Q: Can argument mapping be used in strategic planning?
A: Of course! – because strategic planning involves complex arguments, and argument mapping can help whenever you have to deal with complex arguments.
However to move beyond that sort of trite proclamation, it is useful to have concrete examples of how argument mapping can enhance a strategic planning process.
Austhink recently providing mapping expertise for a major Australian organisation developing its strategic outlook for a nominated date of 2030. In order to do detailed planning, leading to major decisions such as investing many billions of dollars in human resources and equipment, it had to first develop a conception of what its “operating environment” would be in 2030 and how the organisation would be able to achieve competitive advantage in that environment. The team developing this conception had drafted a document laying it out, including seven hypotheses as to how the organisation would be able to achieve advantage, with arguments to support the hypotheses. Necessarily these hypotheses and arguments were quite abstract, intended as they were to cover a wide range of scenarios.
Parenthetically, it is worth emphasizing how difficult this task is. We all know how rapidly the world is changing in all sort of respects (technology, geopolitics, climate etc.), and how unpredictable that change is. The more you try to say anything reasonably definite and useful about the 2030s, the more they appear to be hidden in a dense fog of uncertainty. Yet this organisation – like so many others – can’t just throw up its hands. It has to make conceptual and predictive commitments with very high stakes, for the organisation itself and indeed far beyond it.
Having developed a draft strategic conception, the organisation is now putting it through a fairly elaborate process of “stress testing”. This raises the question – how do you “put to the test” sets of arguments relating to highly abstract and intrinsically speculative propositions? Their idea, in essence,was to
- Articulate the arguments with as much clarity and rigor as possible
- With the help of a broad selection of domain experts, in a series of workshops, identify strengths and weaknesses, including
– Gaps – places where key arguments are missing, or more substantiation is needed;
– Assumptions – especially “hidden” assumptions, i.e. ones you haven’t realized you’ve been making;
– Objections and challenges
- Use the findings to guide further development of the thinking
Developing good-quality argument maps in complex, murky territory is a challenging business. It involves getting sufficient clarity about what the issues are, and what arguments you have, and how they “hang together,” to be able to represent those issues and arguments in diagrams following the rules of argument mapping – which are really just fundamental principles of good logical thinking. It is inevitably an iterative process, with each draft resolving some matters but opening others for exploration.
In what follows, I’ll briefly recap this iterative process for just one of the seven argument maps we developed. (Sorry that the illustrations are unreadable – this is deliberate to preserve confidentiality.)
As is typically the case, the arguments as we first encountered them were presented in standard prose:
I’ve discussed elsewhere how difficult it is to identify complex arguments in standard prose presentations, even when those arguments have been developed and written out by the sharpest of legal minds. In this case we were unsurprised to encounter the usual sorts of problems:
- Arguments pertaining to a particular hypothesis were scattered in various places around the document and interspersed with other not-directly-related material.
- The arguments were difficult to pin down, often because they were largely implicit.
- The arguments were easy to misunderstand, if indeed one didn’t miss them altogether.
- Consequently it was difficult to evaluate the arguments (i.e., judge with any confidence how effectively they supported the hypothesis).
In the first workshop with domain experts, we used real-time facilitated argument mapping with bCisive in an attempt to pin down and elaborate the main arguments, resulting in:
Many useful ideas had come out, but as you can see from the wide flat layout, were still struggling to find an appropriate overall structure. At this stage the map is poorly organised and missing a lot, but at least we could see more clearly what we had and how one thing supposedly relates to another.
We took the maps from the first workshop away and did some reworking, relying mostly on our generic argument mapping expertise (and only a little on commonsense and general knowledge of the domain). What emerged was a basic structure with more coherence, simplicity, and even elegance:
The overall structure is starting to emerge. Now we can distinguish between the higher level (more general, abstract) arguments and their lower-level supporting arguments. This “macro” is the structural “coat hanger” on which the rest can hang. This basic structure was now stable through the remaining iterations.
Aside: this was consistent with what I think of as one of the more profound insights I’ve derived from my years of experience with argument mapping: that complex arguments have a “true” form, a form which is (a) determined by the fundamental principles of good thinking meshing with the underlying reality of the issues, and (b) which uncoverable by patient reworking of the argument under the “rules” or guidelines of argument mapping.
During second workshop, a small number of valuable additions were made to the map:
But more importantly, participants used a “grouputer” system to jot down lots of additional ideas, which we took away and sorted and integrated into another reworked version of the map:
What we can now see emerging is a richer and more articulated sense of the case bearing on the hypothesis. We can clearly see both major lines of supporting argument. We know which claims have been supported and which have not. We can see key objections or warnings (little red blobs in the graphic above). We can see numerous places where unstated assumptions are lurking.
A map like this positions us well to make a provisional judgement as to how well the hypothesis (the main contention in the map) is supported. It also helps one see the numerous things one could do to further elaborate the thinking and develop greater confidence in that judgement. From the standpoint afforded by this map, it is clear that the arguments as originally presented simply couldn’t be properly evaluated. When you have only a very fuzzy sense of what the arguments are, you can have at best only a fuzzy sense of whether they are any good. You are then more likely to be guided by prejudice, bias, habit, instinct or “conventional wisdom”.
I like your idea of complex arguments having a true form. Not sure if I’ve ever had the same profound insights when using AM to prepare my reports/position papers/articles (usually I’m still swimming in doubt), but the form of the maps I’ve made have often influenced how I’ve restructured them. That’s a profound insight that I HAVE had: that argument mapping brings visual and spatial abilities to the difficult process of critical thinking.
Just curious – how do argument mapping tutorials go down with business executives like those you worked with in this case? I have no doubt they’re beneficial, but I’m wondering how execs respond to the concepts and techniques, and if there is much resistance at the outset.
Hi Ian, Re “true form” – it will typically take a great deal of very patient argument mapping work to reveal the underlying “true” or best form, involving many iterations of the map. It also needs a degree of faith that the true form is “out there” waiting to be uncovered. This faith is easier to maintain once you seen that form emerge a number of times.
Re argument mapping & business execs, there is of course much variation in how they respond. The best responses are usually obtained when argument mapping is used as a method or tool in skilled facilitation.
“The best responses are usually obtained when argument mapping is used as a method or tool in skilled facilitation.”
Can you elaborate on that? What is skilled facilitation?
For a good introduction to “skilled facilitation” in this area, see Jeff Conklin’s excellent book Dialog Mapping, though bear in mind that argument mapping is a somewhat different activity, and has its own set of technical niceties not covered in Jeff’s book.