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Problem Solving: Using Visualization

Some people say we cannot manage what we cannot measure. I say we cannot solve what we cannot see, or at least visualize somehow.

Projects are problem-solving exercises. The entire project is one big problem. We might be building a new product; that's a problem to solve. Or we might be trying to create something well understood but within a challenging amount of time, to a tight budget, and demanding specification. Or we could be moving our organization forward through a change initiative. These are familiar project environments that are puzzles or problems to solve.

Visual Problem Solving for Project Managers Mike Griffiths 1

Then within this large problem environments, we have hundreds of everyday challenges to answer, too. "How are we going to manage without the installer today?" or "The pilot group has requested 400 changes, now what do we do?"

Once we see projects as puzzles with more puzzles within them, we realize the importance of practical problem-solving.

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Rarely do project managers have all the answers or the best answers. So we need to share the problem and collaborate on developing a solution. This is why being able to visualize problems is so important.

Visualizing a problem helps us understand it ourselves and then gain consensus with others on it. It also allows us to determine if we are all seeing it in the same way. Drawing something also lays it out spatially, allowing people to see relations, sequence and connections, or whatever we want to depict.

Here is the structure of this article as a list of bullet points:

  • Introduction
  • Why visualizing is helpful
  • An example from a real project
  • Ways in which we can visualize
  • Wrap up and recommendations

Here is the same information as an image:

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Research into visual thinking by David Hyerle, creator of Thinking Maps methodology, reports that 90% of the information entering the brain is visual.

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Also, 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are for the retina, and a full 20% of the entire cerebral cortex is for vision, so let's use it.

Creating a visual helps us to tackle a problem in steps. Having a spatial reference allows us to park some elements until later. We can say: "Yes we still need to solve the atmosphere re-entry problem, that's shown over here; but right now we are tackling the launch problem." Separating components in this way allows us to focus on one element at a time.

A Real-Life Example

I once took over a struggling project that was using a complex combination of proprietary hardware, software and vendor products. It mixed in-house developed software and cloud-based services—and was difficult for me to comprehend. I went through all the documentation but struggled to see how the elements worked together. To get up to speed, I knew I had to draw it all out to understand it.

I met with stakeholders, asked about how their part worked and drew it out with them. They provided lots of corrections and additions. I then showed the whole thing to the team, and they found even more omissions, which I filled in. I felt like they were humoring me, helping me get my little project manager brain around the complex system they had spent years developing. However, then they announced they had never seen it all mapped out in a single (very large) image before.

We ended up using the diagram repeatedly going forward within the team to discuss issues and to onboard new members. I also used simplified versions and zoomed-in portions for explaining elements of the project to the steering committee.

If you are missing a big picture view of your domain, you probably need to make one. It is a great way to surface misunderstandings and gain alignment on thinking.

Luckily, we do not need to be artists—or even competent at drawing. Stick figures, boxes and lines are all we need. Yes, it is pleasing to have a well-drawn vision of strategy poster, but for most instances, basic drawings are just fine. If we need a professional looking image, there are always graphic artists we can engage. Here is how I show some of the roles of a PM:

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The images are not well-formed or accurate, but convey more meaning than words would alone.

Books such as Visual Collaboration walk readers through the drawing process. They show how to create simple but powerful graphics to help direct meetings, ask powerful questions, and create clear strategies.

Using images sounds like a luxury, right? "I do not have time for that!" Maybe, but are your messages getting through?

Using images helps people retain information. Most people only remember 10% of what they heard three days ago. Add an image to the message, and this figure jumps to 65%.

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So, if we are going to the trouble of interrupting people from their work, we owe it to everyone to make it worth their time. Better to spend the extra time and create a visual than disrupt them six times with the same message to achieve similar retention.

In a team setting, we can use images when capturing opportunities and threats. The sailboat exercise allows people to record and place threats, opportunities and issues on an image with sticky notes:

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We use anchors for threats that could impede progress and depict opportunities as the wind in the sails to propel us forward. Cheesy? Yes, but providing spatial separation and getting people up on their feet, contributing and generating an image they are more likely to remember is worth the cheesiness.

Finally, hand-drawn and group-generated images are more personal, more human and more uniting. They are ours; we created them, and we are more invested in achieving their goals than outcomes shown with generic Gantt charts or schedules. Involvement increases commitment, and human is more approachable than automated.

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Final Recommendations
Here are some tips for problem-solving with visuals:

  • Find ways to visualize the overall project problem; this allows people to see the big picture.
  • Break down the interim puzzle pieces to show relationships, sequence and solution alternatives. Use these visuals to encourage collaboration and build support for group-generated solutions.
  • Don't be shy about your amateur art. Your chicken-scratch stick people demonstrate a vulnerability that increases empathy and encourages others to have a go. Starting with a fancy image may inhibit people from contributing as they do not want to spoil your picture.

While rough-and-ready visuals are suitable for working sessions, there are times when you will want to invest more time and effort. Externally facing artifacts such as plans, roadmaps and product visions will benefit from the best images you can create.

I sometimes create project milestone posters for stakeholders to recognize their contributions and the obstacles we have overcome together. These work well for thank-you cards and foam-board plaques. Here are a couple of examples:

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I like to embed insider jokes and references to some of the issues we faced.

Projects are adventurous journeys we share with our stakeholders. Just as we would use maps and take photos on physical trips, we can do the same for our project endeavors to recognize and remember the venture. So be brave and get visual!

[Note: For more articles from Mike Griffiths, visit his blog at www.LeadingAnswers.com. Mike first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here.]

