Any book bringing together such diverse names and concepts as Daniel Kahneman, Jon Whitty, Richard Dawkins, Bent Flyvbjerg, Umpa Lumpas and the Borg, is sure to attract my attention. Kailash Awati and Paul Culmsee don’t need much introduction. Both are authors of two of my favorite blogs, eight2late and CleverWorkarounds respectively. So when these two intelligent minds decide to write a book one can expect to find an engaging and stimulating discussion.
Their new book “The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organizations” (affiliate link) is a brave and refreshing attempt at ‘shaking the foundations’ and getting people to examine the way they communicate and how they use that communication to make decisions, while attending to complex problems.
The problem this book attempts to address is as follows:
- Organizations are made up of people
- Successful operation of the organization is heavily dependent on these people communicating effectively with each other
- The purpose of communication is to elicit mutual commitment from all parties to that communication
- People will only commit to something, they are convinced, is good not only to the organization but also to them
- The obvious conclusion of the above is, therefore, that genuine commitment can only be achieved by successful communication
- The question then is whether traditional modes of communication are suitable for achieving such commitment?
- And the obvious answer is ‘NO’, as can be seen from own individual experience where self-interests and politics, exacerbated by known interpretive biases, result on conflicts and disagreements.
One of the key metaphors used by the authors to make their point is that of the wooden labyrinth board. The challenge presented in this game is to navigate a marble through a maze while avoiding the holes. This, the authors say, is similar to the way we, individually, react to our daily challenges. We each stand on our own individual board and, as events present themselves to us, we take corrective or mitigative actions to ensure our own board is kept at a relative equilibrium. The picture gets more complicated when taking into account the fact that our individual board is surrounded by many other boards, and as they tilt and sway, we – like all others around us – re-adjust our position in order to keep the over balance intact.
The beauty of this analogy is in the ability of the reader to mentally visualize the constant balancing act taken by each and every member of our respective organizations – a beautiful synchronized dance – orchestrated by our built-in desire to maintain stability and reduce on-going stress, resulting nevertheless in individual and organizational conflicts and disagreements.
The authors go to a great length to demonstrate impartiality in exploring, analyzing and then dismissing all main stream methods for aligning individual and organizational objectives. To their credit, they have taken the scientific approach for presenting and then challenging conventional wisdom. Given that the book takes the reader on a journey towards a recommended approach, it can be understood why the authors go through a painstakingly elaborate discussion, aimed at clearly and unequivocally highlighting the deficiencies in main stream modes of communication.
The core solution proposed by the book is the use of a method called Issue Mapping, based on a notation called Issue-Based Information System (IBIS). This method consists of three main elements:
- Issues (or questions)
- Position (or ideas)
- Arguments (pros and cons).
The beauty of IBIS is that, if used correctly, it is able to map a conversation, while using a limited number of notations and without relying on or requiring any level of abstraction.
The book makes a compelling case for the adoption of this method and brings extensive case studies to demonstrate how it results in constructive and unambiguous dialogues. To ease the pain of introducing this discipline, the book provides some tips of how this can be introduced. Nevertheless, from my own experimentation, becoming a fully fledged dialogue mapper requires practicing and confidence use will be a result of practice.
Even if reading this book results in taking no further action, it is an excellent consciousness raiser as it takes you on a journey through some well accepted idioms and demonstrates how what we take for granted as being correct requires a second serious look.
Think about it!