge people but was unsure of their tolerance for it – especially around my claims of rampant idealism that I mentioned earlier. I needn’t have worried though, as the speaker after me, Karuna Ramanathan from Singapore, ended up saying a lot of what I wanted to say and did a much better job. My talk was the appetizer to his “reality check” main course. He brilliantly articulated common organsiational archetypes and why some of the day 1 rhetoric often hits a brick wall. It was this talk that validated I did belong in this community after all. Arthur had indeed done his homework with his choice of speakers.

That same afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Melbourne with Jamie Bartie, who showed us all sorts of examples of cultural gems in Melbourne that were hiding in plain sight. The moral of the story was similar to day 1… that we often look past things and have challenge ourselves to look deeper. This time around my day 1 concerns had evaporated and I was able to be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. I spoke to Jamie at length that evening and we bonded over a common childhood love of cult shows like Monkey Magic. I also discovered another kung-fu movie fan in Meredith Lewis, who showed me a whole new way to frame conversations to get people to reveal more about themselves, and develop richer personal relationships along the way.

Petcha Kucha – Getting to a point…

Day 3 was a bit of a watershed moment for me for two reasons. Months prior, I had accepted an invitation from Stuart French to participate in his Petcha Kucha session. At the time I said “yes” without really looking into what it entailed. The gist is you do a presentation of 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide, all timed so they change whether you are ready or not. This forces you to be incredibly disciplined with delivering your talk, which I found very hard because I was so used to “winging it” in presentations. Despite keynoting conferences with hundreds of people in the room, doing a Petcha Kucha to a smaller, more intimate group was much more nerve-racking. I had to forcibly switch off my tangential brain because as soon as I had a thought bubble, the slides would advance and I would fall behind and lose my momentum. It took a lot of focus for me to suppress my thought bubbles but it was worth it. In short, a Petcha Kucha is a fantastic tool to test one’s mental muscles and enforce discipline. I highly recommend that everyone give it a go – especially creative types who tend to be a bit “all over the place”. It was a master-stoke from Stuart to introduce the technique to this audience and I think it needs to be expanded next time.

I presented the first Petcha Kucha, followed by Stuart and then Brad Adriaanse, who described the OODA Loop philosophy. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act, providing a way to break out of one’s existing dogma and reformulate paradigms, allowing you to better adapt to changing circumstances. Dilbert cartoons aptly shows us that we all have incomplete (and often inconsistent) world views which should be continually refined and adapted in the face of new observations. Brad put it nicely when he said OODA was about maintaining a fluid cognitive state and that assumptions can be a straightjacket and dogma can blind us. This really hit home for me, based on how I reacted at times on day 1. Brad also said that the OODA loop can be internalised by adopting a lifelong learning mindset, being curious and become more and more comfortable with ambiguity.

It was at this exact moment where I rediscovered my latent curiosity and understood why I felt the way I did on day 1 and 2. It was also at this moment that I realised Arthur Shelley’s genius in why he made this event happen, who he brought together and what he has created in this event. All attendees need to be disrupted. Some need their idealism challenged, and some, like me, need a reminder of what started us on this path in the first place.

I have returned a better practitioner for it… Thankyou Arthur

 

Paul Culmsee

p.s Arthur Shelley is still a giant hippie

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Teddies, Fetishes and the Management Consulting Scam

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What if I told you that the key to becoming a successful management consultant was to become a Teddy Bear?

What if I also told you that it involves fetishes? You might be re-checking the URL to make sure you are on the right site!

Fear not, this article is definitely not “50 Shades of Management Consulting Grey”. Nor is it about donning a cuddly animal suit as a mascot for a football team. To borrow from the much loved children’s TV show “Playschool,” there’s definitely a bear in there, but not the one you might be thinking!

You see, for many people, modern corporate life is now at a point where pace of change is accelerating, unrelenting and fatiguing. In my home state of Western Australia, businesses are reeling from unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty, be it the end of the commodity boom, the impact of global competition or disruptive, technology-enabled innovation. It is now difficult to think of any industry that has not had the ground shift beneath it in some way — except perhaps, for Management Consulting.

Management Consulting thrives in an environment of fear, ambiguity and doubt, principally because its business model is based on the presumption that they can make it go away. It’s lucrative too — ambiguity is such a powerful force that executives will part with copious amounts of cash in attempts to escape it…

read the full article at medium.com

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A Very Potter Audit – A Best Practices Parable

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Once upon a time there lived a rather round wizard named Hocklart who worked at the FogWorts school of witchcraft and wizardry. Hocklart was a very proud wizard, perhaps the proudest in all of FogWorts. His pride did not stem from being a great wizard or a great teacher; in reality, he was neither of those. In fact Hocklart was never much good at wizardry itself, but he knew a lot of people who were – and therein lay the reason for his pride. For what Hocklart lacked in magic ability, he more than made up for with his attention to detail, love of process and determination to rise to the top. From the day he arrived at FogWorts as one apprentice amongst many, he was the first to realise that the influential wizards liked to unwind on Friday nights with a cold ale at the Three and a Half Broomsticks Inn. Hocklart sacrificed many Friday nights at that pub, shouting rounds of frothy brew to thirsty senior wizards, befriending them all, listening to their stories and building up peerless knowledge of FogWorts organisational politics and juicy gossip.

This organisational knowledge brought just enough influence for Hocklart to climb the corporate ladder ahead of his more magically adept colleagues and presently he was very proud. As far as Hocklart was concerned, he had the most important job in all of FogWorts – Manager of the Department Responsible for the Integrity of Potions (or DRIP for short).

You see, in schools of witchcraft and wizardry, wizards and witches concoct all sorts of potions for all sorts of magical purposes. Potions of course require various ingredients in just the right amount and often prepared in just the right way. Some of these ingredients are highly dangerous and need to be handed with utmost care, while others might be harmless by themselves, but dangerous when mixed with something else or prepared incorrectly. Obviously one has to be careful in such a situation because a mix-up could be potentially life threatening or at the very least, turn you into some sort of rodent or small reptile.

