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Tag: Competencies

The Silver Bullet Syndrome

Over the past several years I have heard an increasing number of complaints from a large number of Agile adherents accusing organizational management of expecting Agile to be a silver bullet (usually stated as “the next silver bullet” although I am not sure what other “silver bullet” Agile is replacing).

These accusations usually occur when there are problems with Agile or the approach does not work as advertised and organizational management pulls the plug or reverts to more traditional software development or management approaches. These complaints are not unique to the Agile community, although they do seem to be somewhat IT related in general. Hearing them got me to thinking about the whole concept of the silver bullet, the results of which follow.

We in IT are fond of condemning management of organizations for continually looking for “The Silver Bullet”. There is certainly some evidence to support IT’s contention that management expects a “magical” solution to business problems. We can cite many instances of technologies or approaches in IT that rose to preeminence and then were cast aside as not having The One Answer:  Business Process Re-engineering comes to mind as an example.

Perhaps we feel we in IT have a greater insight into how things work since Fred Brooks paper was published back in 1986  titled “No Silver Bullet – Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering.” And to a large degree, technology, headed by computer technology, has been the victim of “the next great thing” for decades. Since we in IT are the ones producing “the next great thing” perhaps, like Pogo, “we are the Silver Bullet that we complain about”. [1]

The Evolution of the Silver Bullet

For those not aware of the legend of the silver bullet, in folklore a silver bullet fired from a gun is the only way to kill a werewolf. (Note that the silver bullet was also used by the fictional Western character, The Lone Ranger, as a calling card and a symbol of law and order. We are not referring to that particular use of silver bullet in IT.) Initially, in common parlance, a “silver bullet” referred to the only successful solution to a given problem or situation (to kill a werewolf for example). It was a positive concept. I can remember management meetings in which someone would say, “well, that looks like our silver bullet to resolve the issue.” And it was.

Since Brooks’ article, “silver bullet” has become a pejorative term usually applied to management with the emphasis on the fictional aspect of the concept: there are no werewolves, and, therefore, no “magic” silver bullets to kill them. In other words, there is no single approach or technology that will solve a complicated business problem.

Deus ex Machina

Perhaps we in IT might be better served by using the term Deus ex Machina rather than silver bullet. The Deus ex Machina, Greek for “god from the machine”, was a device used by playwrights, and others, to get the hero or protagonist out of an impossible situation by means of some unexpected, and marginally believable, power or event that occurs to save the day. Usually, in Greek plays it was portrayed as some god arriving in a chariot when things were darkest for the heroes (the monster was about to devour them, or the enemy wipe them out) to set things right and to save the day.

Deus ex Machina might be a better analogy for the single magical solution that management would like to see to solve its business problem: A new product, or technology, or approach that would get them out of whatever difficulty they are in, and most likely got into by their own actions, or lack thereof.

However, Deus ex Machina is hard to say and is not quite that familiar. After all, Greek drama is not a common course for MBAs, not to mention IT curricula. So it looks like we will have to live with the term “silver bullet”.

There is a Silver Bullet

The logical binary oriented computer and IT people declaim management’s persistent belief in and search for the silver bullet. IT people, especially in software development, and more especially in the Agile approaches, state categorically that there is no silver bullet. This may be a valid, logical conclusion, at least in IT, but it flies in the face of human nature.

We might recall as children getting ourselves into an untenable situation or simply being the victim of circumstances of which we could not get out. The situation seemed hopeless, at least to us. Then our parents or teachers or some other adult produced a solution to the problem, sometimes with money, sometimes with an action they took, and sometimes with some simple adult advice and counsel. Whatever was done, a single solution evaporated the unsolvable problem. And this is the way it is supposed to be. Children trip and fall and the adult gets rid of the pain and comforts the injured so the child can get up and run again. Children try something new that does not work in the adult steps and to make it right. In other words we are used to “silver bullets” even though as we look back as adults on those events, we realize they are simply adult solutions to problems that we as children could not determine. Still, as children filled with a sense of relief that the problem is solved, we would call them “Silver Bullets” if such a phrase were in our vocabulary.

