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.


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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Introduction to Dialogue Mapping class in Melbourne June 13-14

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Hi all

We have all felt the pain of a meeting or workshop where no-one is engaged, the conversation is being dominated by the loudest or everyone is mired in a tangle of complexity and there is no sense of progress. Not only is it incredibly frustrating for participants, but it is really inefficient in terms of time and effort, reduced collaboration and can lead to really poor project outcomes.

The big idea behind the technique of Dialogue Mapping is to address this problem. Dialogue Mapping is an approach where a project manager or business analyst acts as a facilitator while visually mapping the conversation of a group onto a projected display. This approach reduces repetition by acknowledging contributions, unpacks implicit assumptions and leads to much better alignment and understanding among a group.

For SharePoint projects, this is a must and I have been using the technique for years now. Other SharePoint luminaries like Michal Pisarek, Ruven Gotz and Andrew Woodward also use the approach, and Ruven even dedicated a chapter to Dialogue Mapping in his brilliant Information Architecture book.

In Melbourne, I am going to be running a 2 day Introduction to Dialogue Mapping class to teach this technique. There are only 10 places available and this is one of the few public classes I will be running this year. So if you are attending the Australian SharePoint conference, or live near Melbourne and deal with collaborative problem solving, stakeholder engagement or business analysis, this is a great opportunity to come and learn this excellent problem solving technique.

Hope to see you there!



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An Organisational Psychologist is keynoting a SharePoint conference? What the…

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Yup you heard right. I am particularly excited for the Melbourne SharePoint conference in June because I get to unleash “Dr Neil” onto the SharePoint world. Neil (who’s full name is Neil Preston) is an Organisational Psychologist who I have been working with for several years now in all sorts of novel and innovative projects. He’s not a SharePoint guy at  all – but that doesn’t matter for reasons that will soon become clear…

I spent January 2013 on holiday in New Zealand and caught up with Debbie Ireland in her home town of Tauranga. We talked about the state of SharePoint conferences around the world and mused about what we could do to raise the bar, particularly with the Melbourne SharePoint conference in June 2013. Both of us felt that over the last few years, the key SharePoint message of “It’s all about business outcomes” was now:

  1. well understood by the SharePoint community; and
  2. getting a little stale

So the challenge for Debbie and I – and for that matter, all of us in the SharePoint community – is how to go beyond the paradigm of “It’s not about SharePoint, it’s about the business”, and ask ourselves the new questions that might lead to new SharePoint powered innovations.

The theme that emerged from our conversation was collaboration. After all, one of the most common justifications for making an investment in SharePoint is improved collaboration within organisations. Of course, collaboration, like SharePoint itself, means different things to different people and is conflated in many different ways. So we thought that it is about time that we unpacked this phenomena of collaboration that everyone seeks but can’t define. This led to a conversation about what a SharePoint conference would look like if it had the theme of collaboration at its core. Who would ideal to speak at it and what should the topics be?

As Debbie and I started to think more about this theme, I realised that there was one person who absolutely had to speak at this event. Dr Neil Preston. Neil is a world expert on collaboration, and his many insights that have had a huge influence on me personally and shaped my approach to SharePoint delivery. If you like what you read on this blog, or in my book, then chances are that those ideas came from conversations with Neil.

Debbie then suggested that we get Neil to keynote the conference to which he graciously accepted. So I am absolutely stoked that attendees of the Melbourne SharePoint conference will have the opportunity to learn from Neil. I can guarantee you that no SharePoint conference in the world has ever had a keynote speaker with his particular set of skills. Thus, I urge anyone with more than a passing interest in developing a more collaborative culture in their organisations should come to the conference to learn from him.

Then, in one of those serendipitous moments, a few weeks later I was in the US and met an amazing schoolteacher named Louis Zulli Jnr who presented a case study on how he enabled 16-19 year old students to develop SharePoint solutions that would be the envy of many consultancies. As I listened to him speak, I realised that he was the living embodiment of the collaborative maturity stuff that Neil Preston preaches and I asked Debbie about bringing him to Melbourne to speak as well.