The real reason why Hocklart was proud was because of his DRIP track record. You see, over the last six years, Hocklart had ensured that Fogwarts met all its statutory regulatory requirements as per the International Spell-casters Standards Organisation (ISSO). This included the “ISSO 9000 and a half” series of standards for quality management as well as the “ISSO 14000 and a sprinkle more” series for Environmental Management and Occupational Health and Safety. (Like all schools of witchcraft and wizardry, Fogwarts needed to maintain these standards to keep their license to operate current and in good standing).

When Hocklart became manager of DRIP, he signed himself up for a week-long training course to understand the family of ISSO standards in great detail. Enlightened by this training, he now appreciated the sort of things the ISSO auditors would likely audit FogWorts on. Accordingly, he engaged expensive consultants from an expensive consultancy to develop detailed management plans in accordance with wizardry best practices. To deliver this to the detail that Hocklart required, the consultants conjured a small army of business analysts, enterprise architects, system administrators, coordinators, admin assistants, documenters, quality engineers and asset managers who documented all relevant processes that were considered critical to safety and quality for potions.

Meticulous records were kept of all activities and these were sequestered in a secure filing room which was, among other things, guaranteed to be spell-proof. Hocklart was particularly fond of this secure filing room, with its rows and rows of neatly labelled, colour coded files that lovingly held Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each potion ingredient. These sheets provided wizards the procedures for handling or working with the ingredients in a safe manner, including information of interest to wizards such as fulmination point, spell potency, extra-magical strength, reversal spells as well as routine data such as boiling point, toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment and spill-handling procedures. All potion ingredients themselves were stored in the laboratory in jars with colour coded lids that represented the level of hazard and spell-potency. Ever the perfectionist, Hocklart ensured that all jars had the labels perfectly aligned, facing the front. The system was truly was a thing of beauty and greatly admired by all and sundry, including past ISSO auditors, who were mesmerised by what they saw (especially the colour coded filing system and the symmetry of the labels of the jars).

And so it came to pass that for six years Hocklart, backup up by his various consultants and sub-contractors, saw off every ISSO auditor who ever came to audit things. All of them left FogWorts mightily impressed, telling awestruck tales of Hocklart’s quality of documentation, attention to detail and beautiful presentation. This made Hocklart feel good inside. He was a good wizard…nay, a great one: no one in the wizard-world had emerged from an ISSO audit unscathed more than twice in a row…

On the seventh year of his term as FogWarts head of DRIP, Hocklart’s seventh audit approached. Although eagerly waiting to impress the new auditor (as he did with all the previous auditors), Hocklart did not want to appear overly prepared, so he tried to look as nonchalant as possible by casually reviewing a draft memo he was working on as the hour approached. Only you and I, and of course Hocklart himself, knew that in the weeks prior to today, Hocklart was at his meticulous best in his preparation. He had reviewed all of the processes and documentation and made sure it was all up to date and watertight. There was no way fault could be found.

Presently, there was a rap on the open door, and in walked the auditor.

“Potter – Chris Potter,” the gentleman introduced himself. “Hocklart I presume?”

Hocklart had never met Potter before so as they shook hands he sized up his opponent. The first thing he noticed was that Potter wasn’t carrying anything – no bag, notebook and not even a copy of the ISSO standards. “Have you been doing this sort of work long?” he enquired.

“Long enough,” came the reply. “Let’s go for a walk…”

“Sure,” replied Hocklart. “Where would you like to go?”

For what seemed like an uncomfortably long time to Hocklart, Potter was silent. Then he replied, “Let’s go and have a look at the lab.”

Ha! Nice try, thought Hocklart as he led the auditor to the potion laboratory. Yesterday I had the lab professionally cleaned with a high potency Kleenit spell and we did a stocktake of the ingredients the week before.

Potter cast his sharp eyes around as they walked (as is common with auditors), but remained silent. Soon enough they arrived at a gleaming, most immaculate lab, with nothing out of place. Without a word, Potter surveyed the scene and walked to the shelves of jars that held the ingredients, complete with colour coded lids and perfectly aligned labels. He picked up one of the red labelled jars that contained Wobberworm mucus – a substance that, while not fatal, was known to cause damage if not handled with care. Holding the jar, he turned to Hocklart.

“You have a Materials Safety Data Sheet for this?”

Hocklart grinned. “Absolutely… would you like to see it?”

Potter did not answer. Instead he continued to examine the jar. After another uncomfortable silence, Potter looked up announcing, “I’ve just got this in my eyes.” His eyes fixed on Hocklart.

Hocklart looked at Potter in confusion. The Wobberworm mucus was certainly not in Potter’s eyes because the jar had not been opened.

“What?” he asked hesitantly.

Potter, eyes unwaveringly locked on Hocklart, remained silent. The silence seemed an eternity to Hocklart. A quick glance at his watch then Potter, holding up the jar in his hand, repeated more slowly, “I’ve just got this in my eyes.”

Hocklart’s heart rate began to rise. What is this guy playing at? He asked himself. Potter, meanwhile, looked at his watch again, looked back at Hocklart and sighed. “It’s been a minute now and my eye’s really starting to hurt. I risk permanent eye damage here… What should you be doing?”

A trickle of sweat rolled down Hocklart’s brow. He had not anticipated this at all.

Potter waited, sighed again and grated, “Where is the Materials Safety Data Sheet with the treatment procedure?”

A cog finally shifted in Hocklart’s mind as he realised what Potter was doing. Whilst he was mightily annoyed that Potter had caught him off guard (he would have to deal with that later), right now however he had to play Potter’s game and win.

“We have a secure room with all of that information,” he replied proudly. “I can’t have any of the other wizards messing with my great filing system, it’s my system…”

“Well,” Potter grated, “let’s get in there. My eye isn’t getting any better standing here.”

Hocklart gestured to a side door. “They are in there.” But as he said it his heart skipped a beat as a sense of dread came over him.

“It’s… “ he stammered then cleared his throat. “It’s locked.”

Potter looked straight into Hocklart with a stare that seemed to pierce his very soul. “Now I’m in agony,” he stated. “Where is the key?”

“I keep it in my office…” he replied.