Being so used to “adult intervention” is it any wonder that we humans believe in silver bullets?

Romance and Comedy

Hollywood contributes to our continuing belief in the silver bullet. In romantic movie after comedic movie, the lead character gets something (love of their life, money, etc.), the lead character loses it, and then by some magical happenstance, the lead character gets it back (usually along with some insights) in the third act, and everyone lives happily ever after. Centuries of books, plays, operas, and nearly a century of movies (not to mention television and now Internet shows) have conditioned us to expect some kind of silver bullet to make everything right by the final credits. Regardless of how implausible, Andy Hardy puts on a show to save the orphanage. Cars line up for miles waiting to pay money to visit the Field of Dreams and save the farm from foreclosure. King Richard returns just in time to save Robin Hood from the forces of King John. The real criminal confesses to save the innocent man’s execution just before midnight. And so forth.

Our popular culture continues to reinforce the belief that somehow, someone or something will come along and save the day. More silver bullets.

The 24 Effect

In the very popular television series 24, the lead character, Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, had two often repeated phrases. The first, “dammit”, spawned a college drinking game. The second phrase, repeated in nearly every episode, shows how ingrained the concept of the silver bullet is in our culture. The phrase is “this is the only way”, usually stated after another character recites a laundry list of risks, such as death to Mr. Bauer.  Not only is Jack Bauer stating a single solution that will magically solve the problem (the problem of that 15-minute segment anyway) but the solution generally, in fact, works. And we believe it, or at least we suspend our disbelief.

As humans, we want to believe that there is a solution, even a “magical” solution that will get us out of our most dire situations.

This is called hope. And hope is not a bad thing.

And who knows? Maybe there are silver bullets. After all, someone has to win the lottery.

Silver Bullet Expectations

There are two primary reasons that Business Analysts have to be aware of the natural occurrence of the belief in silver bullets. We might call this the “Silver Bullet Bias.”

The first is one of expectations. This is the primary reason behind the negative connotation to the phrase “silver bullet”. If management assumes that a solution, for example an Agile approach, is a silver bullet, management will assume that the problem will be completely solved with no other action necessary.

Part of the reason for the Silver Bullet Bias is those who are proponents of the approach, the zealots or true believers.  There has been a lot of hype about Agile, for example, especially from the Agile advocates themselves. Agile, a software development philosophy or mindset, has been pushed to the corporate level far removed from the developers who signed the Agile Manifesto with promises that if the organization is Agile, great things will happen in software development and elsewhere (sales, marketing, customer service, etc.)  There is no mention of the work necessary and one of the underlying principles of Agile, which is that failure is necessary for success. Based on the concept that management is made up of human beings (although there are those in IT who doubt that concept), management will naturally jump at the possibility of a silver bullet.  We have only ourselves to blame for their expectations.

Expectations can be managed. Identifying the risks involved with the proposed solution, the shortcomings of the solution, and the aspects of the problem that may not be solved by this “silver bullet” solution will put the “silver bullet” in its proper context. Sometimes placing a potential solution in a realistic scenario including risks, impacts and limitations might force management to look for other solutions, which is never a bad thing, time permitting, and in many cases, the constraints of time tend to be artificial.

No Other Way

The second issue is more insidious. If management or anyone assumes a silver bullet approach, they will not consider any other options, and have a tendency to overlook the risks, similar to the 24 effect. If the solution is the “only way”, then there is no need to do risk analysis for the purpose of determining the alternative with the least risk, much less come up with another alternative. And this can be disastrous. 

