JavaSetting Goals with Conflicting Stakeholders

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Getting everyone to agree on goals is a challenging undertaking in any organization.  Different stakeholders necessarily have different concerns and perspectives.  Those differences lead to a desire to have different goals for a project, an initiative, or an organization.  Getting everyone to understand those diverse perspectives and interlocking constraints is never easy; however, there is a technique which makes the process easier.  The technique of Dialogue Mapping creates an opportunity to reach a shared understanding of a wicked problem.  Many organizations face wicked problems – even if they aren’t aware of the problem’s wickedness.

Achieving shared understanding through the process of Dialogue Mapping leads to the opportunity to develop an approach to change the problem.  This is the heart of setting goals as a team – developing a shared understanding of the problem and developing a set of goals from that shared understanding.

Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel first used the term wicked problems to discuss problems that have a set of interlocking constraints and have no stopping rule.  There’s only better and worse – there is no right and wrong.  His experience was urban planning, where you can’t test the impact of a change without doing the change.  You can’t really see how a new road will impact a community until you build it and once you’ve built it you can’t un-build a road easily.

Wicked problems are really very large systems or, more accurately, sets of interconnected systems that operate together.  Because of the complexity, there’s no straightforward way to view the problem or to design a solution without the risk of introducing unintended side effects.

Every organization has its own set of wicked problems related to the environment it operates in, the employees and processes it has, and the interactions of all of the customers and vendors.  It’s not surprising that organizations struggle to set goals for projects and for the organization, given the complexity.

Most people inside organizations have come to accept this level of complexity and discount it.  As organizations try to decide which projects to fund or even how to focus a funded project, they face the daunting task of creating a shared understanding so that they can define a set of shared approaches to try.

Seeing in Systems

Nearly everyone has to deal with traffic from time-to-time, if not daily.  When dealing with the traffic problem we’re inevitably a part of the problem.  We’re concerned with it because we’re in a vehicle trying to get from one place to another – we’re part of the traffic.  Most of the time, traffic is flowing freely and there aren’t any issues.  However, other times there are factors like weather, previous incidents and accidents, and the volume of traffic that impact whether or not there will be a delay.  Traffic volume is itself based on the number of people wanting to get from one place to another – and how they chose to travel.

It’s possible to see the elements of the system – the people and the cars – rather quickly.  Similarly, it’s easy to see the connections – the roads – and how the more cars that travel, the larger the roads need to be.  From watching the system you can see the purpose of the system – to move people from one place to another.

However, the complexity of the system means that some people will have a better view of certain parts of the system than others.  For instance, someone living on the south side may know that the factory workers get off at 4PM so rush hour starts at 4PM on the south side.  Conversely, there are fewer factory workers on the east side of town so the east side of town doesn’t experience rush hour until 4:30 or 4:45PM as some of the factory workers travel up the east side of the city and white collar workers start to blend into the traffic on their way home.

Asking someone who travels the east side what time rush hour starts might lead to an answer of 4:30 PM where the same question asked of a south sider might be 4:00 PM — and both answers are right from their perspectives.  Part of reaching a great end result is realizing that though everyone’s perspective is different, everyone can add value to the solution, but that comes through developing a shared understanding.

Shared Understanding

Nearly every framework for organizational improvement that has ever been proposed has a component of getting everyone on the same page.  John Kotter talks about building a powerful coalition.  Jim Collins, in Good to Great, speaks about confronting the brutal facts.  Patrick Lencioni speaks about creating, over communicating, and reinforcing clarity.  Understanding is a recurring theme because it’s the starting point from which we can move forward.

Unfortunately, in most organizations the process of developing a shared understanding is fraught with issues.  In addition to different perspectives, team members bring along their own insecurities about themselves, how the organization will do, and how they’ll be able to continue to nurture their own careers.  As a result they often become entangled and overly attached to their ideas and see even healthy criticism of an idea as a personal attack.  Often they think that their ideas aren’t being given the proper consideration.

To reach a shared understanding it’s necessary to reduce the amount of attachment everyone has to their perspective of what is right for the project or organization and seek to understand the perspectives of the others who are involved in the decision making process.  Part of that is dependent upon the skill of the facilitator in acknowledging and accepting the different points of view.  However, to be successful with building a shared understanding, there is also a system that clearly demonstrates that everyone’s perspective is valued.  That’s where Dialogue Mapping comes in.

Dialogue Mapping

If the issues around building shared understanding start with defensiveness about making sure that my ideas are shared and appreciated, then dialogue mapping has an ideal solution.  Dialogue mapping is based on the idea that you have a shared display which all of the participants  can see.  On this display, the map of the dialogue is displayed.  This includes every question, idea, pro, and con.  In fact a simple called IBIS (Issue Based Information System) is used on this display to quickly code and capture the conversation.  IBIS was also created by Horst Rittel – the same gentleman who coined the term wicked problems in the first place.

Because everyone can see their ideas and questions displayed on the screen for everyone – and because it is recorded without indicating the person who raised it – the impact of the ideas are recorded.  Similarly, because the pros and cons for the ideas are attached to the idea – and not to the person, the defensiveness around an idea being “attacked” are minimized and, more importantly, are less likely to be personalized.

Dialogue maps – with the help of a skilled facilitator – help to focus the conversation in ways that are productive and avoid “rabbit holes.”  However they’re also an easy-to-understand tool to utilize after meetings to map what decisions were made as well as the ideas that were considered during the meeting.  Ultimately, maps are good high-level outlines of how the group reached their conclusions.

Goals Emerge

Out of a dialogue mapping session, goals generally emerge – or it might be more appropriate to say they spring forward.  While we generally believe in a linear process, whereby we discuss the problem then the solution and make a decision, the reality of decision-making is typically far from that.  While we’re developing shared understanding of the problem we’re also developing possible solutions, which lead us back to better understanding the problem.  This may seem like an infuriating oscillation between problem and solution, however, from a systems point of view it’s exactly what is needed.

Each considered solution allows the group to better understand the problem and the perspectives of the various stakeholders.  It’s not until everyone truly reaches shared understanding that the right solutions will emerge.

Unlike the quiet resignation that sometimes comes out of goal setting processes, the results of dialogue mapping results in solutions with greater buy-in and commitment from the entire team.  In part because, in the process, everyone feels heard and valued, but also in part because the solutions that are created more accurately target the real problem – not just the problem as perceived by one or a few people in the group.

About The Author

Robert Bogue is a thought leader on all things SharePoint and an engaging presenter who speaks at events around the world.  Rob has been awarded the Microsoft MVP designation eleven times, and earned recognition as a Microsoft patterns & practices Champion. Rob holds certifications from Microsoft: MCPD, MCITP, MCTS, MCSA: Security, MCSE as well as CompTia: A+, Network+, Server+, I-Net+, IT Project+, E-Biz+, CDIA+.  Rob also served as a team member for the SharePoint Guidance.

He is the author of 23 books including, The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users: 2013, which is also available in a Wiki version as The SharePoint Tutor.  Robert is committed to “making the complicated, simple.” Find out more about SharePoint adoption and engagement at, and follow Rob’s blog at   You can also email Rob at

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