“Well,” Potter said, “I now have permanent scarring on my eye and have lost partial sight. You better get it pronto…”

Hocklart continued to stare at Potter for a moment in disbelief, before turning and running out of the room as fast as his legs could carry his rotund body.

It is common knowledge that wizards are not known for being renowned athletes, and Hocklart was no exception. Nevertheless, he hurtled down corridors, up stairs and through open plan cubicles as if he was chased by a soulsucker. He steamed into his office, red faced and panting. Sweat poured from his brow as he flung a picture from the wall, revealing a safe. With shaking hands, he entered the combination and got it wrong twice before managing to open the safe door. He grabbed the key, turned and made for the lab as if his life depended on it.

Potter was standing exactly where he was, and said nothing as Hocklart surged into the room and straight to the door. He unlocked the door and burst into the secure room. Recalling the jar had a red lid, Hocklart made a beeline for the shelf of files with red labels, grabbed the one labelled with the letter W for Wobberworm and started to flick through it. To his dismay, there was no sign of a material safety data sheet for Wobberworm mucus.

“It’s…it’s not…it’s not here,” he stuttered weakly.

“Perhaps it was filed under “M” for mucus?” Potter offered.

“Yes that must be it”, cried Hocklart (who at this stage was ready to grasp at anything). He grabbed the file labelled M and flicked through each page. Sadly, once again there was no sign of Mucus or Wobberworm.

“Well,” said Potter looking at his watch again. “I’m now permanently blind in one eye… let’s see if we can save the other one eh? Perhaps there is a mismatch between the jar colour and the file?”

Under normal circumstances, Hocklart would snort in derision at such a suggestion, but with the clock ticking and one eye left to save, it seemed feasible.

“Dammit”, he exclaimed, “Someone must have mixed up the labels.” After all, while Wobberworm mucus was damaging, it was certainly not fatal and therefore did not warrant a red cap on the jar. This is why I can’t trust anyone with my system! he thought, as he grabbed two orange files (one labelled W for Wobberworm and one labelled M for mucus) and opened them side by side so he could scan them at the same time.

Eureka! On the fifth page of the file labelled M, he found the sheet for Wobberworm mucus. Elated, he showed the sheet to Potter, breathing a big sigh of relief. He had saved the other eye after all.

Potter took the sheet and studied it. “It has all the necessary information, is up to date – and the formatting is really nice I must say.” He handed the sheet back to Hocklart. “But your system is broken”

Hocklart was still panting from his sprint to his office and back and as you can imagine, was absolutely infuriated at this. How dare this so-called auditor call his system broken. It had been audited for six years until now, and Potter had pulled a nasty trick on him.

“My system is not broken”, he spat vehemently. “The information was there, it was current and properly maintained. I just forgot my key that’s all. Do you even know how much effort it takes to maintain this system to this level of quality?”

A brief wave of exasperation flickered across Potter’s face.

“You still don’t get it…” he countered. “What was my intent when I told you I spilt Wobberworm mucus in my eye?”

To damn well screw me over, thought Hocklart, before icily replying “I don’t care what your intent was, but it was grossly unfair what you did. You were just out to get me because we have passed ISSO audits for the last six years.”

“No,” replied Potter. “My intent was to see whether you have confused the system with the intent of the system.”

Potter gestured around the room to the files. “This is all great eye candy,” he said, “you have dotted the I’s, and crossed the T’s. In fact this is probably the most comprehensive system of documentation I have ever seen. But the entire purpose of this system is to keep people safe and I just demonstrated that it has failed.“

Hocklart was incredulous. “How can I demonstrate the system works when you deliberately entrapped me?”, he spat in rage.

Potter sighed. “No wizards can predict when they will have an accident you know,” he countered. “Then it wouldn’t be an accident would it? For you, this is all about the system and not about the outcome the system enables. It is all about keeping the paperwork up to date and putting it in the files… I’m sorry Hocklart, but you have lost sight of the fact the system is there to keep people safe. Your organisation is at significant risk and you are blind to that risk. You think you have mitigated it when in fact you have made it worse. For all the time, effort and cost, you have not met the intent of the ISSO standards.“

Hocklart’s left eye started to twitch as he struggled to stop himself from throwing red jars at Potter. “Get out of my sight,” he raged. “I will be reporting your misconduct to my and your superiors this afternoon. I don’t know how you can claim to be an auditor when you were clearly out to entrap me. I will not stand for it and I will see you disciplined for this!”

Potter did not answer. He turned from Hocklart, put the jar of Wobberworm mucus back on the shelf where he had found it and turned to leave.

“For pete’s sake”, Hocklart grated, “the least you could do is face the label to the front like the other jars!”

=========================

 

I wrote this parable after being told the real life version of a audit by a friend of mine… This is very much based on a true story. My Harry Potter obsessed daughter also helped me with some of the finer details. Thanks to Kailash and Mrs Cleverworkarounds for fine tuning…

.

Paul Culmsee

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

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series confessions
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Hi all

*sigh*

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.

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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

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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”

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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

image

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

image

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.

 

image

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

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series confessions
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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.

Conclusion…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clip_image002

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!

Snapshot

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.

Snapshot

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

www.sevensigma.com.au

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On the decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge

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“That’s only 10%…”

One of my mentors who is mentioned in the book I wrote with Kailash (Darryl) is a veteran project manager in the construction and engineering industry. He has been working as a project manager more than 30 years, is a fellow of the Institute of Engineers and marks exams at the local university for those studying a Masters Degree in Project Management. His depth of knowledge and experience is abundantly clear when you start working with him and I have learned more about collaborative project delivery from him than anyone else.

Recently I was talking with him and he said something really interesting. He was telling some stories from the early days of alliancing based project delivery in Australia (alliancing is a highly interesting collaborative project governance approach that we devote a chapter to in our book). He stated that alliancing at its core is the application of good project management practice. Now I know Darryl pretty well and knew what he meant by that, but commented to him that when you say the word “project management practice,” some would associate that statement with (among other things) a well-developed Gantt chart listing activities with names, tasks and times.

His reply was unsurprising: “at best that’s only 1/10th of what project management is really about.”