The last thing a Business Analyst wants to hear about a failed solution is “we didn’t consider…” I’m not talking hindsight bias where the phrase is “If only we had known this would happen”.  I’m suggesting that additional information or analysis was stopped, prevented, because a silver bullet appeared and became “the only way.”  As Courtney Turk says in The Secret Diary of Ashley Juergens, or as Dr. Mouhamed Tarazi titles his book:  “There is always another way.” Or as Sherlock Holmes would say, “It’s a capital crime to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

The silver bullet is sometimes another way of jumping to solutions, or worse, ignoring or discounting any other possible solution (confirmation bias).

“No Silver Bullet” is a Silver Bullet

And, finally, the Silver Bullet Bias can be used as an excuse. It’s easy to say management is wrong because they want a silver bullet, and expect every solution to be a silver bullet and that’s why didn’t work. 

“Management expected Agile to be a silver bullet, so they pulled the plug on it when it didn’t solve all their problems.”  This is a convenient excuse, and it may hide the real reasons for the failure. Perhaps expectations were not set at the right level. Perhaps the approach was not correctly implemented. Perhaps the implementers tried to shoehorn the organization into a standard approach when customization, while more difficult, was called for. It’s easy to blame things that don’t go your way in business as a negative attitude on the part of management. The harder thing to do is to evaluate and assess and come back with a plan to do it right the next time (or at least to do it “righter”).

What can the Business Analyst do about it?

We recognize that all of us want, and to a degree believe in a silver bullet, to rescue us from whatever difficulties we are in.  While we cannot eliminate silver bullet thinking, we can address the issues of Silver Bullet Bias in business.

Considering the aspect of the “one and only” solution, the Business Analyst will offer multiple solutions to any business problem – or for that matter, any problem at all. The solutions do not have to be mutually exclusive nor realistic. In other words, one solution might be too expensive, and another realistic but improbable.  Solutions might be variations on the same theme. But they will be separately identifiable solutions to the problem.  Faced with options to solve the problem, management will likely recognize that the Silver Bullet solution is not the only way to go, and be forced into evaluating alternatives to come up with the best viable approach.

The Business Analyst can throw a little tarnish on the silver bullet showing that the solution may not provide all the answers or relief. The Business Analyst provides measurements and metrics pinpointing where the solution may fall short, and how management can determine that the solution is viable (or not). In this way, the “magic” of the silver bullet solution starts being replaced by situational reality. Management can begin to see behind the curtain.  Remember that even when the magic of the Wizard of Oz was shown to be fraud, the Wizard still satisfied everyone’s goals for going to Oz: a heart for the Tin Woodman, brain for the Scarecrow, courage for the Lion, and Kansas for Dorothy. The reality is that goals and solutions can be achieved without the silver bullet.

And, who knows, maybe the Business Analyst will show that the solution was, in fact, a silver bullet.

[1] The comic strip, “Pogo”, scripted by the late Walt Kelly (1913 – 1973) produced many quotes, among which, the most famous is “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

7 Trends in Business Analysis, Project Management, and Agile

Each year since 2009 we have enjoyed reflecting on what’s happened the previous year in the areas of business analysis and project management (including Agile), and making predictions for the upcoming year. To summarize the trends we saw in 2015:

  • Focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, including distributed leadership and the rise of intrapreneurs. This is still hot, hot, hot, but innovation for innovation’s sake is not.
  • Challenges with Agile adoption. For new challenges, read on.
  • What we called a schizophrenic approach to certifications. To learn about what’s happening with certifications, read on.
  • Use of designs during analysis. This was a new concept last year. To understand why it is still important, read on.
  • Struggle with how much requirements management governance is enough.

Here are the industry trends we see happening for the upcoming year.

1.      Proving our value through Business Relationship Management

Executives have long been interested in getting the most value from programs and projects. They want initiatives that show true commitment to value realization. This need is one reason for the increased popularity of Agile. A new trend that is also helping ensure that value is achieved is the emergence of the business relationship manager (BRM) role. BRMs are more than just liaisons between business and IT. They propose and help influence the portfolios, programs, and projects that will deliver the most value. The role is accountable not only for delivering value but also for proving it.

