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Book Review-The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

As I mentioned in my review of Dialogue Mapping, my friend Paul Culmsee and I met many years ago and continue to speak despite the 12 hour time difference between us. Last year Paul and Kailash Awati (whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting) coauthored The Heretics Guide to Best Practices. I’ve had it on my list of books to read since before it was published. (I received a few drafts from Paul along the way.)

In our conversations, I have learned that Paul’s a brilliant and irreverent consultant. He – like I – will knock over the chairs in the room if that’s what’s required to move things forward. He’s had more experience with best practice models – ITIL, PRINCE2, etc. – than I have but through our conversations I know he’s mapped the edges of where they’re valuable. So I knew the book about where frameworks, methodologies and standards are good – and bad – would be a good one.

Why be a Heretic?

First, we have to agree that it is heresy to say that doing best practices is not a best practice. The operating assumption in most environments is that a best practice is the thing to do. When we duplicate the conditions where the practice was used successfully, we can get the desired results. However, in my experience with healthcare and IT, what’s written in the best practices is rarely enough, and sometimes misses the point entirely.

Scientific studies are tested at different places by different teams to see if they can replicate the results of a study. This is a part of the process and it ensures that the process is reproducible and that the characteristics of the environment described by the discovery team are sufficient to replicate the result. However, best practices rarely get the kind of rigor that a scientific study gets. Often times once something seems successful at one or two organizations it’s assumed to be a best practice. This is particularly true of management consultants and leaders who want to instill practices they’ve used successfully in the past but is also true of larger methodologies.

One of the discussions in the book is about the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Kailash is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). The book stops short of saying that the PMBOK doesn’t ensure project success – and neither does having a PMP. However, there is an absolute awareness shared that sometimes the stated goals of project management to deliver projects on time, in budget, with an acceptable level of risk isn’t all that’s at stake.

With IT project success rates hovering below 50% based on a wide variety of sources, it’s clear that the creation of the PMI, the PMBOK, and the PMP certification hasn’t eliminated the problems with delivering IT projects successfully. Of course the argument will be that the PMP certified practitioners aren’t running those projects. With just shy of 600,000 professionals who have a PMP, I personally find it hard to believe that they’re not involved with at least some of the projects that are failing.

However, the real issue may be in how we define success. Some of the failures in IT projects were about how the end solution didn’t match – or appear to match – the problem. As a result the project was technically successful in that it was implemented but practically a failure because it didn’t solve the problem the project was created to solve.

The Sydney Opera House, one of the worlds’ most noticeable landmarks, was ten years late, over budget by more than fourteen times, and reportedly the primary architect has never been inside it. By the PMI definition of project management, it’s a failure. However, opera attendees and the world at large seem to disagree.

The Heretic’s Guide is about looking beyond the success or failure of an individual best practice to see whether the practice is really “best” but also to understand the criteria beyond the traditional thinking.

Put Out the Fire

Network of Commitments

Years ago – well before I met Paul – I was introduced to the work of Fernando Flores, specifically Understanding Computers and Cognition. One of the points made there was that an organization is a network of commitments. The ability for an organization to keep its commitments to itself and others is essential to its survival.

I’ve seen numerous echoes of the problem with commitments showing up over time. I mentioned what I call commitment cancer in my post called “Running Users Groups.” Having individuals be accountable to one another through their network of commitments is essential to collaboration. It’s a part of trust as I described in several places including in my post “Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy.” Trust is earned through a decision to make your interactions Win/Win instead of Win/Lose.

Win/Lose or Win/Win

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey introduced the idea of a shift in attitude from “I win, you lose” to “I win, and we all win.” This has surfaced a few times including in The Science of Trust where it discusses the Nash Equilibrium (Win/Win) vs. von Neumann-Morgenstern (Win/Lose) from a game theory perspective. In Heroic Leadership there are glimpses of the idea of an ecosystem where all of the organisms are interdependent. (There are several other ties to the concepts in Heroic Leadership that we’ll explore shortly.)

One point of view is that you should shrewdly negotiate deals to your maximum advantage. This is the von Neumann-Morgenstern (Win/Lose) point of view. The other point of view is that you need to ensure that your partner(s) in the deal are able to have some win, so you negotiate the best place for all of you – the Nash Equilibrium (Win/Win).