Clearly Darryl has a much deeper and holistic view of what project management is than many other practitioners I’ve worked with. Darryl argues that those who criticise project management are actually criticising a small subset of the discipline, based on their less than complete view of what the discipline entails. Thus by definition, the remedies they propose are misinformed or solve a problem that has already been solved.

Whether you agree with Darryl or not, there is a pattern here that occurs continually in organisation-land. Fanboys of a particular methodology, framework model or practice (me included) will waste no time dumping on whatever they have grown to dislike and swear that their “new approach” addresses the gaps. Those with a more holistic view like Darryl might argue that crusaders aren’t really inventing anything new and that if a gap exists, it’s a gap in the knowledge of those doing the criticising.

As Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of things we don’t know.”

From project management to systems thinking…

Now with that in mind, here’s a little anecdote. A few weeks back I joined a Design Thinking group on LinkedIn. I had read about Design Thinking during its hype phase a couple of years ago and my immediate thought was “Isn’t this just systems thinking reinvented?” You see, I more or less identify myself as a bit of a pragmatic systems thinker, in that I like to broaden a discussion, but I also actually get shit done. So I was curious to understand how design thinkers see themselves as different from systems thinkers.

I followed several threads on the LinkedIn group as the question had been discussed a few times. Unfortunately, no-one could really put their finger on the difference. Eventually I found a recent paper by Pourdehnad, Wexler and Wilson which went into some detail on the two disciplines and offered some distinctions. I won’t bother you with the content, except to say it was a good read, and left me with the following choices about my understanding of systems and design thinking:

  • That my understanding of systems thinking is wrong and I am in fact a design thinker after all
  • That I am indeed a systems thinker and design thinking is just systems thinking with a pragmatic bent

Of course being a biased human, I naturally believe the latter point is more correct. clip_image002

From systems to #stoos

Like the Snowbird retreat that spawned the agile manifesto, the recent stoos movement has emerged from a group of individuals who came together to discuss problems they perceive in existing management structures and paradigms. Now this would have been an exhilarating and inspiring event to be at – a bunch of diverse people finding emergent new understandings of organisations and how they ought to be run. Much tacit learning would have occurred.

But a problem is that one has to have been there to truly experience it. Any published output from this gathering cannot convey the vibe and learning (the tacit punch) that one would get from experiencing the event in the flesh. This is the effect of codifying knowledge into the written form. Both myself and Kailash were fully cognisant of this when we read the material on the stoos website and knew that for us, some of it would cover old ground. Nevertheless, my instinctive first reaction to what I read was “I bet someone will complain that this is just design thinking reinvented.”

Guess what… a short time later that’s exactly what happened too. Someone tweeted that very assertion! Presumably this opinion was offered by a self-identified design thinker who felt that the stoos crowd was reinventing the wheel that design thinkers had so painstakingly put together. My immediate urge was to be a smartarse and send back a tweet telling this person that design thinking is just pragmatic systems thinking anyway so he was just as guilty as the #stoos crowd. I then realised I might be found guilty of the same thing and someone might inform me of some “deeper knowing” than systems thinking. Nevertheless I couldn’t resist and made a tweet to that effect.

The decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge…

(At this point I discussed this topic with Kailash and have looped him into the conversation)

Both of us see a pattern of a narrow focus or plain misinterpretation of what has come before. As a result, it seems there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and slap a new label on claiming it to be unique or profound. We wonder therefore, how much of the ideas of new groups or movements are truly new.

Any corpus of knowledge is a bunch of memes – “ideas, behaviours or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.” Indeed, entire disciplines such as project management can be viewed as a bunch of memes that have been codified into a body of knowledge. Some memes are “sticky,” in that they are more readily retained and communicated, while others get left behind. However, stickiness is no guarantee of rightness. Two examples of such memes that we covered in our book are the waterfall methodology and the PERT scheduling technique Though both have murky origins and are of questionable utility, they are considered to be stock standard in the PM world, at least in certain circles. While it would take us too far afield to recount the story here (and we would rather you read our book Smile ) the point is that some techniques are widely taught and used despite being deeply flawed. Clearly the waterfall meme had strong evolutionary characteristics of survival while the story of its rather nuanced beginnings have been lost until recently.

A person indoctrinated in a standard business school curriculum sees real-life situations through the lens of the models (or memes!) he or she is familiar with. To paraphrase a well-known saying – if one is familiar only with a hammer, every problem appears as a nail. Sometime (not often enough!) the wielder of the metaphorical hammer eventually realises that not all problems yield to hammering. In other words, the models they used to inform their actions were incomplete, or even incorrect. They then cast about for something new and thus begin a quest for a new understanding. In the present day world one doesn’t have to search too hard because there are several convenient corpuses of knowledge to choose from. Each supply ready-made models of reality that make more sense than the last and as an added bonus, one can even get a certification to prove that one has studied it.

However, as demonstrated above with the realisation that not all problems yield to hammering, reality can truly be grasped only through experience, not models. It is experience that highlights the difference between the real-world and the simplistic one that is captured in models. Reality consists of complex, messy situations and any attempt to capture reality through concepts and models will always be incomplete. In the light of this it is easy to see why old knowledge is continually rediscovered, albeit in a different form. Since models attempt to grasp the ungraspable, they will all contain many similarities but will also have some differences. The stoos movement, design thinking and systems thinking are rooted in the same reality, so their similarities should not be surprising.

Coming back to Darryl – his view of project management with 30 years experience includes a whole bunch of memes and models, that for whatever reason, tend to be less sticky than the ones we all know so well. Why certain memes are less successful than others in being replicated from person to person is interesting in its own right and has been discussed at length in our book. For now, we’ll just say that those who come up with new labels to reflect their new understandings are paradoxically wise and narrow minded at the same time. They are wise in that they are seeking better models to understand the reality they encounter, but at the same time likely trashing some worthwhile ones too. Reality is multifaceted and cannot be captured in any particular model, so the finders of a new truth should take care that they do not get carried away by their own hyperbole.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee (with Kailash Awati)

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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The end of a journey… my book is now out!

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About bloody time eh?