We think this role will begin to gain popularity because too often the responsibility for measuring value has fallen into the chasm between business units and service providers, meaning no one focuses on it. BRMs fill that void, for example, by linking the actual benefits received from an initiative back to the forecasted benefits in a business case. This feedback loop greatly improves initial forecasts, project selection, and leads to quicker decisions to abandon projects that aren’t delivering sufficient value.

2.      Agile is gaining wide acceptance but still faces challenges

As Agile practices gain traction in some organizations and mature in others, some significant questions still remain including:

  • Is everyone on board? For example, some executives want Agile without understanding the organizational commitment and cultural changes required. Some executives are on board, as are the Agile teams, but mid-management resists. Sometimes Agile is successfully adopted by the IT organization, but not by other stakeholders. With this mismatch in acceptance comes a mismatch in expectations that will need to be addressed.
  • Can teams be truly cross-functional? Organizations often struggle with how to incorporate roles that do not clearly fit into one of the Scrum roles of scrum master, product owner, or development team member. Some have found it hard for all team members to effectively do more traditional “specialized” roles like UI/UX, database analyst, business analyst, tester, etc.
  • How much governance should the team follow? Teams are still struggling with such things as how to measure velocity and the associated need for metrics, how much planning is needed, and the age-old how much documentation is enough.
  • Can partial adoption work? We hear client stories about not having time for retrospectives, daily standups, and other ceremonies. Referred to by names such as Scrumerfall and Waterscrum, these methods have both supporters and detractors.

We believe that although these issues will not be solved in the upcoming year, they will be addressed.

3.      Moving beyond our traditional PM and BA roles

Traditionally, Business Analysts have “gathered and managed” requirements and Project Managers have managed a project’s time, budget, and scope. The future is looking very different. The same responsibilities will be needed, but they will be augmented with strategic-oriented duties. Organizations increasingly realize they need to ensure projects actually deliver the benefit value that was stated in the business case. Smart organizations are deploying project professionals more strategically to help them obtain and prove the increased value, including new roles that go beyond the traditional BA and PM (see trend #1).

  • Project Managers are increasingly focused on delivering the benefits and value outlined in the business case and program charter. Plus, there is a growing trend of aligning projects to the strategic initiatives of the organization.
  • Business Analysts who can question the strategic implications of projects and facilitate understanding the real business need behind stated needs are providing increased value to the organization and its customers.

This trend is good news for project managers and business analysts who like to think and contribute strategically.

4.      Lightweight practices are not just for Scrum anymore

Project Managers and others really are finally making peace with the idea that delivering value is what matters, not whether or not they’re Agile and how Agile are they. Yes, people still struggle with organizational change issues around implementing Agile, and yes, team members aren’t always given what they need to make the switch effectively. But the angst increasingly is no longer about whether organizations or teams can call ourselves Agile; it’s (appropriately) about whether what they’re doing benefits the organization, particularly when they’re doing more than is really needed. If doing the right amount of work for the organization manifests itself in some kind of light-weight, Agile-traditional combo practices, then organizations are becoming more OK with that, as long as it delivers value fast and eliminates waste. This is happening outside the boundaries of projects, as well. Whether it’s HR decreasing the frequency of, or even eliminating, regular performance reviews, or organizational metrics around customer or employee satisfaction getting culled back to scales of 1-3 or simply yes/no, it’s not that less is more. Less is the norm.

5.      Certifications  – and the winners are. . . .

As predicted a year ago, there is still no clarity related to industry certifications. There are some changes, though.

  1. Some certifications, once popular in limited geographic locations, are growing significantly. For example, the number of PRINCE2 exams taken in the US grew by 35% in 2015. IREB (International Requirements Management Board) is also gaining momentum.
  2. Despite the predicted demise of associations like PMI and IIBA, both are still here, both are emphasizing business analysis, and both are trying to broaden their reach. IIBA is offering four levels of certifications and PMI not only has a business analysis certification but is currently working on a full business analysis standard.