Win/Win leads to better overall outcomes – even if not to one individual organization (or person)’s sole benefit. It’s the heart of collaboration. A collaborative environment which is more productive than one where each individual team member, organization, or person looks out only for their own best interests. However, many organizations attempt to layer a Win/Win facade on top of a structure that is fundamentally Win/Lose. Competitive environments are not necessarily bad. They can, in fact, be highly motivating – however, the do make it hard to collaborate.

The key with creating effective competitive environments is to make sure that the competition is externally focused. In the context of an organization, the competition should be against competitors in the market. You shouldn’t be pitting one person against another or one group against another. In the context of collaboration outside of the organization, you shouldn’t be competing with the folks that you’re trying to collaborate with.


One of the keys to collaborating with one another – with alliancing – is that the fates of the various parties are intertwined. That is “All for one and one for all.” Or as Aesop first said it, “United we stand, divided we fall.” The nature of having our success intertwined is important because it gives us the shared sense of success. It’s not just that win/win is an option – it’s required. This fundamental shift in thinking, that we have to succeed as a team, creates a different atmosphere and a different kind of working together. While in some sense organisms in an ecosystem still compete – there’s a sense of cooperation. That is, there are places where we are forced to compete, but fundamentally, we’re looking to cooperate to make everyone healthier.

Some might say that this is an impossible ideal or idealistic. However, I’ve spent years working with others to cultivate this point of view in Indianapolis, as the consulting companies all come together to support the community, and yet we sometimes find ourselves bidding on the same work. It absolutely does work, but it takes a personal strength – and alignment to the goal that everyone should end up better off – just like the kind of organizational-personal alignment that needs to happen in organizations.

Organizational-Personal Alignment

Many years ago I was working special projects for the CEO of a manufacturing company. During that time I remember him telling me that he was like a big gear at the center of the organization. If he turned even a little all the little gears in the periphery of the organization would end up spinning very, very fast. The Heretic’s Guide uses the metaphor of individual marble maze boards on a much larger framework of a tilting frame which is the organization. The idea is that when the organization makes a shift all of the individual boards are effected and they have to adjust as well.

This reminded me of two things. First, some organizational work from years ago about organizational contribution. Second, about how lining up personal and organizational goals could be valuable.

Organizational Contribution

In the organizational contribution model I’m considering, how folks contribute to an organization aligns along two dimensions. First, there’s the dimension of their interest. We all have interests that drive us and some of our work aligns with those interests. The second dimension is the dimension of ability. I may be very interested in electronic circuit design but that doesn’t mean that I’ll be good at it.

Looking at the four quadrants, if I’m low on interest and ability I’m going to be disinterested and dysfunctional – a model of an employee that should be terminated. If my interest is there but my ability isn’t, I’ll be interested but dysfunctional. The good news is that folks here tend to improve their ability. Because you’re interested, you’ll learn and generate better abilities. (See Outliers) That leads us to the category of an interested achiever. Inevitably though, your interests will shift and lead you into the quadrant of the disinterested achiever. In this quadrant you’re still effective at delivering solutions but because it’s not aligned with your interests you’ll get burned out and will disengage from the organization.

I was thinking about how this cycle plays out if the organization’s interests are shifting as well as the personal interests. The organizational interests changing will tend to pull down the ability as employees are shifted out of their comfort zones. It can be that these changes will transition people into an area of disinterest and dysfunction – making a change necessary. Realizing that with change comes growth so the organizations changes means that individuals will need to grow as well.

Personal Goals Alignment

In another life, I had a friend who wanted to be the best public speaker possible. He wanted to get the top speaker scores at every conference. Some would say that he was obsessed with getting the top scores. He painstakingly rehearsed, he added comedy and “crowd work.” A short time later he was clearly the best speaker in the market. The good news was that he was the co-owner of an organization that needed an evangelist, someone who would be good at engaging people to buy their product. His personal goal to become the best speaker was completely aligned with the organizational goals to become better known in the market place.

After he reached the top of his game his interests shifted – creating a misalignment with the organization. In effect, he had moved from an interested achiever to a disinterested achiever – and while that works for a while it isn’t sustainable.

When an organization and an individual’s goals are aligned it’s amazing how much can be accomplished. Sometimes the alignment can be simply in principles and not necessarily in skills.

