Thursday, 11 March 2021 09:00

Embrace the Chaos of the Unstructured

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Like many business analysts, I absolutely love structure.  I have particular favorite notations, and nothing is more satisfying than that feeling of creating an absolutely beautiful model where all the lines are completely straight and every part of it is neatly lined up.

I’ve been known to zoom in to 250% just to line up all of those arrows, right angles and connectors and I know I’m not the only one who does this!

Stakeholders are often taken aback at how something seemed so complicated when it was discussed verbally can be neatly articulated on a single set of diagrams (although they’ll never see the toil and sweat in the background!).

Whilst this kind of structure is extremely useful in the right situations, there’s something liberating about simultaneously embracing the unstructured.  It’s important that we note that structured models and diagrams are excellent at depicting particular things, they are like a ‘lens’ on the situation, but they deliberately omit other things.  A BPMN process model will show how work flows through and between organizations.  A system use case diagram will show the functional interactions between actors and an IT system.  Neither of these will show less tangible, messier but often equally important factors like culture, personalities, historical conflict and so forth.  This isn’t a deficiency of any of the models; it’s just that they weren’t designed for this.


Visualize the Mess

One approach that I am particularly fond of is the rich picture. I often find myself making sense of a situation by drawing it, and I find it even more valuable to get together with other stakeholders and ‘draw the situation’.  I find this often uncovers varying perspectives on what is happening, and even more importantly, what each stakeholder thinks ought to happen.  One stakeholder might bemoan that the IT systems aren’t fast enough, whilst another observes that there’s conflict between different departments because of the way that targets are set.  Another might make an observation that people are rarely trained, and in their view the IT system is fine, it’s just that people don’t know how to use it.  Layering on all of these different perspectives helps move us closer to a collective understanding of the situation we’re trying to improve.  Creating, or even better co-creating with stakeholders, a drawing representing the situation can cultivate a broad set of conversations which increase shared understanding. If you need some inspiration, do a Google image search for ‘rich pictures’, although mine are often very scrappy to start with!

One thing that can cause reluctance with approaches like this is that there is a complete absence of structure.  With a blank canvas, where should we start?  Yet this is the beauty, it doesn’t pre-suppose that anything is more relevant than anything else.  When using other types of models we are inadvertently steering things in a particular direction.  Starting with a process model implies that we are most interested in the process issues.  Of course, a process model can be used to discover other issues too, but it will likely steer the conversation in a particular direction.  Why not start without that structure, and introduce structure when more is known.

Another source of reluctance with less structured diagrams and visualization is whether stakeholders will be able to understand them.  This is an excellent question, however it’s important to consider the intent of the technique.  Visualizations such as rich pictures can be used purely as a device to create conversations and to make sense of a situation, with more structured artefacts following.  They absolutely can be shared, if this is useful, but in many ways the value is in the conversation and the creation of the picture, rather than in the artefact itself.  Not only this, details can be added to them over time as more information emerges.  They may help determine where to focus further analysis, and which types of more structured or formal models will be most valuable.

Overall, it’s important that we don’t prematurely impose structure on a situation. Embracing the unstructured, and incrementally building our knowledge on what works well and what needs improvement, whilst consciously seeking different stakeholder perspectives will likely yield dividends.

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’

You can read Adrian’s blog at and follow him on Twitter at

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