Copyright © 2020 Mike Griffiths, Leading Answers Inc.

 

 


WBS and Product Backlog: Siblings or Distant Cousins?

WBSandPBIt’s easy to believe that work breakdown structures (WBS) have been around since the pyramids were built in Egypt, and that product backlogs are new inventions by youngsters in too much of a hurry to plan correctly. However, like most things, the truth is more complicated.

In 1957, the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) approach was created by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and described organizing tasks into product-oriented categories. However, they did not use the term “work breakdown structure” or WBS until 1962 when DoD, NASA and the aerospace industry published a document about PERT that described the WBS approach.

Meanwhile, in 1960, Tom Gilb described his Evolutionary Value Delivery approach (or Evo for short) that is widely accepted to be a forerunner of agile approaches. Evo contains principles such as:

  • E1: Decompose by performance results and stakeholders –  Break down the work into small (weekly) value delivery steps
  • E2: Do high-risk steps early – Prioritize the work based on risk
  • E3: Focus on improving your most valuable objectives first – Also prioritize the work based on business value

These ideas became the concepts embodied in backlogs by today’s agile approaches and frameworks.

So, we can trace each approach back to around the same time and also be confident these ideas were firmly established long before that. Building the pyramids and Roman cities required multiple levels of planning, work decomposition and task coordination. There is little point in arguing whether WBSs or backlogs came first since it was clearly lots of other things.

These days, the PMI Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures defines a WBS as “…a hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team to accomplish the project objectives and create the desired deliverables.” The Scrum Guide defines a product backlog as “an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product.

Are they really so different? They both help with forming an agreement on scope. Yet, due to how they are often used, they are viewed as quite different by many people…a viewpoint I would like to change.

WBS and Backlog

WBS and Backlog Similarities and Differences
Work breakdown structures are often defined upfront and supported with a WBS dictionary. They can be used to form statements of work and contracts. If these deliverables are useful for your projects, then great, create them. However, understand we could create the same deliverables from a product backlog also.

Yet, on agile projects, we typically do not because these environments tend to be more dynamic so these deliverables would soon be out of date. Instead, we create iteration plans, release roadmaps and work from the top of the backlog while the product owner manages the backlog with evolving priorities and change requests. These deliverables are easier to update as changes occur. The differences we see in action stem more from the characteristics of the work environment than the WBS or backlog tool in use. Both help us define and discuss scope.

Visual Benefits
Both are visual and allow us to point at items as we talk about them. This is critically important. Visual depictions of work allow us to collaborate more effectively. When two people face a task board or WBS diagram, they can collaborate with less contention. Visualizations help us build shared understandings and avoid confusions such as having two similar items being considered the same thing or assuming one solution fits two scenarios when it does not.

Depicting scope visually also allows us to shade and color items to indicate type, ownership, risk and completion status.  Visualizing work is a major component of lean thinking. When we visualize something, we also process information using more of our brain—and much more quickly compared to reading and interpreting written information. This is one reason we have road signs with images and not descriptions to read. It is the difference between decoding and understanding meaning in 150 microseconds (roads signs) versus 6,000 microseconds for reading:

Signpost

Product Backlogs as a form of WBS
The third edition of the Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures talks about backlogs as a form of WBS. Many people think only tree structures of boxes and lines are work breakdown structures, but they can actually take on many forms including tabular backlogs or even mind maps.

I can imagine some purists shouting “No, that’s not a WBS!” as I type this, but go check it out for yourself if you do not believe me. The Practice Standard for Work Breakdown Structures WBS is a free download for PMI members. 

I participated as a reviewer for the standard and was pleased to see its coverage of agile scope decomposition using epics, features, user stories and tasks as candidate WBS elements. One thing that puzzled me that I am hoping a reader of this article can help me with is the inclusion of sprints or iterations as potential WBS elements.

My confusion stems from the logical definition of work in section 2.1 that says “… work refers to outputs, work products, or deliverables that are the results of effort, not the effort itself.” – that makes sense. Then in section 2.3.1.1 on WBS rules it says “WBS elements do not account for time or sequence.” Again, that seems reasonable.

However, the examples for agile projects include a WBS with level 2 items showing “Iteration 1,” “Iteration 2,” etc. containing work. This seems to violate the deliverables versus effort definition of “work and no-time” rule. We would not have a WBS element called “September,” so why call out some arbitrary time box? Iterations are just time constructs, and you might choose to use them or work without them as a continuous pull of features from the backlog.

Likely I am interpreting the work, deliverables and no-time rules too literally and, like debating which approach came first,  it probably does not matter. If having iterations shown helps you share your plans and have meaningful conversations about scope, then go for it. I would imagine it would result in having to refactor the WBS frequently as stories get shifted between iterations as priorities change and throughput varies, but maybe not.

The more important idea is that we visualize and discuss project scope with a wide variety of stakeholders to surface and correct misunderstandings. The good news is that product backlogs are a legitimate form of WBS and more of a sibling than a distant cousin. A couple of great quotes from the WBS Practice Standard reiterates the value and applies equally well to backlogs and release roadmaps:

The WBS provides the foundation for a visual representation of the scope of work…Research demonstrates that communication is one of the project management disciplines with the highest impact on project success. The WBS serves as a critical project communication mechanism that helps convey the scope of the project through its graphical depiction.

So let’s get graphical and keep communicating.

 

[Note: This article first appeared on ProjectManagement.com here. For more articles from Mike Griffiths check his blog www.LeadingAnswers.com]