So there you have it. On June 11, you get to hear from one of the most brilliant people I have ever met who’s understanding of collaboration and collaborative maturity is second to none. You also get to hear an inspiring case study of what how the incredible potential of enthusiastic and engaged students can enable SharePoint to do amazing things.

That is not all either – we have Craig Brown (of and LAST conference fame) introducing Innovation Games and we also have John Denegate from collaborative governance specialists Twyfords, speaking on the curse of the expert.

So don’t miss this event – I think it will be amazing. In the next blog post I will write about the 2 day post-conference workshops


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

SPC MEL 2013 Im speaking        SPC MEL 2013 connect with us

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Powerful questions part 2: The key focus area question

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I just recorded the second video on the topic of powerful questions. These powerful questions are the result of the years I’ve spent dialogue mapping many different groups of people on many different problems. As time has gone on, I’ve learnt a lot about collaborative problem solving, and concluded that some questions tend to lead to breakthrough more than others.

In the previous video, I introduced you to the platitude buster question. This time around, I have recorded a video on one of the best questions you can ask in any form of strategy development meeting – the key focus area question. For all you SharePoint types, I always use this question during SharePoint governance planning and when drawing up a project charter, but it is equally effective when working with an executive team who are working out their short and long term strategies.

Like the previous post, I suggest you watch this video in full screen. Enjoy!

How to eke out key focus areas from a discussion

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee


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Powerful questions part 1: The platitude buster question

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Hi all

I’ve been a little busy lately so haven’t had sufficient time to write many articles. This will likely continue for a while as I’m also planning the next heretical book with Kailash.

But the other day on a whim, I decided to record a short video on the topic of powerful questions. As I do more and more facilitation, strategic planning and team development work, I am constantly learning about the patterns of group conversation. This has helped me develop insights into the sort of questions that have the potential to cut through complexity to achieve breakthroughs in complex situations. I call these questions “powerful” for that reason.

It should be noted that a powerful question is not necessarily the question itself, but sometimes the the way a question is asked. To that end, in this first video, I take you through the best way I know to cut through organisational platitudes. Platitudes are phrases that often sound impressive and authoritative, ultimately hide the fact that there is not a lot of substance underneath them. While its easy to cite a blatant example like “best practice organisational excellence,” most of the time platitudes are used unconsciously and in much more subtle and dangerous ways. In fact often people ask questions or conduct workshops in such a way that actually encourage platitude answers.

So how do I bust or disarm a platitude? Watch this video to find out! Smile

How to disarm a platitude with one question…

Now I plan to do a few of these videos, with each building on the last with a new powerful question. Also, I will utilise Compendium and Dialogue Mapping techniques, so you also get a better idea of the sort of non SharePoint work that myself and my colleagues get to perform. So please let me know what you think of the clip. (oh – before I forget, I strongly suggest you watch the video in full screen)

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee


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Share Conference April 2013 in Atlanta: Why you should go…

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Hi there…

In a couple of weeks from now, I will be heading to the US for the only time this year – to participate in the Share conference in Atlanta. This will be my first US SharePoint conference since early 2011 and I’ll be delivering one of the keynote talks as well as a 1 day workshop.


The Share conference is always a great event, for both its focus (business users and key decision makers) and its execution (via the highly experienced eventful group). There is always a great line-up of speakers and this year, the key topic areas include user adoption, governance, envisioning and developing roadmaps, business process automation, information architecture, training, change management and upgrade planning.

My keynote is on Friday morning and is called SharePoint Governance Home Truths. The synopsis for the talk is:

You might think that after a decade of SharePoint deployments there would be a yellow brick road of best practices that we could follow that would lead to success. Yet for many organizations, SharePoint governance does not exist, or is enshrined in 100-page monster manuals that weigh as much as a door stop, and that no-one will ever read, let alone understand.

While we persist in methods that deliver sub-optimal results, we will continue to deliver those results! You can have all the documentation and process in the world, but will your users adopt your solution? If Information Architecture for SharePoint was as easy as putting together SharePoint building blocks the right way, then why doesn’t Microsoft publish the obvious best practices? Why is success so difficult to achieve, even if your system is rock-solid, stable, well-documented, and processes-defined?

