Johnnie Moore

Waterfalls and chaos

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I linked to this paper on wicked problems the other day and Chris Corrigan commented “there’s a lot in that paper eh?”. Which is true. Here’s another part of it that has stuck in my mind.

UPDATE: That link is now broken; this seems to be the latest version of the paper.

The authors put up this diagram. It shows the traditional view of a problem solving process. This should be pretty familiar to any kind of consultant. It shows four stages of problem solving: gather data, analyze data, formulate solution, implement solution. Apparently, this is called the waterfall model of problem-solving, where we move graciously from the area of looking at the problem to that of working out the answer.


A study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) looked at whether this model is a good description of what happens in the real world. So they took a team of successful designers and set them to work on a real world problem (designing an elevator control system). They then looked at how one designer actually spent his time. That’s then plotted over our waterfall here:


That’s interesting isn’t it? He’s clearly not following the script. Instead, he’s jumping to a potential solution and then realising another aspect of the problem and so on. Here’s someone who allegedly is a good designer and he’s not doing “the right thing”.

Now let’s introduce a second highly-rated designer and add him to the plot.


Oh dear, not only is he not paying attention to the masterplan, he’s totally at odds with his colleague!

Of course, the real point here is that real life doesn’t follow the script. And the waterfall model is a considerable simplification of the natural way we humans like to solve problems.

Many efforts in leadership and team building fail because we try to follow the linear agenda and stop people from “wandering off the point”. The trouble is, most of us need to wander off the point to follow our natural manner of figuring stuff out. And the bigger the meeting, the greater the likelihood of people being frustrated by what one person is focussing on. (This is part of why so many conferences suck.)

Chaos or order

What’s needed is a willingness to allow more of the apparent chaos. One simple example is Open Space facilitation, which creates enormous freedom for people to wander around and join or create conversations about the part of an issue they most want to focus on, moment-by-moment. Once you let people do this, it’s amazing how effective they become.

I say apparent chaos because it’s only chaos seen from one perspective. If you look at great impressionist art close up, it’s just a mess of dots. When you step back, you realise the exquisite order. It’s much the same with meetings, there can be method implicit in the madness. (And these layers of apparent order and chaos repeat: step back far enough from the painting and you can’t see what it is any more; step back further and you realise you are present to the order of a fine gallery of art…)

When I talk about Facilitation for Surprise, I suppose I’m making a related point. Good facilitation is often about embracing the spikes, not flattening them.

This is such a rich topic that I’m barely scratching the surface. Check out the whole article, it is really rich in thinking.

This is one of the beauties of blogging. This post is just one of those seismic spikes on the graph. (And enfolded in this spike, are lots of mini iterative spikes as I keep finding typos and tidying them up.) Maybe reading this you’re wanting to push back or qualify what I say, or maybe right now you want to emphasise a point, or elaborate… You and I get to wiggle over a larger blogosphere graph the way we like; hopefully out of our interplay an interesting pattern will emerge.

Take a look at the recent excellent debate in and around Micrsoft’s blogs. When Scoble challenged CEO Ballmer over anti-discrimination, some folks bewailed the fallout. Yet out of the apparent chaos of views, a new policy (rather laudably, I think) has been made. Or see how a series of successful business are emerging from Hugh‘s blogging. No-one could accuse Hugh of being too linear.. yet it turns out he makes stuff happen. Or think about what emerges from Evelyn‘s experience of being in the chaos of Tsunami.

It’s the same with branding. Far too much of what is written about branding gives us the neat linear idea. The whole Cluetrain schtick is saying hey, look at all these wiggly lines all over the place. The wiggly lines are a representation of markets as conversations.

The waterfall is itself a fine example of order and chaos enfolded together.

I could go on but I’m out of time. (And the paper makes some great points about the effect of deadlines too.)

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links for 2011-05-26

Whether "Beast" or "Virus" Metaphor Is Powerful Stuff | Psychology Today Merely changing the metaphor alongside which identical factual information is presented significantly changes how readers determine how to respond.