Skip to main content

A technique for advocating change

Communication is a key part of every software analyst’s work.  Some of the time we write formal documents such as design specifications or descriptions of coding standards. We write operational documentation for users and for support staff.  We write blog posts that describe our work, and we write comments in our code and e-mails to our colleagues.   We present our ideas in meetings, in formal presentations and informal discussions.

So it is important to pay attention to these skills, so that we can communicate more effectively.  There are training courses to help us with the basics.  As with any other skill, we can learn through reading about specific techniques, looking at other people’s work, and reflecting on our own work. (In his book Patterns of Software, Richard Gabriel advocates that reading poetry is a good way to improve our writing skills.  His arguments, on page 149, are worth reading for the virtues they espouse whether you read poetry or not).

In this post, I describe one way to structure a particular form of communication: that of making something happen (or stop happening).  In writing, this is most likely to be an e-mail; you could also be making the point face-to-face in a meeting.  The structure works in either setting.  The aim is to make sure that everyone understands the situation and your proposal for action.  Each person in the meeting or reading the e-mail should be clear about what you are asking them to do.

The structure has four parts: context, advocacy, illustration and inquiry.

Framing: Describe the situation.  Why are you sending the e-mail or calling the meeting?  What is the problem to be solved? 

Advocacy: What strategy do you propose to address the situation? 

Illustration: What would your strategy mean for everyone involved? There may be several ways to implement your strategy; what is your view as to how it should be done?

Inquiry:  Ask the others whether they share your perceptions, agree with your strategy, concur with the proposed implementation and understand what they have to do.

The inquiry step may reveal disagreement with any of the preceding three steps.  If people perceive the situation in a different way, they will likely advocate different strategies, so it is important to reach agreement on the context first.  Then, people may disagree on the strategy; other people may advocate a different approach.  This structure lets you work through the discussion step by step. 

It is important that all your colleagues understand what you are asking of them.  If you are sending your proposal as an e-mail message, read it through before sending and ask yourself whether each person on the To: field will understand what you are wanting from them.  It’s surprising how easy it is to write a message that contains information but does not clarify what you are expecting from the recipient.  (I know I make this mistake myself).

This technique comes from the book Action Inquiry by Bill Torbert.  I try to use this technique myself and I find it useful.  If you have any comments, please let me know.


Popular posts from this blog

Presentation: Putting IT all together

This is a presentation I gave to an audience of University staff: 

In this seminar, I invite you to consider what the University’s online services would be like, if we worked together to design them from the perspective of the student or member of staff who will use them, instead of designing them around the organisational units that provide them. I’ll start with how the services might appear to that student or member of staff, then work back from there to show what this implies for how we work, how we manage our data, and how we integrate our IT systems. It might even lead to changes in our organisational structure.

Our online services make a vital and valued contribution to the work of our students and staff. I argue that with better integration, more consistent user interfaces, and shared data, this contribution could be significantly enhanced.

This practice is called “Enterprise Architecture”. I’ll describe how it consults multiple organisational units and defines a framework …

Not so simple...

A common approach to explaining the benefits of Enterprise Architecture is to draw two diagrams: one that shows a complicated mess of interconnections, and one that shows a nicely layered set of blocks. Something like this one, which came from some consultants:

I've never felt entirely happy with this approach.  Yes, we do want to remove as much of the needless complexity and ad-hoc design that litters the existing architecture.  Yes, we do want to simplify the architecture and make it more consistent and intelligible.  But the simplicity of the block diagram shown here is unobtainable in the vast majority of real enterprises.  We have a mixture of in-house development and different third-party systems, some hosted in-house, some on cloud infrastructure and some accessed as software-as-a-service.  For all the talk of standards, vendors use different authentication systems, different integration systems, and different user interfaces.

So the simple block diagram is, basically, a l…

2016 has been a good year

So much has happened over the last year with our Enterprise Architecture practice that it's hard to write a succinct summary.  For my day-to-day experience as enterprise architect, the biggest change is that I now have a team to work with.  This time last year, I was in the middle of a 12-month secondment to create the EA practice, working mainly on my own.  Now my post has been made permanent and I have recruited two members of staff to help meet the University's architectural needs.

I have spent a lot of the year meeting people, listening to their concerns and explaining how architecture can help them.  This communication remains vital, the absolute core of what we do and we will continue to meet people in this way.  We also talk to people in other Universities in order to learn from what they are doing and to share our own experience back.  A highlight in this regard was my trip to the USA last January.

Our biggest deliverable for the past year was the design of the data wa…