Archive for the ‘Mapping’ Category

A colleague Todd Sears recently wrote:

I thought I’d write to let you know that I used an argument map last night to inform a public conversation about whether to change our school budget voting system from what it is (one meeting and you have to be physically present to vote), to the (of all things!) Australian Ballot system (secret ballot, polls open all day, and absentee ballots available).

So, I went through the articles, editorials, and opinion pieces I could find on the matter and collapsed those into a pretty simple argument, which it is. Simple reasoning boxes get the job done.  Our voters had never really seen this kind of visualization.  It’s nice to be able to see an argument exist in space, and to demonstrate by pointing and framing that a “yea” vote needs to buy into the green points, but also that they need to reconcile the red points, somehow. It had very good response.

Ultimately, the AB motion was defeated by five votes.  Still, it was a good example of a calm, reasonable, and civil dialogue.  A nice change from the typical vitriol and partisan sniping.

Here is his map (click to view full size version):


When I suggested that readers of this blog might find his account interesting or useful, he added:

Let me clarify what I did because it wasn’t a classic facilitation.

1. I reviewed all of the on-line Vermont-centric AB content I could find in the more reputable news sources, and put a specific emphasis on getting the viewpoints of the more vociferous anti-AB folks in my town so that I could fairly represent them.

2. I created a map from that information and structured it in a way that spread out the lines of reasoning in an easily understandable way. I could have done some further abstraction and restructured things, or made assumptions explicit using the “Advanced” mode, but chose to focus on easily recognized reasoning chains.

3. I sent the map out to the entire school board, the administrators, a couple of politicians, the anti-AB folks and some of the other more politically engaged people in town.

4. The session was moderated by the town Moderator, who set out Robert’s Rules of Order. Then discussion began. In fact, the first ant-AB speaker had my map in his hand and acknowledged the balance and strength of both sides of the argument.

5. I let the session run its course, and then explained what I did and how I did it, and then reviewed the Green and Red lines of the debate, explaining that a vote for or against means that the due diligence has to be done in addressing the points counter to your own position, and I demonstrated how this should be done. Though I was in favor of AB, I maintained objectivity and balance, rather than a position of advocacy one way or another.

Overall the session was very civil, informed, and not one point was made (myriad rhetorical flourishes aside) that was not already on the map. Many variations on similar themes, but nothing that hadn’t been captured.

And followed up with:

BTW, just 30 minutes ago I received an e-mail which said this:


I love the map of the issues around Australian Ballot that you sent out. Is there an easy way to make such a map? We are tackling some issues that have our faculty at Randolph Union High School pretty evenly split and I think two such maps would be a powerful way for my colleague and I who are leading this change to communicate. It looks as if it was created in PowerPoint. If you are too busy to elaborate that’s fine too.

Thanks for your leadership on the Australian Ballot issue. I appreciate it.


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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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Recently I’ve started to use “visual deliberation” as a catch-all term for the various mapping techniques and activities we use in our activities at Austhink (argument mapping, IBIS-based issue mapping, etc.).   Happily, the more I use it, the more apt it seems.  What we’re typically doing is helping people to deliberate more effectively, and we do this by making the thinking more visually accessible.

But is this the “right” way to use the term?  How do other people use it?  How should they use it? In short, what does “visual deliberation” mean?  Here’s an attempt at definition (semi-descriptive, semi-prescriptive).

In general, visual deliberation is the use of visual aids to support deliberative processes such as debate and decision making.   By “visual” I mean anything that can be, literally, seen, but not including text (words and sentences).

There are many kinds or “flavors” of visual deliberation depending on what sorts of visual aids are used, how they are deployed in the service of deliberation, and the extent to which they are used.

(1) The most familiar kinds involve the use of charts, graphics, diagrams, tables, and the like, sprinkled through the main verbal argumentation like glace cherries in a fruit cake.  For example, the famous movie An Inconvenient Truth includes various charts presenting information in a non-verbal (or largely non-verbal) manner, and the case being made depends on this information.   The deliberative activity is thus a kind of melange of textual and visual presentation.  Edward Tufte has of course written elegantly and at length about how such visualizations can aid deliberation and how to do this well (see e.g. his Beautiful Evidence).

Aside: not every use of visual aids in the context of deliberation is visual deliberation.   The graphics in An Inconvenient Truth include photos which, while thematically relevant, are incidental to the actual reasoning; if they weren’t there, nothing of any consequence would be lost from the case being made.  Such visuals may be playing a rhetorical or persuasive role, by e.g. activating emotional responses, but are not playing a logical role.  And sometimes of course visuals are pure eye-candy.