The Heretics Guide to Best Practices is now available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and iUniverse.

 

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In Paul and Kailash I have found kindred spirits who understand how messed up most organizations are, and how urgent it is that organizations discover what Buddhists call ‘expedient means’—not more ‘best practices’ or better change management for the enterprise, but transparent methods and theories that are simple to learn and apply, and that foster organizational intelligence as a natural expression of individual intelligence. This book is a bold step forward on that path, and it has the wonderful quality, like a walk at dawn through a beautiful park, of presenting profound insights with humor, precision, and clarity.”

Jeff Conklin, Director, Cognexus Institute

 

Hugely enjoyable, deeply reflective, and intensely practical. This book is about weaving human artistry and improvisation, with appropriate methods and technologies, in order to pool collective intelligence and wisdom under pressure.”

Simon Buckingham Shum, Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK.

 

“This is a terrific piece of work: important, insightful, and very entertaining. Culmsee and Awati have produced a refreshing take on the problems that plague organisations, the problems that plague attempts to fix organisations, and what can be done to make things better. If you’re trying to deal with wicked problems in your organisation, then drop everything and read this book.”

Tim Van Gelder, Principal Consultant, Austhink Consulting

 

“This book has been a brilliantly fun read. Paul and Kailash interweave forty years of management theory using entertaining and engaging personal stories. These guys know their stuff and demonstrate how it can be used via real world examples. As a long time blogger, lecturer and consultant/practitioner I have always been served well by contrarian approaches, and have sought stories and case studies to understand the reasons why my methods have worked. This book has helped me understand why I have been effective in dealing with complex business problems. Moreover, it has encouraged me to delve into the foundations of various management practices and thus further extend my professional skills.”

Craig Brown, Director, Evaluator

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Why SharePoint training sometimes doesn’t deliver (and what to do about it)

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I was surprised to see the recent SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome post got some traction in the interweb. As it happened, that particular post was kicking around in an unfinished state for months. The thing is, its not the only “home truth” type of post that I have sitting in my “drafts” folder. I also have one on the state of the SharePoint training market. Given that I have a training announcement to make, I thought that I would combine them.

A day in the life…

We recently worked on a SharePoint upgrade project, where the previous developers did an excellent job overall. That is…if you judge them on the SharePoint governance metrics of writing clean and maintainable code, packaging it up properly, not hacking away at system files and actually writing documentation.

Unfortunately, although they did an excellent job through that lens, the actual solution, when judged on whether users found that it made their life easier, it was an epic fail. Users hated it with passion and like many solution that users hate, the system was soon relegated to being a little-used legacy platform where the maintenance costs now outweighed the benefits. The organisation had invested a couple-hundred thousand dollars on this solution and saw very little value for that money. Accordingly, they took their business elsewhere…to us. After a workshop, the client had one of those inverse “aha” moments when they realised that if they had taken a little more time to understand SharePoint, the custom solution would have never been developed in the first place.

This sort of example, to me, highlights where SharePoint governance goes so wrong. The care and diligence the developers exercised was necessary, but clearly not sufficient. No matter what the quality of the code, the unit testing regime and its packaging, at the end of the day a blueberry pie was baked and the client wanted an apple pie. The problem was not in the ingredients or the baking. The problem was that by the time they delivered the pie, it was clear that the wrong recipe was used. In the above case, the developer had omitted a whole raft of critical considerations in creating the solution – none of which were covered in developer training.

Necessary but not sufficient…

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When you think about it, the current approach to SharePoint training seems not to be about recipes, but all about ingredients. Trainees get shipped off to “boot camps” for an indoctrination of all of the ingredients in the cupboard (and SharePoint is a bloody big cupboard!). SharePoint features and components are examined in individual detail, usually with an accompanying exercise or lab to demonstrate competency in that particular component. Graduates then return with a huge list of ingredients, but still no skills in how to develop the right recipes.

What exacerbates this problem is that training is siloed across disciplines. As an example: An “IT Pro” bootcamp will go into meticulous detail about performance, scalability and design aspects. Any considerations around development, information architecture and user engagement are seen through the lens of the infrastructure nerd. (Ah – who am I kidding… user engagement in an IT pro bootcamp has never happened. Smile)

Now consider for a second, how we design SharePoint sites. These days, it is common for people to actively discourage designing SharePoint solutions based on organisational departmental boundaries. (By organisational departmental boundaries I mean Marketing, HR, IT etc.) Why is this design approach frowned upon? Proponents claim that it tends to perpetuate  the problem of information silos and doesn’t stand the test of time, given that organisations tend to restructure just when your information architecture masterpiece is ready for prime time. In fact, the research organisation Jackob Neilsen did a study and found that task based structures (characterised by “My…” and “I need to…”) endured better than organisational based structures. Quoting from them:

In our study, task-based structures often endured better than intranets organized departmentally. In our user testing of intranets, we’ve also found that task-based navigation tends to facilitate ease-of-learning. Thus, the benefits for IA durability are just one more argument in favor of adopting a task-based structure for your intranet.

So what I find ironically funny is the second sentence of the Jackob Neilsen quote: “Ease-of-learning.” I wonder what sort of learning they are talking about? Presumably something other than delivering a failed solution with some really nice programming governance behind it! Yet the way SharePoint training is designed and marketed actually compartmentalises SharePoint training into similar silos. The result? Students get a rose coloured view of the SharePoint world, based on their discipline. This is because, as Ackoff brilliantly put it,  “complexity is in the eye of the beholder – the other persons job always looks simple”.

By the way, what I am highlighting is not the fault of the trainers because at the end of the day, they respond to what they think the market wants. Sadly, what the market thinks it wants is often not what it needs.

I feel that the missing link – and most critical aspect of SharePoint training for practitioners – is not about how many ingredients you know, but how you go about creating those recipes. Yet SharePoint training overly focuses on what each ingredient does in isolation – whether a job discipline or a particular component. Whilst I fully accept that knowing the ingredients is a necessity, it is clearly not sufficient. This is an airbrushed version of reality, without due consideration of how ingredients combine in unique scenarios. Accordingly, this training does nothing to teach how to achieve shared understanding between practitioner and the eventual users who have to live with the legacy of what is delivered.

