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A better way to record conversations

Let’s start with a quick game of Imagine if

  • Imagine if conversations jumped around topics and went off on tangents.
  • Imagine if people repeated themselves in order to add weight to their argument.
  • Imagine if important people had more influence in a meeting than their junior counterparts.
  • Imagine if meetings didn’t stick to their agenda.
  • Imagine if conversations were non-linear and somewhat chaotic.

But wait. They are, and they do.

So why do we all insist on pretending this is not the case? Armed with our favourite note taking tools (OneNote, pen and paper, or some other funky mechanism) we diligently attend meetings. Then, as things penetrate our attention, we jot them down as bullet points – a bit like this:

  • Risks
    • Bridge is high
    • Platform is narrow
    • Rails are old
  • Actions
    • Bryce to repair rails
    • Steve to widen platform
    • Sarah to place mattresses at base of ravine
  • Challenges
    • Ravine is dangerous
    • Mattresses are expensive
    • Steve is busy

How often have you looked at someone else’s meeting notes (or even your own) and been totally unable to recreate the sense, direction or order of the meeting? It’s just a sea of tenuously related bullet points.

This is particularly difficult if you weren’t even at the meeting and you’re attempting to catch up on it by reading someone else’s idea of information-capture.

It’s like looking at the scraps left from a meal and trying to work out what the meal was like.

Wouldn’t it be better if you could recreate the essence of the conversation in a way that allowed you and others to see the key issues and discussion each of the key points generated?

Well you can – and in my opinion it’s a desperately underutilised discipline that is about to unleash itself on the knowledge economy. It’s not new; it’s actually been around for decades – but great ideas sometimes take a while to get out of the labs and heads of academics and into the mainstream. Luckily for you, Issue and Dialog Mapping* has done this and I’m sad I didn’t discover it a lot sooner.

* Dialog Mapping is Issue Mapping done in a particular setting.

This short YouTube clip explains it well so I’ll encourage you to watch that, then I’ll move on.

Isn’t that great! Imagine if meetings were captured like that! Wouldn’t you prefer to read the issues that concern you and not bother with the tangents and side-issues that don’t affect you?

That’s all possible.

Not only that, but during the meeting itself you can see the conversation structure taking shape and collectively decide to let it continue, or pull it back on track.

So how does all this work? It comes back to a simple notation called IBIS – Issue Based Information System – developed in 1970 by Werner Kunz and Horst Rittel. (You can read all about that on Wikipedia.) The leap into common usage came in the late 80s with a graphical representation of IBIS, and a tool called Compendium – which allows folks to issue map their conversations, like this:

IBIS – Issue Based Information System – developed in 1970 by Werner Kunz and Horst Rittel.

Notice that you were easily able to follow that without any explanation…

IBIS’s strength lies in its simplicity. And there are only four pieces of notation required:

 Question – everything starts with a question

 Idea – an answer to a question

 Pro – a supporting argument to an idea

 Con – a contradiction or argument against an idea

The only real ‘rule’ is that an idea must be in response to a question – even an implicit question. For example, if someone says “We should go to the pub!” that could be said to be in response to the implicit question “What should we do next?”

Given this simple notation and single rule, the essence of any source of information can be derived and expressed in its component parts. And the truly powerful thing is you can do this with anything from the simplest to the most sophisticated conversation, presentation, argument, documentary, whitepaper, instruction manual, novel, or anything involving a flow of text. And it can be from any walk of life: professional or casual, public or private, political or apolitical.

I’ve used it to map meetings, workshops, presentations and even my own brainstorming of a problem. And it’s a great artefact to send to a customer afterwards to confirm you captured everything correctly. Or better still to capture it in front of everyone on a shared screen during a meeting or workshop to get real-time confirmation that your interpretation is accurate.

If you want to know more about this you have several options:

  1. Contact me about it, I could (and often do) go on for ages.
  2. Read up online about Issue Mapping (and Dialog Mapping).
  3. Get hold of Jeff Conklin’s awesome book, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems. This book has the most impressive opening of any book on business I’ve ever read. I implore you to read the first chapter and if you aren’t inspired to keep reading I’ll be very surprised. Jeff has been referred to as the father of Dialog Mapping.
  4. Paul Culmsee’s training courses, his book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. If Jeff is the father of Dialog Mapping, Paul is the prodigal son. Also his blog at cleverworkarounds.com is a cracking read and regularly delves into Dialog Mapping.
  5. Download Compendium and give it a go yourself – or even try it on pen and paper instead of your usual note taking (Paul calls this acoustic dialog mapping).

Either way, challenge yourself to recognise the nature of conversation structure and record your information in a way that reflects that structure. And stop the wall of bullet points!

This is probably more than enough to take in for one read – so I’ll wind things up with a few Issue Map snippets in place of a summary paragraph.


I challenge you to get stuck into it – and I am keen to hear how it goes.

Posted by: Bryce Saunders, Senior Consultant | 22 June 2015

Tags: Planning, PMO, productivity

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