The secret sauce to a successful SharePoint project is an area that governance documentation barely touches. In fact, documentation is rarely the answer, because SharePoint projects typically have certain characteristics that are different than most other IT projects. Therefore, to understand SharePoint governance, one has to understand the nature of the problems SharePoint is deployed to solve, why traditional delivery approaches often fail, and what to do about it.


  • The top five reasons SharePoint governance efforts fail
  • The reality of how we actually solve new or novel problems
  • The one best practice you need before you consider any other SharePoint best practice

I am also really excited to be able to facilitate a pre conference workshop called Aligning SharePoint to Business Goals: Don’t Just Say It, Do It!. I have had a lot of requests to bring more classes to the US, but living in far flung Australia, makes this difficult. So this is your one chance to participate in one of my workshops in the US this year. The synopsis for this workshop is:

It is common to hear consultants wax lyrical about how we have to align SharePoint to business goals. While this and other popular cliches like ‘obtain executive support or ‘obtain user buy-in’ are easy to say, in practice they are much harder to do. After all, if this was not the case, then business goal alignment would not be near the top of the list of SharePoint challenges.

In this workshop, Paul will offer practical guidance, tools, and methods for taming this complex problem. This in-depth workshop will build upon the presentation on ‘SharePoint Governance Home Truths’ and provide a deeper, more detailed focus. Paul will demonstrate how to guarantee that all aspects of SharePoint delivery clearly align to organizational aspirations, ensuring all stakeholder needs are considered and at the same time, creating the understanding and commitment via an inclusive, collaborative approach.

  • Why SharePoint belongs to a class of problems that are inherently hard to solve 
  • Why aligning organizational goals is hard 
  • What to do when organizational goals are unclear 
  • How to avoid chasing platitudes 
  • Tapping into the wisdom of crowds 
  • Structuring and running a great goal alignment workshop 
  • Creating a walking deck 
  • Building on foundations – next steps

Now if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, then how about a discount! If you register for the conference online and use discount code DELEGATE10 to save $300!

Hope to see you there…


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Interested in learning the craft of Dialogue Mapping in Auckland?

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Hi all

I have spent a bit of time in New Zealand over the last few years, met a lot of really interesting people and frequently get asked about conducting a Dialogue Mapping training workshop over there. I’m really happy to announce that this is finally going to happen in Auckland on May 30th. It should be a really interesting session with a mix of SharePoint people, community development practitioners and organisation development consultants.

Just to be clear, this is not a SharePoint class. I am teaching the techniques of Issue Mapping, the core technique that enables you to become a great Dialogue Mapper. The class is very activity driven and helps you acquire a hugely valuable life skill that not only equips you with a great technique for tasks like business analysis and requirements elicitation, but also allows you to get involved with more complex problem solving scenarios like strategic planning. If you enjoyed my book, the Heretics Guide to Best Practices, this course teaches you the same techniques outline there.

To sign up for the class, head on over to eventbrite. For a full breakdown of the class structure then check out the class brochure.

The workshop will be held at the following venue:

Quality Hotel Parnell
20 Gladstone Rd
Parnell, Parnell 1052
New Zealand
Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 8:30 AM – Friday, May 31, 2013 at 5:00 PM (NZST)

If you would like to see and hear more about Dialogue Mapping, then take a look at these two video’s hot off the press by In the first video I speak about Dialogue mapping in general and the second is a very apt demonstration of the approach given that the next class is in New Zealand Smile

Experiences of a practicing Dialogue Mapper
Lord of the rings IBIS style

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee


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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.


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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Save the date in October: SharePoint Governance and Dialogue Mapping in the UK

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Hi all

Just to let you know that in October, I will be in the UK to run a SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture class with Andrew Woodward. Additionally, I am very pleased to offer a Dialogue Mapping introductory course for the first time in the UK as well. Work has been extremely busy this year and this is my only UK/Europe trip in the next 9-12 months. In short, this is likely to be a once-off opportunity as I travel less and less these days.

