Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Life of a Diagram.

Diagram's are central to an I.T. professionals career, be they Process flows, system diagram's, Ishikawa, causal loop etc. Interestingly as you get more experience you will become more and more reliant upon diagrams as a communication tool. In particular the informal ones.

With that in mind it pays to educate and familiarise yourself with the most pragmatic and easy to recall approaches that are out there. At the end of the day though people will argue that you really don't need formal training of any sort simply a piece of pen and paper.

So why would you need a formal approach to diagraming. The rationale behind this would be that using a structured approach to Diagram's in a collaborative session can harness the ideas and energy within a room.

For example having someone try to draw a process flow, whilst another is considering a systems thinking approach, while a third person doesn't understand either of these approaches will result in a lot of confusion beyond the normal challenges of terminology and jargon.

Before we define the life of a diagram and make some reading recommendations the key principle of diagrams needs to be stated. Quite simply diagrams are used to improve understanding and advance ideas. Interestingly people fly in the face of this principle all the time, two examples:

The first example is that of the overly complex or elaborate diagram. Interestingly I see a lot of these diagram's originate from some very smart individuals (i.e. see Zealots & Cowboys). Although they recognise the benefits of using diagram's they endeavour to interpret their thinking straight into a digital form (normally Power Point) and then cast this out onto their audience.

A second example I often see is the diagram that has achieved the goal of understanding quite quickly. The ideas are embraced and people move beyond the original diagram. Often because of the originator's attachment the diagram keeps appearing.

Both of these examples and many more resulted in the concept of the 'Life of a Diagram'. The first example can be addressed by the early stages of the lifecycle outlined below, whilst the second example is a problem that comes in at the tail end of a diagram's life. The life of a diagram concept/approach is as follows:

1. Scribble and talk, as you work through identifying the problem, opportunity or defining an approach to be taken, socialise it with your peers and co-contributors. test the diagram, get input, and then test it by talking and scribbling some more with another peer or contributor.

2. Go analog before digital, like many creative things, writing, presentations, concepts etc.. it often pays to work with good old pen and paper before you go and get digital. Doing this will allow you to further test the diagram as well as improve your understanding and interpretation.

A by-product of this approach is that you will become very proficient in drawing and articulating the diagram. Enabling you to draw it anywhere - on blackboards, whiteboards, napkins, tablecloth's etc. Something that may be pivotal in the case of a stakeholder encounter over a coffee.

3. Go Digital - when you want to communicate your diagram to a greater audience or in a formal construct such as presentations and whitepapers. Remember the KISS Principle (Keep IT Simple and Sweet). The rational for step 1 and 2 above is that starting analog keeps it simple due to time pressure and effort it takes to draw.

4. Seek feedback and suggestions for improvement, this has a number of benefits, one significant benefit is that as more and more people contribute to the concept you are presenting the more and more supporters and evangelists you have in achieving your goals.

5. Recognised when the diagram has done it's job. Retire it to your reference library for future use. Interestingly if you have followed step 1 & 2 above you're fine diagram will always be at hand (literally) if and when you need it for future conversations.

As an example to the output of this approach have a look at both the 'Process Approach' and STO Model represented on this site. Also look at other peoples diagram's, even better participate and contribute to the evolution of these diagram's.

Two books have jumped out at me recently. One prescribing a Systems thinking approach to diagrams Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum
and The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.

Both books, although approaching the idea of diagrams from slightly different perspectives provide some great insights and ideas on using this extremely powerful medium to good effect. They do both emphasise the principle diagrams are used to improve understanding and advance ideas.



1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:37 am

    Great blog Andrew! Having read "The back of the napkin" I very quickly learnt the power of simple scribbles and how they can develop into powerful diagrams that are easily understandable.