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Book review: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

January 23, 2012 5 comments

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.