Introductory Dialogue Mapping October 17-18, 2012

  • Venue: The Custard Factory, Birmingham, UK
  • Cost: £995

Eventbrite - UK: Solving Complex Problems with Issue Mapping

The introductory Dialogue mapping class will arm you with a life skill that can be used in many different situations and has changed my career. If you have been following my “confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect” series, a lot of the content is based on my experiences of Dialogue Mapping many different projects in many different industries. Dialogue Mapping is a novel, powerful and inclusive method to elicit requirements, capture knowledge and develop shared understanding in complex projects, such as SharePoint or broader strategic planning. It was pioneered by CogNexus Institue in California, and is used by NASA, the World Bank and United Nations.

My book, “The Heretics Guide to Best Practices” is based on my Dialogue Mapping work and if you liked the book, then I know you will love the course!

What does a map look like? Check out my map of the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard or my synthesis on problems with intranet search below…

image  image

I should stress that this is not a SharePoint course. If you are an organisational development practitioner, facilitator, reformed project manager, all-round agitator or are simply interested in helping groups make sense of complex situations, then you would find this class to be highly valuable in your personal arsenal of tools and techniques. When performed live during a facilitated session, it is a highly efficient and engaging experience for participants.

Please note that seats are limited in this class and it cannot be more than  10.

  • Date: October 17-18, 2012
  • Venue: The Custard Factory, Birmingham, UK
  • Cost: £995

Eventbrite - UK: Solving Complex Problems with Issue Mapping

Aligning SharePoint Governance & Information Architecture to Business Goals October 15-16 2012

  • Venue: The Custard Factory, Birmingham, UK
  • Cost: £995
  • Limited seats available: 12

Eventbrite - #SPGov+IA Aligning SharePoint Governance & Information Architecture to Business Goals with Paul Culmsee

Previous Master Class Feedback:

  • "This course has been the most insightful two days of my SharePoint career"
  • "…Was the best targetted and jargon free course I’ve ever been on"
  • "Re-doing my draft SharePoint Governance. Moving away from blah, blah technical stuff"
  • "Easily one of the best courses I’ve been to and has left me wanting more!"
  • "Had a great couple of days at #SPIAUK loving IBIS"
  • "The content covered was about the things technically focussed peeps miss.."

Most people understand that deploying SharePoint is much more than getting it installed. Despite this, current SharePoint governance documentation abounds in service delivery aspects. However, just because your system is rock solid, stable, well documented and governed through good process, there is absolutely no guarantee of success. Similarly, if Information Architecture for SharePoint was as easy as putting together lists, libraries and metadata the right way, then why doesn’t Microsoft publish the obvious best practices?

In fact, the secret to a successful SharePoint project is an area that the governance documentation barely touches.

This master class pinpoints the critical success factors for SharePoint governance and Information Architecture and rectifies this blind spot. Based upon content provided by Paul Culmsee (Seven Sigma) which takes an ironic and subversive take on how SharePoint governance really works within organisations, while presenting a model and the tools necessary to get it right.

Drawing on inspiration from many diverse sources, disciplines and case studies, Paul Culmsee has distilled in this Master Class the “what” and “how” of governance down to a simple and accessible, yet rigorous and comprehensive set of tools and methods, that organisations large and small can utilise to achieve the level of commitment required to see SharePoint become successful.

Seven Sigma, together with 21apps, are bringing the the acclaimed SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture Master class back to the UK, October 2012.

  • Date: October 15-16, 2012
  • Venue: The Custard Factory, Birmingham, UK
  • Cost: £995
  • Limited seats available: 12

Eventbrite - #SPGov+IA Aligning SharePoint Governance & Information Architecture to Business Goals with Paul Culmsee


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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Confessions of a (post) SharePoint Architect: Don’t define “governance”

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series confessions
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Hi all and welcome to the second post of a series that I have been wanting to write for a while. In this series, I am going to cover some of the lesser considered areas of being a SharePoint architect and by association, key aspects to SharePoint governance. In the first confessional post I alluded to the fact that a good SharePoint architect also need to architect the right conditions for SharePoint success. As I work through this series of articles, I will elaborate further on what those conditions are and how to go about creating them.

To do this, I am drawing from my non IT work as a Dialogue Mapper and facilitator, and where applicable, will cover these case studies to see if they give us any insights for SharePoint. I also hope to dispel some common myths and misconceptions about SharePoint project delivery in organisations. Some of these might challenge some notions you hold dear. But for the most part, I hope that many of you reading this find this material to be instinctively compatible with what you have already come to believe. If you are in the latter group and feel as if you are an organisational agitator, this just might give you that rigour and ammo that you need when getting through to the powers that be. Better still, tell them to read this series and let them decide for themselves.

