Home > Book reviews > Book review: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

Book review: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations, by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati, examines how groups of people can work to define a complex problem and to identify possible solutions. The book is divided into three sections: the first part argues why “best practices” often fail in the face of wicked problems; the second examines how people can work together (with a focus on dialog mapping, issue-based information systems (IBIS), and Compendium), and the third provides case studies illustrating successes and lessons learned from the authors’ work experiences. I found the middle section to be the most interesting and enlightening: it included motivation and history behind dialog mapping, with lots of illustrative examples and key citations balanced by alternative approaches. Much of the book centered around Compendium use and examples, the free IBIS-based dialog mapping tool I discussed in a previous post. In case you worry that the authors don’t eat their own dog food, a great many of the figures were generated by Compendium—reflecting intermediate steps of how a manager can address wicked problems using the tool.

The book represents an interesting pairing of authors. Paul Culmsee is a consultant who probably knows more about dialog mapping and Compendium than anyone (except maybe Jeff Conklin of gIBIS fame, who wrote a glowing foreword to the book with high praise for Culmsee). Kailash Awati is an information systems manager, with a couple of Ph.D. degrees and experience at several levels in academia. Both Culmsee and Awati blog prolifically, and many of their blog posts fed nicely into this book (a trick I’m using to prepare my book). People familiar with their styles will find their key writing styles featuring irreverent humor, pop-culture references, and in-depth examples prevalent in this book. (At times, though, I feel their pop-culture irreverence would be better if rooted in fact; e.g., the real Clippy story is interesting and perhaps relevant, and people and stories behind the development are still out there.)

There were a few major weaknesses of the book (though in the spirit of “wicked-ness”, many of these drawbacks to me may be neutral (or advantages!) to you, so take them as such). The index is very weak (less than 3 pages for a book approaching 400 pages). I’d love to look up what they have to say about strong reciprocity, or whose views of claims they discuss, or their view of McCall’s PHI approach to wicked problems, or their thoughts on positions in IBIS, or numerous other topics—but such a short index just doesn’t provide adequate support for a lot of important queries. In addition, I often find that books suffer from a certain myopia when it comes to the authors’ favored approaches, though there’s somewhat less fan-dom in this book than is seen in many books of this type. They certainly show a favoritism to IBIS and Compendium, but it’s the authors’ prerogative in writing a book to choose approaches to focus on and how much to talk about the weaknesses of a favored approach. More generally, they took the “depth over breadth” approach in this book, with heavy details about a few approaches rather than touching on a more inclusive set. It’s great to see examples, but not at the exclusion of alternatives. Somewhat telling, the references list contains only 122 references—there’s no mention of the work of Schön, Toulmin, McCall, Moran, Carroll, or others who have had important (nay, foundational) things to say about the topics in this book.

So who should get this book? The book targets technology managers who are looking for a way to address complex problems, and plenty of software professionals (e.g., ones who want to “deprogram” their managers) could benefit from it as well. Certainly anyone who uses Compendium or, more generally, embraces IBIS as a design approach or wicked problems as a problem classification should read it. If you like Jeff Conklin’s book, then (dare I say it?) I bet you will like this one even more. To grossly oversimplify, this is like Conklin’s book but moreso: more motivation and framing of the problem type, lots more examples, 5 years more of experiences and Compendium advances, more history of where these ideas came from, and more positive and negative examples of Compendium’s utility. If that sounds appealing, you should get a copy of this book.

  1. K
    January 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Firstly, thanks so much for this review. I’m honoured that you found the book interesting and worthy of a detailed review.

    Some comments in response to the points you have made:

    1. In writing the book, we had to choose between breadth and depth. We focused on the latter as we wanted to provide enough detail for folks to be able to use the techniques we discuss.

    2. We had to do the indexing ourselves so we focused on the key themes of the book. As you have noted (and rightly taken us to task for!), some of the secondary topics have not been indexed.

    3. Although we discuss IBIS and Compendium in-depth, the book is about more than just that. Firstly, we provide a detailed comparison of IBIS vis-a-vis other notations: specifically, QOC (Questions, Options, Criteria), DRL (Decision Representation Language) and Argument Mapping (Chapter 8). Further, we also provide a fairly detailed introduction to problem structuring methods and governance structures that can be used in tandem with visual notations in order to achieve genuine dialogue (Chapters 9 & 10).

    4. The reference list is a consequence of our choice of depth over breadth. We are aware that there is a lot more to visual notations than what we have covered. A detailed discussion of foundations would have, I think, taken us too far afield, especially considering our primary audience is non-academic. In the end we had to balance rigour and practicality. Having said that,I agree the references you mention are important and will look into adding them to the book site in a separate “Additional Reading” section.

    In closing, thanks again for your interest in the book and for taking the time to write a review – it is truly appreciated.



  2. January 23, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Hi Scott

    Thankyou so much for taking the time to give such a detailed review.

    As Kailash said, the breadth vs depth thing was a toughie. Chapter 8 (PSM’s) was already the biggest and thats before we removed two other PSM’s that we intended to cover.

    We wanted a “meaty” book that was more than a mile wide an an inch deep, but we wanted to make it accessible at the same time.

    Your reference to Toulmin is spot on and I had him there in very early drafts (I don’t know if Kailash even saw that!) since you rarely see an argumentation rationale paper without his influence. But to a non academic audience, exporing the relationship of causal to concept map was a more digestable path.



  3. January 24, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Wow, responses from both authors within an hour and a half—you guys are on top of it! Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. It’s particularly good to hear about the inside story about the crafting of the book. I suspect that the depth-vs-breadth question was a challenging one, and cutting favorite references must have been hard, but I’m grateful that you didn’t undertake both and create a 1000-page book!

    I didn’t mean to shortchange the middle chapters in my review. The discussion of approaches like gIBIS and QOC and DRL were valuable, particularly in how they contributed to Compendium (i.e., in the inclusion of many of the primary people behind those approaches and the melding of their original ideas). Chapters 9 and 10 were valuable as well, providing the complementary tools.

    I like K’s idea of some sort of “online companion” to the book, with additional readings and other information. It really helps extend the life of a book if it can grown and expand online. If that comes to be, I’d love to see links to other reviews to see how people have been using the book—some I’ve been able to track down, but there doesn’t seem to be a complete list anywhere.

    Generally I found this to be a very good book, even though I don’t fall into your primary target audience. I read the whole thing, and parts of it multiple times, and tracked down a number of your references. It’s a mark of a good book when it is of use to a broad and diverse audience—think Herb Simon, Steven Toulmin, Donald Schön, Steven Hawking, Carl Sagan. It’s hard to believe this is the first book for both of you, but obviously you’ve both done a lot of other writing. Congratulations on a job well done!

  4. K
    January 25, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate the time you have invested in reading the book so carefully and writing a comprehensive review. To be honest, I was – and still am – a bit nervous about how our efforts would be viewed by academics. So I’m truly delighted to know that you enjoyed the book and found it a worthwhile read.



  1. March 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

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