As a side note and cautionary tale, the Harvard Business Review recently posted an article about the need for all professional associations, not just those related to project management and business analysis, to rebrand, as members find alternate ways to network and learn.

6.      Designs during analysis bring business value quicker

As we predicted last year, the increasing use of business analysis techniques for “non-technical” design work is gaining momentum. This approach is similar to design thinking and moves the focus from product requirements to product features and functions. This trend is popular because it leverages tried and true methods for understanding customer needs and gets them into a buildable solution quicker.

Here are some examples of “non-technical” designs. Instead of listing data requirements in a simple data dictionary, the trend is to create a fully normalized data model. Instead of creating a use case narrative that must be transformed into other objects, the trend is to create them in the form of readily useful acceptance criteria. Instead of ignoring user interfaces, the trend is to create prototypes that reflect business needs. Each of these helps create the solution sooner, thereby helping the organization achieve maximum value sooner.

7.      Workforce Trends are Impacting Project Work and Organizations.

There are a number of trends related to how organizations get work done.

  • There is an increasing comfort level using Skype, IM, and other tools for impromptu, short communications outside the context of actual meetings. Because communication is increasingly becoming less formal and more frequent, we are starting to reclaim some of the connectedness we recently lost working virtually. Engaging stakeholders virtually is also becoming more doable with the online tools.
  • To address the preferences of many younger workers, learning events are becoming shorter and more personalized by incorporating the array of digital learning tools now available. Personalized learning environments are providing workers with an opportunity to think in new ways and continually learn as they adjust and adapt to new technology and evolving processes.
  • Organizations are beginning to adjust to the fact that many workers are not interested in staying in one job for any length of time. This includes not only younger workers but older workers who are looking to expand their skills in the second-half of their work lives. This will increasingly present a challenge to organizations and projects at risk of losing both younger and older workers with valuable knowledge and experience.


[i] Harvard Rusiness Review, To Stay Relevant, Professional Associations Must Rebrand by Denise Lee Yohn, January 5. 2-16. viewed on January 13, 2016.

About the Authors

Andrea Brockmeier, PMP, CSM, PMI-ACP, is the Director of Project Management at Watermark Learning. She has 20+ years of experience in project management and related practice and training. She writes and teaches courses in project management, business analysis, and influencing skills. She has long been involved with the PMI® chapter in Minnesota where she is a member of the certification team. She has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and is particularly interested in the cultural aspects of team development, as well as the impact of social media and new technologies on organizations and projects.

Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CSM, PMI-PBA is Co-Principal and CEO of Watermark Learning and has over 30 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes repeat presentations for national and international conferences on five continents.

Elizabeth has co-authored five books on business analysis and certification preparation. She has also co-authored chapters published in four separate books. Elizabeth was a lead author on several standards including the PMBOK® Guide, BABOK® Guide, and PMI’s Business Analysis for Practitioners – A Practice Guide.

Richard Larson, PMP, CBAP, PMI-PBA, President and Founder of Watermark Learning, is a successful entrepreneur with over 30 years of experience in business analysis, project management, training, and consulting. He has presented workshops and seminars on business analysis and project management topics to over 10,000 participants on five different continents.

Rich loves to combine industry best practices with a practical approach and has contributed to those practices through numerous speaking sessions around the world. He has also worked on the BA Body of Knowledge versions 1.6-3.0, the PMI BA Practice Guide, and the PM Body of Knowledge, 4th edition. He and his wife Elizabeth Larson have co-authored five books on business analysis and certification preparation.

 Susan Heidorn, PMP, CBAP, Ed.D, CSM,  is the Director of Business Solutions at Watermark Learning. Susan Heidorn is an experienced consultant, facilitator, speaker, and trainer, with over twenty years of business experience. She provides project and program management, strategic thinking & planning, leadership development, business analysis, facilitation, process improvement, change management, and team development to her clients based on best practices in the industry.

