Archive for the ‘bCisive’ Category

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

  1. Articulate the arguments with as much clarity and rigor as possible
  2. 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
  3. 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”.

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Frank Zdanowski emailed the following interesting “use case” for decision mapping/bCisive:

“In my work as a project manager, I hope to use your product to build decision maps to document the thought processes of the “why” of a project during preliminary planning.  This way, when [if?] we reach a crisis point in project execution where the key stakeholders ask “why did we ever commit to doing it this way?”, I can bring out the decision map to show them exactly how we got to that point. Instead of using it to deflect blame, I hope to use the map to identify where we went wrong and refine our thinking about why we chose the approach we did, where we went off the rails, and how to get back on track. Over time, I hope that this will introduce more rigorous thinking in planning.”

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Slides from a presentation at an intelligence & security seminar in Canberra last week.

Thanks to Brett Peppler for getting me the gig.

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Draft magazine piece.  Comments welcome.

In the late 1950s, a young engineer by the name of Douglas Engelbart made a decision that was to have a immense effect on all of our lives. Engelbart realised that the massive challenges faced by humanity, such as hunger or nuclear war, would place unprecedented demands on our thinking capacities – indeed, they may be so complex that our finite human brains may be unable to find solutions. With youthful idealism, he wondered how he could fix this problem.

As an engineer, his natural inclination was to build something – in this case, something that could expand our innate thinking capacities, much as a shovel or an excavator can greatly extend our digging capacities. In short, his mission in life became building tools which augment human intelligence. Over the following decades, he and his co-workers developed the key aspects of the personal computer, including innovations such as the mouse, hyper-linking and videoconferencing. Via Apple and Microsoft, these innovations rapidly became a standard part of every office worker’s equipment.

These days it seems hard to imagine how a management consultant could function without spreadsheets, presentation software, email, and so forth, all incorporating the basic functionality developed by Engelbart. These tools obviously help speed up various activities, thereby helping us get more done. An email or an instant message is immensely faster than “snail mail,” so turnaround is quicker and results can be delivered earlier.

However a focus on speed and convenience obscures the most profound change here. A consultant with a spreadsheet can perform analyses that would have been practically impossible fifty years ago. The spreadsheet magnifies the consultant’s effective thinking capacities. The sum of consultant plus spreadsheet is more intelligent than the consultant – or spreadsheet – alone. This is Engelbart’s dream become reality.

Yet, as profound as the changes to date have been, they are probably only the beginning. There is still plenty of scope for human intelligence, in its diverse manifestations, to be further augmented.

This is of great significance for management consulting, since consulting is, more than any other profession or industry, a matter of applied intelligence.

It is a curious fact that the computer aids or “cognitive prosthetics” used by management consultants are for the most part the same as those used by other knowledge workers. Excel and PowerPoint are found on most office computers, not just those of consultants.

To be sure, management consultants have some distinctive conceptual tools; the McKinsey 7S framework, the BCG matrix, and the Minto Pyramid Principle are well known examples. Yet as useful as these may be, they are not realised in hardware in the way a spreadsheet is and so can’t share the cognitive workload in the same way. Bluntly, they don’t “do” anything. We are now, however, starting to see new thinking tools which dovetail well with consulting work, and which may be adopted earlier in the consulting domain than in most others.

One characteristic intellectual skill of the management consultant is hierarchical structuring. Whether it is building logic trees, issue diagrams, pyramid structures, or any other type of “tree,” hierarchical structuring can bring rigour and depth to thinking, and experienced consultants develop facility with this technique. While hierarchical structuring can to some extent be done in the head, when things get complex it helps to lay them out visually – hence the familiar tree structures on whiteboards, with sticky notes, or on-screen using presentation or drawing tools.

