How many meetings do you attend ?
From that number of attended meeting, do you read the minutes you receive ?
Then, imagine that the meeting minutes are sent several days after the meeting took place, as a e-mail’s attachment. Chances are that you will not even open that attachment, and process this e-mail, by either deleting it, or moving it in one archive or another.
The goal of a meeting minute, except keeping what was discussed during the meeting on virtual paper, it is also to follow-up on action items, or as a reminder for the participant that something has to be done. Rarely it is used to come back to see who decided of what, and when. For that purpose, I often see a manager maintaining a register of all the decisions and actions in a big Excel file, growing to hundreds or thousands of lines, that even the manager can’t find anything in it.
But, the real problem is that the reasons why actions or decisions were taken are completely missing from the minutes. And, when time comes to blame someone because a previous decision appears to be a wrong one, that same manager will search in the thousands lines to find the guilty guy, but he will never find the reasons and the context of that decisions. They are lost forever. So, we end up with the kind of following statement in a meeting minute :
|Subject || |
Type (Information, Action, Decision)
|To implement a SharePoint Content Type Hub for the intranet in order to categorize the content. || |
The problem with such statement in meeting minutes and the contained decisions is that once written, they are completely separated from their context. As we know, contexts change, making the original decisions obsolete and wrong. Unfortunately, unless the meeting minute is written with a lot of details, the importance of the decision’s context will be forgotten. Additionally, in order to ease the reading of the minutes, items in meeting minutes tend to be short and rather dry, omitting many elements, regardless of their importance, and therefore opening the door to interpretation. Text is just too linear to describe correctly a reasoning or the different explored paths to the decision. Finally, the interpretation will occur at least twice, the first one at writing time, and then when reading the meeting minutes.
In that previous example, unfortunately, the implementation of the SharePoint Content Type Hub didn’t deliver its promises and several month later, looking at the meeting minutes, one discovered that the decision to use a Content Type Hub was taken by the poor Charlie Crews who is now in trouble to justify this decision. Obviously, nobody remember why this decision was taken and the discussions that took place before stating this in the minutes.
So, the question here is, can we avoid this kind of situation, and how this can be achieved ?
Since a year, I started working on ways to capture the reasoning behind decisions made by a group of people or, just to write down all the elements before taking myself a decisions. I am a big fan of the pen and paper way of writing the notes, but, when it is is time to share it with others, the only way to get the same understanding from all the people is to share the same notation. For that purpose, I discovered a little more than a year ago the IBIS notation, that I used for my notes. The good point of this notation is its ease to model the decision making process because of its simple notation, and also the fact that you absolutely don’t need any software to use it. Indeed, a pen and paper do the job well. Also, because its simplicity, there is no need to learn during several days how to understand the different element and icons of the notation, they are pretty straightforward.
I don’t want to enter into the description of the IBIS notation element, but, rather, demonstrate how the example above could be addressed using such technique. Also, I would like to emphasize that it is only an example which does not, even if taken from a real project example, describe the real element or argumentation of any decision of that project. In other words, the goal is not to discuss whether the pros and cons of using a SharePoint Content Type Hub are correct or not in the example. And, to end the “disclaimer”, I am still improving my usage of the notation, so, what is shown below may not be exactly in line with IBIS and dialog mapping (which is another further step in practicing IBIS).
Back to the meeting minutes problem, here is an example of how the decision could have been modeled :
Again, this model may not be complete, but, it gives an idea of how a decision could come up. First, on the left-most end, what is called the “root question”, or, in other words, the question or the problem that needs to be answered. In our example, it is “What is the best way to apply metadata to documents ?”. When debating of that question during the meeting, several answers will be given by the different participants. Each of these answers have benefits, and, on the opposite, drawbacks. All of these elements are also gathered and linked to their related answers. As an example, “not using Content Type at all” also means that “no standardization of metadata” or template is possible.
Are all of these arguments valid ? Well, if there is discussion about an argument, it also has to be present in the diagram, as, again, one of the goals of the diagram is to be transparent and to show when there is disagreement. Another positive point is the neutrality of the diagram, as there is no name associated to an idea, argument or question. Which means that it puts all the participants at the same level.
Then, for one question or problem, several ideas or answers are provided. And, for each of the ideas, pros and cons are also captured on the diagram, but, yet, the question is : how does it help in taking the right decision ?
As mentioned earlier in this post, it is important to keep track of the context and reasons for a decision. That is why, at the bottom of the diagram, there is a question about the solution selection criteria, with answers, that I have put in descendant order of importance : “Centralized Control”, “Search Improvement”, and “Minimal training”. What this describes is that, at the time of the meeting was held, the most important criterion was to have a central place for the management of the Content Types.
Then, instead of sending a word document containing the meeting minutes with context-less decisions, sending the map of the meeting will have the following advantages :
- Even people that are not familiar with IBIS can understand the simple icons and notation
- People can also easily understand why such or such decisions was taken
- Meeting’s participant should not worry about their association with arguments
- Afterwards, if the decision appears to be the wrong one, a good part of the analysis has been done and don’t need to be done from scratch to find a good alternative. Only a review of the existing analysis can be done in order to update the selection criteria, pros, and cons and potentially new ideas.
6 months later, when everything went bad, coming back to this kind of meeting minute will show and demonstrate that the context or the rationale of that decision. From that, either it will be discovered that the decision was not the worst one, or, that environment changed as well as the requirements, leading to another decision to be taken. Another benefit is that Charlie Crews does not appear in the diagram, which means that decision was taken (normally) collegially.