When you think about it, shared understanding is what makes or breaks SharePoint success because it is the pre-requisite to shared commitment to a solution. As demonstrated by the example of great code underpinning a crap solution, lack of shared understanding and commitment will always trump any other good work performed.

What to do about it…

SharePoint is a product that often requires adaptive change on the part of users. Learning the capabilities of the product is one thing – changing entrenched collaborative practice is another altogether. In case you haven’t noticed before, users tend not to be charmed by new, shiny features if they cannot see how it will make their jobs easier. (Nerdy knowledge workers like you and me easily get seduced by shiny things but our world view is seriously skewed compared to those who live on the coal face of organisations). Thus, the skills required to facilitate change and align various roles, require a different type of training course: one that integrates rather than compartmentalises. One that teaches how to synthesise the whole, rather than reductionise into the parts.

For such a course, no virtual machines are needed because there are no labs to demonstrate competence in some SharePoint component that will be out of date by SharePoint vNext. Instead, such a course needs to focus on the concepts, patterns and practices that are typically not seen in the IT practitioners toolkit (and for that matter, not seen in many complex mainstream IT/PM methodologies). The added bonus for such a course is that the skills and learning’s it provides are applicable beyond SharePoint and even beyond IT itself. While a typical SharePoint might give you mileage for the current version, a course like what I describe will give you tools that you can use anywhere, irrespective of the technology and project.

Does such a class exist? (Is that the longest post you have ever read to get to such a rhetorical question? Smile )

Of course it exists – I’ve been running it around the world for a couple of years now. It’s called the SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture Class (#SPGovIA) and it was a year in the making and comes with lots of goodies, such as a CD with a sample performance framework, governance plan, SharePoint ROI calculator (spreadsheet) and sample mind maps of Information Architecture. The class was originally designed for Microsoft New Zealand, on behalf of 3Grow for the Elite program that used to certify gold partners for serious SharePoint competence. Since then its been run in the UK, Netherlands, US, Australia and New Zealand. Next month I will run classes in Singapore and Hong Kong.

For my US readers, early next year I will be taking the course on the road, specifically Canada and the USA in Feb 2012. This course is not run often, because for me the US is a damn long way to travel and my time is tight these days! So I sincerely hope that if this sort of class sounds interesting to you, then you will consider being part of it. Michal Pisarek has already made an announcement for classes in Vancouver, and more details will be forthcoming for one or two US cities. I only have time for 2 classes in North America, so which city should it be?

For more detail on the class, head on over to www.spgovia.com. While there, click the Media link and watch the first half hour of the class. I look forward to seeing you there.

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Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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The facets of collaboration part 4–BPM vs. HPM

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Hi all and welcome to part four of my series on unpacking this buzzword phenomenon that is “collaboration”. Like it or not, Collaboration is a word that is very in-vogue right now. I see it being used all over the place, particularly as a by-product of the success of x2.0 tools and technologies. Yet if you do your research, most of the values being espoused actually hark back to the 1950’s and even earlier. (More on that topic in my forthcoming Beyond Best Practices book).

As it happens, Dilbert is quite a useful buzzword KPI. Once a buzzword graces a Scott Adams cartoon, you know that it has officially made it – as shown below:

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So back to business! Way back in the first article, I introduced you to Robot Barbie, a metaphor that represents all of those horrid SharePoint sites remind you of a cross-dressing Frankenstein’s monster. I had an early experience with a client who championed a particular vision for a SharePoint project, only to find little buy-in within the organisation for that vision. This, and a bunch of other things, got me interested in the softer areas of SharePoint governance, where no tried and tested best practices really exist. If they did and were so obvious, Microsoft would published them as its in their interest to do so.

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This all culminated in when I wrote a SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture training course last year. I read a lot of material where authors attempted to unpack what collaboration actually meant. My rationale for doing so would be to hopefully avoid creating SharePoint solutions that were Robot-Barbie Frankensteins. The model that I came up with is illustrated below:

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The basic model is covered in detail in part 2. But to recap here is the basic summary: This model identifies four major facets for collaborative work: Task, Trait, Social and Transactional.

  • Task: Because the outcome drives the members’ attention and participation
  • Trait: Because the interest drives the members’ attention and participation
  • Transactional: Because the process drives the members’ attention and participation
  • Social: Because the shared insight drives the members’ attention and participation

In the last post, I used the model to compare and contrast the use of particular SharePoint features, such as wikis, SharePoint lists and the different aspects of document collaboration. With regards to the latter of these three, I l looked at the effectiveness of certain SharePoint building blocks like content types and site columns within the different facets.

In this post and the next, we will use the facets in a different manner. We will take a quick tour through some common philosophical smackdowns that manifest in organisational life. These smackdowns emanate because of the different viewpoints that people with particular job titles and respective bodies of knowledge have.

Any suggestion that a philosophy might be wrong or incomplete often calls into question the self-identify of the practitioner, which causes much angst among adherents. For this reason, I will leave the “agile is great” vs. “agile sucks” debate for another time, because if you search the internet for criticisms of agile you tend see really passionate programmers get all riled up and flame the hell out of you.

Instead, I will start with a relatively easy one…

Business Process Management v.s. Human Process Management

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What does painting the Golden Gate Bridge and Business Process Management have in common? With both, you find that by the time you get to the end, you need to go back to the beginning again. I have personally seen organisations fill an office full of people and take literally years to define and then document key processes all in the name of various best practice frameworks or a regulatory requirement. They then find that, once a thick process manual is created, no-one actually follows it unless an auditor is watching or their performance-based remuneration is directly measured by adherence to it. Of course, I’m not the only one to notice this. In fact, the entire discipline of business process management has taken a bit of a battering in recent years.

If we consider a “process” as the means by which we convert inputs of some description into outputs, Business Process Management has long been the discipline that concerns itself with process optimisation. But in a pattern that is seen in all disciplines like Project Management and Business Analysis, someone will inevitably come along, tell you that you have it wrong or are not being “holistic” and invent a new term to account for your wrongness. In the case of BPM, we now have people arguing for various terms: such as Human Interaction Management, Human Centric Business Process Management, Non-Linear Business Process (thanks Sadie!) or Human Process Management. We will use the latter term, but they are essentially talking about the same thing.