Backstory: Ackoff and f-Laws


For what it’s worth, a fair chunk of this material comes from my book, as well as the first module of my SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture class that I run a few times a year in various places around the world. When I designed that class, I was inspired by Russell Ackoff, who co-wrote a funny and highly readable book called “Management f-LAWS: How organisations really work”. F-Laws were defined as:

“truths about organisations that we might wish to deny or ignore – simple and more reliable guides to everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists, sociologists, politicians and philosophers”

In case you hadn’t noticed, if you remove the hyphen, each f-law become a flaw. You could also consider them as #fail laws. Years ago, I laughed and at the same time, inwardly cringed when I read each f-Law that Ackoff and his co-authors had come up with. I came to realise that SharePoint problems are simply a microcosm of broader issues that plague organisations. If you read Ackoff’s book (and I highly recommend it), you will soon realise that the word “Management” could easily be substituted with “SharePoint” and it doesn’t take much to come up with a few of your own f-laws. This is exactly what I did and at last count, I have 17 of them. In this post, I will detail the very first one.

F-Law 1: The more comprehensive the definition of governance is, the less it will be understood by all

The first condition that I need to design as a SharePoint architect is to put to bed the many misconceptions about SharePoint governance. In this f-Law, I state that the more you try and define what SharePoint governance is, the less anybody will actually understand it. If you consider this counter-intuitive, then let me take it even further. For any project that has a change management aspect (SharePoint projects often are), definitonising not only doesn’t work, but it is actually quite dangerous to your projects health.

To explain why I have come to this conclusion, I’d like to tell you a little story from my non IT work. Several years ago, I was working in a sensemaking capacity with an organisation to help them come up with a strategic plan and performance framework for a new city. This was not a trivial undertaking. The aim was to create a framework with an aligned set of KPI’s to realise the vision for what the city needed to be in the year 2030. While the vision for the city had been previously agreed and understood, the path to realise that vision had not been.

Now if you have ever been involved in strategic plan development, and think that working out your corporate strategy is difficult, I have news for you. Aligning an organisation to a 3 year plan is one thing. Working with a diverse group to determine performance measures of a future city 25 years away is a different thing altogether. I never realised at the time we did this work, just how unique and (dare I say) “cutting edge” it was. Participants were highly varied in skills and areas of interest, and to say each had their own world-view was an… understatement to say the least.

I my book I describe this case study in detail but for the sake of post size, let’s just say that the opportunity to do this work arose from a failed first attempt to create the framework. The first time around an excel spreadsheet was projected onto the wall that looked like the example below. Attempts were made in vain to fill in the strategic outcomes, strategic objectives, key result areas, key performance indicators and measures. After a frustrating few hours of trying this approach, we gave up because participants spent all of their time arguing over the labels and got bogged down in a tangle of definitions and ambiguous terminology. Was it a KPI (Key Performance Indicator) or a KRA (Key Result Area)? Was it a Guiding Principle or a Strategic Objective? Was it a KRA or a Critical Success Factor?  Attempts to resolve this issue with definitions got nowhere because even the definitions could not be agreed upon.


In the end, we solved this issue via a rather novel use of Dialogue Mapping along with a problem structuring approach outlined in a book called Breakthrough Thinking. If you’d like to know more on how it was done, then take a look in chapter 12 of the Heretics Guide.

The criticality of context…

The core problem boiled down to context – or lack of it. What I learnt from this is that in situations without a shared context (and the wrong tools to deal with it), we fall back to using definitions to try and fill the gap. When faced with a blank spreadsheet and just some labels, participants attention was fixated on the definitions of the labels, rather than the empty cells where the focus needed to be. This resulted in a bunch of long winded discussions about what terms meant. This seriously stymied efforts aimed at making progress.

I have since performed many workshops, both SharePoint and non SharePoint ones and the pattern is clear. In fact I contend that if you proceed down the road of trying to build context via definitions for complex problems, one of three things will happen.