The Value of Business Analysis:The Trusted Advisor

Often when people talk about the Business Analyst being a trusted advisor within the organization, they are speaking about advising senior management of the organization. That role of the Business Analyst is that of a Management Consultant, the role of trusted advisor goes much beyond consulting or advising management.

The Business Analyst has to become a trusted advisor to everyone within the organization. Whether they are an IT Business Analyst, Business Architect, Process Analyst, Agile Business Analyst or Business Intelligence Analyst they will work with many people within the organization; and they must garner trust from everyone with which they work to gain the needed knowledge from those individuals or assist them in doing their tasks. So let’s look how the Business Analyst works with and advises others within the organization.

The Project Manager

The Business Analyst works with the Project Manager in managing the project to a successful completion. Although their focus is different; the Project Manager is focused on the project and the Business Analyst is focused on the product or solution, their goal of a successful completion of the project is the same. Like many members of the project team, the Project Manager relies on the requirements developed by the Business Analyst. The Business Analyst can advise the Project Manager throughout the project on concerns from both the business and technical stakeholders and may advise on activities or tasks to respond to those concerns.

The Project Sponsor and Business Stakeholders

As the major decision maker of the business stakeholders, the Business Analyst advises the Project sponsor on upcoming project business analysis activities, product features, solution scope boundaries and works with the Project sponsor and project team to resolve any issues that the business stakeholders raise. The Business Analyst works with the business stakeholders to draw out, analyze and document the business needs and requirements for the solution to resolve those needs. The rest of the project team and organization rely on the accuracy and clarity of those requirements. The Business Analyst works with the business stakeholders and Project sponsor to validate and approve the requirements.

The Enterprise Architect

Although an Enterprise Architect is considered a business analysis role, in larger and more complex organizations these will be two distinct roles; therefore, I list them separately. However, realize that in smaller organizations these roles may be performed by one individual. The Enterprise Architect will be concerned with the architecture of the solution being considered; they will develop the technical architecture for the solution based on the requirements of the project. They will put that technical input to the requirements during their development, then use those requirements to ensure the technical architecture of the solution is aligned with enterprise standards. During the development of the architecture and the solution the Business Analyst advises the enterprise architect on the business perspective of the requirements.

The Business Relationship Manager

The Business Relationship Manager is responsible for ensuring that the Project Sponsor is included in all correspondence necessary and that the project team understands the business perspective of the solution scope; in this respective, this is a business analysis role. The Business Analyst will advise the Business Relationship Manager the same as the Project Sponsor and ensure that they both are included in all communication and fully informed as to solution scope. They will ensure that the Project Sponsor and Business Relationship Manager understand the technical side of the solution scope.

The Development Team

As the development of the solution is about to begin the Business Analyst will hold a requirements review session with the development team and business team. This allows to get everyone on the same page with respect to the requirements. This gives the development team the opportunity to raise issues with the requirements, especially if features or components are functionally impossible to deliver. Also difficult to deliver features and components, and alternatives to those can be raised at this time. It is possible that the enterprise architect or Business Analyst has raised and considered alternatives prior to the requirements review. Like the enterprise architect, the Business Analyst will advise the development team on the business need and perspective of the requirements during the development phase of the project.

The Quality Assurance Team

Like the rest of the project team, the quality assurance testers will rely on the requirements for the solution. The quality assurance team will build their test cases on the requirements. The Business Analyst will put the business perspective on those requirements so that the quality assurance team understands the business reason and relative importance of the requirements.

Organizational Management

As the organization is expecting to receive some benefit from the change and its solution, the Business Analyst, possibly through the Project Manager, must advise business management of any changes in that expected benefit as the project progresses through its life cycle. Once delivered the Business Analyst will measure solution performance against developed success metrics and advise management on benefits realization.

So as you can see, the Business Analyst, as a trusted advisor, advises many individuals in many roles within the organization. They advise inside and outside of software development and process improvement projects. They advise on topics of business needs and perspective, technical constraints, data, business processes, architecture, communication needs, requirements, user acceptance testing, solution validation and more topics. They use numerous techniques and models to bring shared understanding of these topics across the project team and organization. So when interacting with anyone within the organization, or as someone in one of these other roles within the organization and interacting with a Business Analyst remember the Business Analyst’s duties as a trusted advisor.