But these aids, while handy, have their limitations. Most importantly, diagrams created by these manual methods are not easily modified. Organising information hierarchically is a process. A good hierarchical analysis typically evolves through a number of drafts; observing one attempt suggests a better way it might be done. The more quickly you can reshape the structure, the more quickly your thinking advances. But with whiteboards, sticky notes and generic drawing tools, this reshaping can be slow and frustrating; thinking is interrupted, and thinking has lost “flow.”

New tools designed specifically for hierarchical structuring largely remove these speedbumps. When you can build and modify a visual tree structure almost as fast as you can think, the visual representation becomes like an extension of your own cognitive equipment – a “mind’s eye” that just happens to be outside the head. A consultant using such a tool produces a logic tree better and faster than a similar consultant working on a whiteboard. The net result is that the former consultant is, for practical purposes, smarter.

Another area where new thinking tools can augment consultants’ high-level thinking is in argument construction. Very often a consultant’s primary task is to provide recommendations backed by compelling arguments. Those arguments consist of information organised in evidential or logical relationships. As with hierarchical structures, when it helps to lay arguments out in diagrams when they become complicated.

Back in 1962, in a landmark report, Engelbart described a system in which a user could, on a screen, organise propositions into complex argument structures. To have envisaged such a system well before computers even had monitors, let alone contemporary graphical user interfaces, was a remarkable achievement. Fast forward to this decade, and research teams at universities and software companies around the world are exploring argument visualisation and developing new software applications for this unique task. Just as spreadsheets support calculation, new commercial-grade “argument mapping” applications are supporting argumentation.

In a consulting context, argument mapping applications can be used to construct, refine, evaluate and present the thinking behind a recommendation. The visual display reduces the cognitive load involved in maintaining a complex argument structure in one’s head alone — freeing up mental resources for the more interesting and valuable thinking tasks involved in improving or critiquing an argument.

You can see for easily yourself how powerful this effect can be. Play a game of tic-tac-toe with a friend or colleague. No problem. But then play again, this time without using pen & paper or anything similar. Each player should hold the state of the board in her mind and call out her move in turn. Played the normal way, the game is trivial. Played without visual aids, it is far more laborious and error prone.

Remarkably, consultants usually carry out one of their most central tasks – the development of clear, compelling arguments – either without a “board” at all (i.e., in their heads), or by making do with generic tools such as word processors and presentation software. It is a bit like a carpenter trying to work without a saw.

The main reason for this is that until recently the “saw” for argument construction had not been developed. Going forward, however, we will see consultants increasingly using argument visualisation to augment their inbuilt reasoning abilities. A particular benefit of argument mapping is that, once an argument has been laid out diagrammatically, simple, almost mechanical checks can uncover hidden assumptions which might be critical weaknesses in the case. Extensive research at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere has shown that practise based on argument mapping can dramatically accelerate critical thinking skill gains in university students. This suggests another role for these new thinking tools.

A major challenge for consulting firms is helping new recruits come to “think like a consultant.” There are many aspects to this, but cultivating the two skills already discussed – hierarchical structuring and argument construction – is at the heart of it. Introducing suitably-designed software tools into training can speed up the process whereby new consultants develop understanding and mastery of these skills. The intuitive visual format promotes comprehension, the interactivity supports “hands on” practice, and inbuilt assistance helps provide guidance.

Finally, using these tools can help consultants collaborate on solving tough thinking problems. Traditionally, each consultant on a team holds in her head her own “take” on the evolving state of the group’s thinking about an issue. The trouble is that each take may be somewhat different, leading to confusion, error and wasted time. A better way is to have the thinking shared in a visual display, on a screen or projected onto a wall, with every contribution immediately and transparently incorporated into the common understanding. Such software can make this happen.

Management consulting has long had a reputation for snapping up the best and the brightest. The raw human intelligence of these young minds is greatly magnified as they come to master consulting’s “tools of the trade”. Despite the kind of inertial and conservative tendencies found in any profession, this toolkit does evolve over time. The latest additions are increasingly aiding consultants in some of the most distinctive of their intellectual tasks.

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