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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.

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