Better Tools 4: Productivity Tools for Process Modelling in Visio

This post provides three efficiency tools for process modelling and design work in Visio. They provide quick resizing and realignment tools for groups of shapes and a way of moving shapes without dragging its connectors as it moves.

It complements three earlier posts:

Tool 1: SmartSize

SmartSize allows you to resize a set of shapes by example  and allows them to be quickly selected and resized later.

Using the Tool

First, select the exemplar shape and adjust its size. Then select the other shapes in the set. Finally, press the SmartSize shortcut key. All of the shapes will now be the same as the first one selected.


In this diagram, Component 2 and Component 3 will be resized to be the same as Component 1


The three components are now resized and have been assigned a group number so that they can be resized as a group later.

Quickly Resizing Later

Select any member of the group and adjust its size. Then press the SmartSize shortcut key. The rest of the set will be selected. Press the shortcut key again and the set is resized to the first one selected.


Resize Component 3 then press the shortcut key. The rest of the group is selected.

Press the shortcut key again and they are now resized.

Whenever a set is resized, each shape is marked internally with a group number. When the shortcut key is used and there is only one shape selected, the tool first selects all the shapes in the same set. When the shortcut key is pressed again the routine carries out the resizing action.


I use this tool whenever I am working in Visio, especially when preparing context diagrams and structural representations. In these diagrams, having consistent shape sizes as the content in each shape is added means regular adjustments. While Visio has some resizing features, they are somewhat hidden and lack the resize by example and group management features seen here.

Learning about Visio

This was the first tool I built in Visio many years ago. It uses many of the shape management concepts that are used for more advanced tools.

The size of a shape is determined by the height and width values that you can see when you view its shapesheet. The tool uses a simple loop to step through the shapes in selection set. It finds the height and width of the first shape and assigns these values to the remaining shapes in the set. The looping, variable handling, and assignment of values to the shapesheet form the basis of most other Visio programming.

Tool 2: SmartAlign

SmartAlign allows you to align a set of shapes by example and allow them to be quickly realigned later.

Using the Tool

Select a shape that has been positioned correctly. Then select the other shapes that should align to it. Then press the SmartSize shortcut key. All the shapes are now aligned through the middle of the first. There is a separate shortcut key for vertical and horizontal alignment.

In this diagram Process 3 has moved and Process 1 and Process 2 have been selected for alignment

Using the shortcut key has realigned the shapes

This diagram shows that a similar shortcut key can be used for vertical alignment.  

Quickly Realigning Later

Select any member of the alignment set and move it to its new location. Then press the shortcut key to reselect the rest of the alignment set. Then press the shortcut key again. The set now aligns with the first shape selected.

Whenever a set is aligned, each shape is marked internally with a group number. When the shortcut key is used and there is only one shape selected, the tool selects all the shapes in the same set. When the shortcut key is used again, the routine carries out the alignment action.


I use this tool whenever I am working in Visio, especially when process modelling and preparing framework and structural diagrams. The ability to quickly align and realign the same set of shapes can save a lot of time, especially as the model matures and the layout adapts. The Visio tools for alignment have improved over time, and work reasonably when initially laying out a model. They are not so great for making quick changes later.

Extending SmartAlign: Automatically Selecting Shapes

SmartAlign has an extension which allows you to automatically select shapes to align. This can be used when aligning shapes for the first time, or when you have a group of shapes and want to extend it to include additional items in the same band running across or down the page.

The first time you press the extension shortcut key, the routine selects those shapes that are most closely aligned the first shape selected. Pressing it again widens the selection to include an increasingly broader set of shapes. The fourth press returns you the start point if there are shapes selected that were not intended. There is a separate extension shortcut key for both horizontal and vertical alignment.