(2) A very different kind of visual deliberation is found in the “mapping” tradition which includes Wigmore’s charting method, Rittel’s IBIS, and Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping.   Here the focus is on identifying the core conceptual elements, such as questions, ideas, options, reasons, and objections, and displaying these elements and their relationships in diagrams intended to encompass or “map out” the thinking in all its complexity.  In this kind of visual deliberation, the visual elements are not just ingredients or components within a larger verbal superstructure.   Rather, the superstructure itself is given visual expression in box-and-arrow diagrams.

(3) In a recent book Noveck has identified a third, very different way in which visual ingredients can aid deliberation.  The basic idea here is that visual aspects or elements of a computer’s user interface can help shape deliberative activity: “I argue for what I term visual deliberation, namely, ways of using the computer screen to mirror the work of participating groups back to themselves so that they can organize and function as networked publics.” (p.22)

Sometimes multiple modes of visual deliberation are integrated into one complex, highly visual activity. For example Robert Horn’s argumentation maps, such as the well-known Can Computers Think series, embed graphics within maps.  Online collaborative argumentation systems such as Debategraph and bCisiveOnline, and Shum’s IBIS/Compendium-based design rationale, support the creation of maps within software interfaces providing visual clues guiding collective deliberative activity.

In practice, even traditional verbal deliberation usually involves at least some visual elements.  Speakers and debaters rely not only on their words but also on their gestures.  Argumentative texts such as reports or opinion pieces rely on font, paragraph and document formatting to help convey how verbally-expressed points hang together as argument.   There are deliberative activities involving no visual element at all (think of two people trying to resolve their differences over the telephone) but these are the end point of a spectrum, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the pure or paradigm cases.

At the other end of the spectrum, deliberation cannot be  purely visual.  Deliberation essentially involves argumentation, which in turn essentially involves relationships among propositions (claims) which must be expressed verbally.   In each of the three modes identified above, textual expression plays a crucial role.

Now, having said all that, it is useful for me to narrow the focus a little.  My work these days is concerned primarily with the second or “mapping” kind of visual deliberation and its deployment in practical contexts.  So for me visual deliberation usually means, specifically, aiding deliberation through the use of diagrams displaying the structure of that deliberative activity.  As in, this sort of thing:

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The free online magazine The Reasoner has recently published an interview with me in their February 2010 issue.  Much of it is discussing argument mapping and its uses.  However the first third or so of the interview covers my earlier work in the foundations of cognitive science (distributed representation, dynamical systems and such topics).

Thanks to Kevin Korb for initiating and conducting the interview.


KK: What are argument maps and why are they important?

TvG: Typically an argument map is a box-and-arrow or node-and-link diagram showing the relationships among propositions in some piece of informal reasoning or argumentation. Argument mapping is thus “semi- formal”, blending formal graph structure with natural language. You can think of argument mapping as addressing a design challenge: come up with a maximally transparent way of representing informal reasoning and argumentation for human thinkers, one that makes the reasoning as explicit, rigorous and yet easily comprehensible and communicable as possible.  From this point of view, the various forms of argument mapping around today—such as the one embodied in the Rationale software—as particular attempts to come up with that optimal format. No doubt improved schemes, supported by more sophisticated technologies, will arise in coming years.

KK: How does your understanding of their importance relate to what you know about human cognition?
TvG: The diagrammatic format of typical argument maps is useful for humans with cognitive machinery dominated by powerful visual systems. Diagrammatic argument maps complement the idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses of our evolutionarily-endowed cognitive equipment. For example, argument maps compensate for our limited short-term memory, providing a stable external representation of complex inferential webs. At the same time they facilitate access to this externally represented information by exploiting our powerful visual scanning capacities. In computer terms, our eyes constitute the high-capacity bus connecting the argument map, stored in external RAAM, to our brains as the CPU…

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“As I have said many times, it is simple, but not easy.” – Warren Buffett.

Buffett is of course talking about investment, but the same seems to me to be true of mapping (whether of the decision, argument or hypothesis variants).

The principles are simple enough.  What for example could be simpler to state and understand than the Rabbit Rule – and yet it is so profound, and has such power.

Mapping is not easy, in large part, because it is just a visual discipline for clarifying our thinking. And clarifying our thinking is not easy, even with visual discipline.

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