Dedicated to Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems

Executive Summary for Dialogue Mapping
People in organizations meet to share information, explore and solve problems, and make decisions. Most of these gatherings fail to deliver the intended results of excitement, understanding, or commitment. Often they are boring. Even worse, they can be contentious and divisive. This book offers a simple technique for boosting collective intelligence in such sessions, making them more effective in creating the social results that the conveners need to produce.

Nowhere is the failure to collaborate more apparent, nor more expensive, than in organizational projects. In the Internet age many projects are riddled with technical complexity, and this technology base is changing faster than ever before. In the knowledge economy, virtually all work takes place in project teams … collaborative excellence is at a premium. But the biggest challenges of the current epoch are “wicked” problems and unprecedented social complexity.  

Wicked problems, also referred to as ill-structured, messy, or unsolvable, are more than just highly complex - a wicked problem defies linear problem solving approaches because every attempted solution causes the problem statement to be reformulated. Social complexity means there are more stakeholders, and more diversity of goals, values, and knowledge among those stakeholders.

Wicked problems and social complexity are features of the terrain that make for very tough going for projects. Indeed, over half of all high-tech projects fail. To be successful project teams must have “ownership” - shared understanding about the problem and shared commitment to a solution. Currently, the only way to create shared understanding is to have a meeting. If that meeting doesn't work - if it doesn't create shared understanding - then you need have more meetings, perhaps with different participants, or more participants, or fewer, and so on … the endless meetings syndrome. What is missing now are practical ways to efficiently create shared understanding and shared commitment in the face of extreme technical and social complexity, in the face of wicked problems.

Meetings are essential - meetings provide the gears and linkages that make a project team work. But most project meetings don't work. When the problem is wicked, just talking to each other isn't enough - it's time to have a shared display for collaborative thinking and group memory. When the social dimension is complex and changing, the critical scarce resource is listening - stakeholders need support to really listen to and understand each other.

Research in the last three decades, based on the ground-breaking work of Horst Rittel, has led to a simple, practical facilitation approach which radically increases the quality of team communication, the level of shared understanding and shared commitment, and creates a durable group memory. This new approach gets away from techniques like team-building workshops and communication training. Project teams don't need more knowledge about communication. Knowledge workers don't need to change their behavior to collaborate effectively. What is needed - what is sorely lacking - is a practical and robust approach for creating shared understanding.

Dialogue Mapping allows the intelligence and learning of the group to emerge organically. Instead of agendas and control, the group's energy is reflected and channeled in a self-correcting way by each person's ability to see, in the structure of the Dialogue Map, how their own comments contribute to the coherence and order of the group's thinking. Dialogue Mapping reflects a new paradigm of facilitation and collaboration.

Knowledge organizations and project teams understand the dangers of taking on a wicked problem. There is a natural human tendency to circle the problem, peering from a distance for a way through that avoids the wickedness and complexity. Dialog Mapping provides a simple and effective way to charge into solution territory without getting lost in personalities and details.

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems introduces this well-tested approach to projects and meetings based on the notion that what needs to change is not the participants but the “container” in which they collaborate. Project teams need a new kind of collaborative literacy: a language for complex issues in a diverse social network, and facilitation techniques that anyone can learn.

This book combines theory and practice. It provides a conceptual framework that will change the way readers view projects and project management. Once you understand what a “wicked problem” is and how it works, you will understand why so many projects fail or are vastly late and over budget. Once you know about “opportunity-driven problem solving,” you will understand why there appears to be so much chaos in modern projects, and why meetings are the scourge of organizational life.

On the practical side, this book offers a tutorial on Dialog Mapping, a facilitative technique that uses a shared display and a simple language to craft shared understanding in project teams. There are two keys to the power of Dialog Mapping. “Collaborative Display” gives a group a simple but effective way of seeing the same Big Picture and creating succinct group memory.  Issue Based Information System (IBIS) is a simple linguistic tool that is immensely powerful in exposing the deep structure of highly complex and contentious conversations. The book teaches these two key skills, and provides numerous stories, examples, and exercises that illustrate how to combine them to master the art of creating shared understanding.

This book is intended for people who run projects: managers, project leaders, executives, consultants, and facilitators. It is also for anyone who is in a lot of meetings. It is engaging, provocative, and informative. Readers will gain new clarity about complex or conflict-ridden meetings - almost like having X-ray vision to see into the deep structure of complex issues. Readers will gain a new power to help groups navigate the shoals of wicked and complex problems. Many readers will find that these skills apply as powerfully in their personal lives, such as family discussions about what new home to buy or what career move to make, as they do to deciding on corporate policy or the features for a new product.

Organizational work has entered a new era. The Internet has torn down societal and organizational barriers and turned up the clock. The knowledge economy is turning businesses into democracies and government agencies into businesses. The world revolves around the project team. The “right” decision is the one that has the broadest and deepest ownership. Project success depends on the team's ability to make sense of conflicting points of view, to craft broad and deep ownership, and to manage disorganized chunks of knowledge. This book offers a new approach and a critical skill in this new environment.

Table of Contents
(These chapters available for immediate download as separate papers.)

2. Creating Shared Understanding
4. The Fundamentals of IBIS
5. The DM Listening Cycle
6. Question Types
7. Three Moves of Discourse
8. The Limits of Dialog Mapping
9. Decision Making
Appendix: Resources

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