So before we see an example Human Process Management (HPM), let’s review Business Process Management and see what the HPM fanboys are whining about.

Business Process Management

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BPM is a structured approach to analyse and continually improve and optimise process activities. Process structure and flow are modelled via diagrammatic tools, allowing organizations to abstract business process from technology infrastructure and organisational departmental/jurisdictional boundaries. This abstracted view allows business to holistically examine process and increase their efficiency and respond rapidly to changing circumstances. This in turn creates competitive advantage.

BPM is often used within the broader context of process improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma (which if you have never read about it, will finally prove to you that all that high-school mathematics that you found mind-numbingly boring was actually useful). While BPM on its own provides excellent visibility of process via modelling them, Six Sigma also incorporates additional analytical tools to solve difficult and complex process problems. Thus, BPM and Six Sigma augment each-other, because process improvement efforts can be more focused via BPM modelling. Thomas Gomez, in an article entitled “The Marriage of BPM and Six Sigma", had the following to say:

“Without BPM, Six Sigma may flounder because executives lack the critical data needed to focus their efforts. Instead, the executives bounce all over the place looking for performance weaknesses, or they focus on areas where successful performance improvements provide only marginal results. With BPM, Six Sigma projects can pinpoint problems and address the underlying causes.”

But that is where the fun ends according to the BPM critics. BPM nerds have had to suffer the indignation of hurtful labels like “Sick Sigma” and stories of long term problems with innovation because of such initiatives. They cite examples such as  George Buckley of 3M, who wound back many of his predecessor’s Six Sigma initiatives.

"Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process. You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s NOT how creativity works."

Ouch! Its enough to make a BPM feel all flustered and defensive of their craft. Nevertheless the above quote echoes the main points made by BPM critics. That many processes are not structured, predictable or logical and therefore, BPM approaches force a structured paradigm when none necessarily exists (Mind you, many other methodologies do precisely the same). In an appropriately titled article “The H-Bomb of Business Processes: Humans”, Ayal Steiner makes a point that also cuts to the heart of tame vs wicked problems debate too.

“The modern idea of BPM stresses a well-defined business process as the starting point but this is not always the case. Therefore, in a project that involves new practices or a cross-functional learning among participants, BPM has always had a tough time dealing with the humans.”

The notion of the well-defined starting or ending point is one of the characteristics of a tame problem. Wicked problems are often characterised by poorly defined staring and ending points. In fact with a wicked problem, often participants cannot agree on what the problem is in the first place!

Critics like Steiner also argue that many roles within an organisation, tend to deal with more tacit, dynamic situations and as such spend a large amount of their work time performing collaborative human work, when compared to transactional business process work (knowledge workers is the prevailing label for this type of role). While the main area of benefit for BPM’s is its ability to increase the efficiency of a core business process, the sort of thinking required to re-think processes in a systematic manner involves collaboration and systems thinking (in other words, beyond the process in front of us and how it interacts and interrelates more broadly since the whole of the broader system is greater than the sum of its parts). This is a human-driven activity as it is based on humans collaborating and innovating.

Closer to SharePoint home, Sadie Van Buren noted this same distinction in May 2010 which was around the same time I started the development of my IA class.

Human Process Management

So if BPM is incomplete, enter Human Process Management (HPM). HPM is concerned with process that is not easily defined, nor well structured, where it is hard to prescribe the execution of the process based on some model of the business. With human process, it is generally known how to achieve an intended result, but each case is handled separately and requires tacit judgment (for both decisions and flow) as part of the process. There is not enough standardization between instances of the process that allows for a formal, complete and rigorous description of the process end-to-end.

The obvious downside of human processes, say the critics, is that they are far too fluid and dynamic to be made part of an Enterprise BPM system. As a result, these processes tend to be handled through email, which in turn contributes to information overload and poor information worker productivity – precisely why we look to tools like SharePoint in the first place! The implication of HPM is that we need to shift emphasis to tools and practices that help us deal with unstructured or ad-hoc processes (and the information created/used during that process) more so than tools that deal with the well-defined world of BPM.

To be fair to the BPM crowd, these above criticisms will be seen by BPM practitioners as naive, since from their point of view, the less structured side is simply a part of the entire BPM spectrum. They argue that critics do not properly understand the principles and philosophy of BPM in the first place (Agile and PMBOK defenders say essentially the same thing when defending from critics). Supporting this counterargument is a key theme for BPM success that is regularly emphasised. That is, the critical pre-requisite of clarity of purpose and shared understanding of the end in mind. Mohamed Zairi, in a paper called “Business process management: a boundaryless approach to modern competitiveness” stated:

“The achievement of a BPM culture depends very much on the establishment of total alignment to corporate goals and having every employee’s efforts focused on adding value to the end customer.”

Therefore the BPM crowd are arguing for the same human process that HPM base their criticism on. Developing a culture of alignment to corporate goals is very much a human process. Are the HPM fanboy criticisms well founded or is it more a case that some BPM guys forget about strategic goal alignment and optimise process in isolation?

What do the facets say?

Clearly, there is a natural tension between these two polarities of BPM and HPM and this often plays out in organisational life in how we collaborate to deliver organisational outcomes. While there have always been process nazis, the emergence of social collaboration platforms that do not have a great deal of formal structure (think tagging and folksonomies) has led to a great deal of debate and self examination in BPM circles and beyond. Understanding these traits is critically important on the use of SharePoint tools, because SharePoint – and in particular SP2010 offers features for both BPM and HPM aficionados. Putting the two together however might risk Robot Barbie scenarios.

Straight away, it seems that the transactional vs. social axis of the facets of collaboration neatly explain the Business Process Management (BPM)/Human Process Management (HPM) challenge. Both areas are concerned with producing an output or getting something done. Therefore I have drawn BPM and HPM leaning toward the task side of the model. HPM proponents argue that human process is unstructured or semi-structured, dynamic, intertwined and borderless, which fits in well with the task/social trait of process and insight. BPM naturally fits into the lower transactional half where inputs are well defined.