  1. The definition becomes more verbose. There are a couple of reasons for this:
    • – The definition is expanded to incorporate new aspects of the topic space. In an organisational setting, this creates confusion because the definitions of multiple disciplines can often seemingly contradict each other and thus, careful “wordsmithing” is required to navigate a path through it.
    • – New qualifications or exceptional situations have to be excluded. This leads to more new terms being used in the definition.
  2. As a result of #1, a broader, fundamental definition is developed. This broader definition encompasses more and so is prone to motherly sounding platitudes. Further, such definitions also run the risk of being interpreted in ways other than the one intended by those who worked so hard on the definition.
  3. As a result of #1 and #2, a new word is used or an existing word is used in a new context to try and convey the new meanings or concepts proposed. I have heard governance described as “stewardship”, “risk management” and (guilty as charged), “assurance”.

The effect of this can be far reaching in a bad way because definitionising has a habit of blinding people to what really matters. This leads to terrible project decisions being made up front that have serious consequences. To understand why, consider the image below:


This image represents how governance of a SharePoint project should be viewed. A SharePoint initiative takes time and effort which costs money. We presumably have recognised that the present state is lacking in some way and want to get to somewhere better – an aspirational future place (if you look closely in the left above image note the happy and sad smilies). Accordingly we accept the cost of deploying SharePoint because we believe it will make a positive difference by doing so. If this was not the case, you would be wasting your time and resources on a pointless initiative. Therefore, it is the difference made by the initiative that will tell you if you have succeeded or not. As a result, we have to have a shared context on what that aspirational future looks like!

Don’t confuse the means with the ends…

Governance is, therefore, the means by which you will achieve the end of getting to some better place. It is informed by the end in mind and this is why I drew it in the star in the middle of the above diagram. For example; If the end in mind was compliance, then I will govern SharePoint a heck of a lot differently than say, if the end in mind was improving collaborative decision making.

But consider the diagram below. In this context, it should be clear why working from a definition of governance is often problematic. It implies that:

  1. Governance is not being informed by the end in mind;
  2. Your team do not have a shared understanding of what the end in mind actually looks like.

When this happens, project teams rarely realize it and respond by substituting the end with the means. We overly focus on governance via definition without any clarity or context as to what the aspirational future state actually is. Like the example of the blank spreadsheet example I started with, reality starts to look more like the diagram below: (note the happy smilie is gone now)



So how do we steer out of this definition pickle? Interestingly “steer” is a appropriate choice of word if we look at the origin of the word “Govern”. This is because “Govern” is a nautical term from Latin and actually means “to steer”. So if your SharePoint project has been more like the Titanic, and hit a giant iceberg along the way, then clearly you need to focus your governance efforts to looking at what is in front of you, rather than scrubbing the deck or keeping the engine room well oiled. The latter tasks are important of course, but you can do all that, still hit an iceberg and waste a lot of money.

To steer, we all have to understand what the destination is, or at the very least, all agree on the direction. To help you with that journey, consider my final diagram. To steer SharePoint the right way for your organisation requires you to answer four key questions:

  1. What is the aspirational future state and what does it look like?
  2. Why is this the aspirational future state we want?
  3. Who will do what to get us to that state?
  4. How will we get to that state?


The fundamental problem with most SharePoint projects is that questions 1 and 2 are not answered sufficiently, if at all. The next few posts will explore why this is the case, but in the meantime, remember that we could do a SharePoint project that is to scope, time and cost, yet still have no user up-take if we are solving the wrong problem in the first place. Therefore remember that:

  1. Governance is a means to an end, and not the end in itself.
  2. We shouldn’t undertake a “SharePoint governance” project, or consider “SharePoint governance” as deliverable on a project plan. The act of developing a shared context of what the problems are and using that to always steer the governance decision making is paramount. Failure to do this and and your best plans will not save you.

Conclusions and coming next…

This is the second post on what will be a large series – possibly the largest series I have written so far. In the next post in this series, I will continue into our journey of SharePoint governance mistakes and along the way, start to identify what we can do to better answer the “What”, “Why”, “Who” and “How” questions. If you enjoy this series, then consider signing up to one of my classes if one is running in your neck of the woods.


Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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