Learning about Visio

SmartAlign extends the concepts developed in SmartSize. It shares the looping concepts but adds the ability to programmatically call the Visio functions like alignment that are seen in the UI. A quick way of getting started is to use the macro recorder and then inspect the code that Visio generates itself. Another key feature this routine highlights is the ability to create and manage the content of custom property fields. These fields are used to store the identifiers that define sets used in SmartSize and SmartAlign. When a new group is identified, the internal GUID for first shape in the set is assigned to the property value in each of the others. If the property does not exist, it is created. Later, a routine in the code selects those shapes which have the same attribute as the one selected.  

Tool 3: Break Links

Break Links removes the connections to a shape so that it can be moved without dragging the connectors with it. The end points of the connectors remain in their current location so that another shape can be dropped in its place. Usually, Visio will then automatically link the connectors to the new shape.

In this diagram, Process 4 has been selected, the Smart Tool Menu shortcut key pressed to show the menu and Break Links selected

Process 4 has been moved away and Process 5 can be inserted and the connectors linked to it automatically.


I use this tool regularly, especially in the early phases of process modelling when the structure is fluid and changes are frequent. I often need to move a process shape sideways to make room for another. Dragging the shape drags its connectors too, and this can be a pain, so it can be easier to break the connectors before the move.

Learning about Visio

This routine illustrates some key features of one dimensional shapes (connectors). When unconnected to a shape, the start and end coordinates point of a connector are expressed as (x,y) positions, however when connected, these end point s refer to locations on the shape it is connected to (its parent). To break the links, the routine determines the parent location as (x,y) coordinates and assigns these to the end points. This means the connector loses is parent link, but its endpoint remains in the same place.

Leadership Lessons: Implementing Change – Phase 5 – Desire Becomes Action

Editor’s note: We will be showcasing each phase of Peter de Jager’s methodology in weekly posts. Click here for phase 1, phase 2, phase 3, and phase 4.  
Check back every week to read the next phase.

The only person who likes change is a wet baby! A wet baby is aware of the imperfections of its current situation and will cry and scream until a change is brought about.  This analogy is a simple one, but it does contain a core of truth. If your target audience is dissatisfied with their status quo, they will be willing to change to something else.

What is their Vision of the Future?

Where would they like to be in 1 year, 5 years? Can they define what they would like their future status quo to look like? The better they can define it, the more detail they can describe, the more tangible it becomes.

What solutions can they suggest?

Here is where empowerment comes in to play. If they can describe a future status quo, then they can suggest ways to get there. Describing how to get there becomes not only possible, but if they’re sincere about their vision being a solution, then they’re highly motivated to come up with a transition plan. In all of this implementation plan, there is a key assumption being made; that you have competent, intelligent, rational people in your organization. If the answer is no, that you’re surrounded by incompetent fools, then the next course of action is to find out why management hiring practices need so much improvement

What can they do to achieve it?

How can they become involved in their vision? What can they do to move towards it? Surprisingly enough, they have answers to these questions. And those answers can become a plan of action – if we let them.

What commitment will they invest?

Change is never easy. What will they contribute to get to the future they’ve described? If the answer to the question “What’s in it for me?” is satisfactory to them, they’ll be willing to contribute more than we expect.

 What do they need from you?

Staff needs management support. This is what is meant by the phrase ‘Top-down Support’ and it is crucial to successful change. IF top management does NOT believe in the change, then it becomes very difficult to achieve. Not impossible, just needlessly difficult. Before going to the troops with a change, make sure the political battles in the upper ranks have been resolved.

When will their ‘Transition Plan’ be ready?

Set a date for the completion of the change. Nothing happens without a deadline. Deadlines, especially deadlines offered voluntarily, with eyes open, become a commitment.

What will NOT Change?

Very important. People need to know what parts of the old status quo will remain. Even if it is only small things which will remain constant, don’t underestimate their value.

 © 2015 Peter de Jager – Reprinted with Permission