Principle-Driven Leadership

Behind much of the Heretic’s Guide is a visibility to the principles that are behind the processes and programs. The same sentiment is expressed in Heroic Leadership where it describes what made the Jesuits successful over the long term wasn’t a set of prescriptive methods of doing business. It was a set of principles that led to the right point of view. The four principles from Heroic Leadership are:

While these are more personal and lofty concepts than those shared in the Heretic’s Guide – they represent the same fundamental view of problems that are espoused in the Heretic’s Guide. It’s the difference between the ways an apprentice sees the problem compared to a master. I wrote about the learning curve we experience from apprentice through journeyman to master. I revisit the concept again in my review of The Art of Explanation. The methodologies are great when the principles line up, but they don’t work so well when the problem exposes its wickedness.

What It Means to Be Wicked

Given my recent review of Dialogue Mapping, I won’t spend a great deal of time reviewing the meaning of wicked problems or why so many of the problems we encounter have wickedness in them. The Heretic’s Guide covers both wicked problems and the dialogue mapping technique using IBIS that Conklin discusses in Dialogue Mapping. Having known Paul for so long and having discussed it with him so many times, I find it hard to say which discussion of dialogue mapping is a better place to start – so I’ll just recommend that if you’re serious about dialogue mapping and wicked problems that you read both – they have obviously similar points of view, but there’s a different type of richness in each explanation.

Where Heretic’s Guide goes beyond Dialogue Mapping is in discussing other Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs).

Structuring the Problem

It seems like everyone is looking for a way to structure problems so that they’re easier for everyone to understand. Shared understanding of a problem is one of the key issues with wicked problems, so it’s natural that it’s an area where folks are struggling to find an answer. One of the quotes from Heretic’s Guide is “The good thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” That is certainly the case when it comes to problem structuring methods. Paul and Kailash reviewed numerous problems structuring methods:

  • Soft Systems Methodology
  • Breakthrough Thinking
  • Polarity Management
  • Dialogue Mapping
  • Back of a Napkin
  • Quest
  • Journey Making
  • Strategic Choice Approach
  • Robustness Analysis
  • Drama Theory

Of these, there are details on the strengths and weaknesses of each approach for Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Breakthrough Thinking, Polarity Management, and obviously Dialogue Mapping.

Because there are some good insights for how to think about wicked problems and facilitating understanding, I’ll summarize the Heretic’s Guide’s coverage of SSM, Breakthrough Thinking, and Polarity Management.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

Soft Systems Methodology is the oldest PSM but has been criticized for its relative lack of specificity. It’s described as a loose framework. However, there are some specific views for conceptual modeling including CATWOE:

C Customers. Who is on the receiving end of this transformation? How will they react to what you are proposing? Who are the winners and losers?
A Actors. Who will be carrying out this activity?
T Transformation. What are the inputs? What are the outputs? What is the process for transforming inputs into outputs?
W World View. What view of the world makes this definition meaningful? What is the bigger picture into which the situation fits?
O Owner. Who is the real owner of the process or situation?
E Environmental constraints. What are the broader constraints that act on the situation and this definition?

Breakthrough Thinking

Certainly there’s a great name in the PSM Breakthrough Thinking. It’s got marketing zing. It’s described as a way to avoid “analysis-first” and “technology traps”. Breakthrough Thinking doesn’t believe that more data necessarily means more insight. Additionally, Breakthrough Thinking doesn’t believe that people resist change – the methodology believes that people resist change they don’t understand or that they believe is threatening to their wellbeing.

Breakthrough Thinking also believes in institutionalizing continual feedback because that is essential to understanding problems – which is consistent with the way that wicked problems are defined.

Polarity Management

Polarity Management believes that wicked problems should be considered as poles to manage rather than problems to be solved. I tend to think of this as continuum and things are on that continuum. The idea in polarity management is that problems tend to oscillate between the poles.

Here are the key steps for problem solving in polarity management:

  • Identify the polarity—determine the description or theme of each pole
  • Describe the whole polarity—fill in the aspects of each quadrant
  • Diagnose the polarity:
    • Which quadrant is the problem located in now?
    • Who is crusading and who is tradition-bearing?
  • Predict the polarity
    • What will happen if the crusaders “win” and the concerns of the tradition-bearers are neglected?
    • What will happen if the tradition-bearers “win” and the concerns of the crusaders are neglected?
  • Prescribe guidelines for action
    • Provide mutual assurances that the downsides of each pole are acknowledged
    • Agree on communication systems and practices to ensure that the pole is well-managed going forward

Battling the Flavor of the Week

If you’re tired of battling the “flavor of the week” management philosophy or framework. If you’re ready to look past the checklist and standardized process to figure out how to make your organization or situation better, read The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices to see how you can survive.

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