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While I would agree with the assertion that many processes are ill-defined and rely on tacit knowledge to be completed, HPM proponents go further though. For example, Ayal Steiner who I quoted earlier, argues that “analysts are now realising that human processes account for 80% of the business processes carried out in most organisations”. That is a big call, in effect, arguing that the majority of workplace interactions occupy the social quadrants above. I disagree. From my experience, most organisational roles have extremely varying degrees of transactional vs. social collaboration and some roles are in fact dominated by transactional collaboration. Perhaps there is some confirmation bias going on here, where knowledge workers who put in collaborative systems tend to think that everyone are knowledge workers too.

Here is an example. Mrs CleverWorkarounds used to be a medical nurse. When I first showed her this model I asked her to describe where nurses would fit in terms of their collaboration. She indicated two areas.

  • Firstly, nurses are strongly linked by trait and transaction. This is because they all have a minimum degree of knowledge and skill. As stated in part 2, the key tell-tale sign of a role with transactional collaboration is how easily individuals performing that role can be replaced by someone else with similar experience at short notice. Supporting this, if a nurse is sick or unavailable, a replacement nurse can be called in to perform the same tasks.  Collaboration between nurses according to Mrs Cleverworkarounds is quite transactional as well. Routine and process consistency via tracking the status of patient care is a critical task – patient status is everything. Thus, data driven tools with version history and well defined inputs make this form of collaboration easier. In fact, Mrs CleverWorkarounds taught herself InfoPath and SPD Workflows because she was so convinced that automated forms with consistent audit trails via workflow would make her job easier.
  • Yet at the same time, the sort of collaboration between nurses and patients is completely different and highly social in nature. No process is going to govern the interaction between nurse and patient. The type of care and counselling to get someone well is going to vary the type of interaction. A broken leg is one thing, health problems from say – alcoholism is something else entirely. The latter has much deeper symptoms than just the illness as presented. Here the focus is on patient well-being and goes beyond status of meds, when doctors have visited or accurate handover notes from one nursing shift to another.

State machine workflows?

Interestingly, even seemingly well-defined business processes tend to have ad-hoc and dynamic aspects to them. When there is an exception to the standard process, those exceptions tend to be handled in a relatively ad-hoc, case-by-case manner. Microsoft developer Pravin Indurkar cited an example of a seemingly transactional purchase ordering system.

“Often the business processes contain a prescribed path to the end goal but then there are a lot of alternate ways the same goal can be achieved. For example, a purchase order can contain a prescribed path where the PO goes from being created, to approved, to shipped, and then to completed. But then there a multitude of other ways in which the PO can be completed. The PO can get changed, or back ordered or cancelled and then Reopened. All these paths must be accounted for.”

Indurkar studied the purchase order system of a small business and found that apart from the one standard traditional order fulfilment process, there were about 65 different variations on the same process depending on the nature of the order. This is when BPM diagrams start to get scary. If you think that this workflow below is scary, then be more scared. It is page 12 of a 136 page process!

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Naturally, trying to hardwire such a large number of alternate paths is very difficult and traditionally, there were two ways in which this was dealt with;

  • Either the business process was hard wired to accommodate all the paths as shown in figure 1, which made the implementation of the business process extremely complex, brittle and hard to maintain.
  • The alternate paths are simply not dealt with and any situation of the ordinary was dealt outside the domain of the process. This meant that tracking and visibility were lost because people would create manual systems to track such out of the ordinary situations. The facet diagram below illustrates this:

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In Indurkar’s article that I quoted with the purchase order example, he argued that the solution to this sort of problem was via state-based or state-machine workflows which SharePoint has supported in a basic fashion, out of the box since SP2007. This kind of workflow, if you are not aware, is when the workflow waits for one or more events to move it into another state. There is no sequence as such, because this new target state can be any of the defined states in the workflow. This makes state workflows reflect the unpredictable nature of process variations.

Thus, it could be argued that BPM is not incomplete as what the HPM fanboys think, but that critics have a less than holistic understanding of the craft?

Conclusion: A Process Analysis Tool…

To be honest, I don’t want to answer the question of which fanboy is right because it is a bit of a zero sum game. When you think about process, many seem to have elements of transactional and social in them (just like job roles). For example, an “Approval” decision diamond in a business process diagram will determine the path a process takes. Apart from stating the fact that this process is a gateway where a decision is made, this says nothing about whether the activity of making that decision is transactional or social. In some processes the decision may be made by a rigorous data driven process (like a point-score based credit check for a loan applicant). In others it may be on gut feel (such as choosing the right applicant for a job position).

So to me, whether you are the most regimented process nazi or the most cowboyish non-conformist hippie, modelling a business process according to its ratio of transactional to social facets is probably very useful indeed to complement a BPM model. It help us understand how much tacit judgement is required in a given process and whether modelling every variation in a sequential workflow is worthwhile. Check out some examples on how this could be done below. In first example on the left, a business process where the majority of the steps are performed by tacit judgement might look like something like how I have drawn, with a task based social dominance. If the process in question indeed looks like this, then attempting to document every minute variation on the paths the process can take might not be worthwhile. Perhaps documenting the broad process (within the constraints of any compliance regime requirements) might be a better idea. In the second example, the process seems to be oriented around a repeatable set of choices (task based transactional dominant). As a result it may be worthwhile formally documenting these variations.

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By combining these “process diagnostics” with the actual diagram, we might now offer additional insights into how the organisation really works with a certain process and do crazy stuff like produce something akin to my mockup below:

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Hell, throw in a RACI chart and now you start to see process accountabilities as well!

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Of course, you could always remove the task/trait axis if it is not needed and simply use a sliding scale. Nevertheless, what this shows is that the facets of collaboration model offers an extra dimension to any process being modelled and would help many to better understand the nature of the process being modelled, as well as strategies for improving that process via SharePoint.

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

p.s If you are a real trainspotter/glutton for punishment and want to dive deeper, google “Human Interaction Management” and “Role Activity Diagrams”

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