Hard and soft information

Sometimes when I draw a Rich Picture, I will use the term “soft information”.

“Hard information” includes verifiable data and knowledge.

So, soft information includes feelings, perceptions, opinions, values—which are often the key to project success or failure. For example, with a project I am currently working on, four information architects are working together in a team, with their manager. Here’s some soft information about our project:

  • Our manager seems to value getting some concept wireframes done fast.
  • It seems like all the team members value understanding the nuances of the big picture, doing a competitive analysis, a gap analysis, etc. etc., before creating concept wireframes.
  • One of the team members has feelings around the fact that he’s going skiing for a week right in the middle of this project.
  • For my part, I’m excited about the work but I perceive that our stakeholders may be a shifting group, so I’m a little apprehensive about which direction to take with my work.
  • The company values the Agile method.
  • One of our stakeholders is of the opinion that we should be conservative in our concepts.

You get the idea.  These feelings, perceptions, opinions and values are pretty important to the project. Yet typically, when putting together a list of project parameters, these kinds of soft information are disregarded, or not even noticed in the first place.

It’s the mix of the hard and soft information that puts the “rich” in Rich Picture.

In case you missed my recent post on the subject, a Rich Picture is a cartoon-like diagram which you can draw in order to:

  • find out about the problem situation
  • create a preliminary mental model of the situation.

Usually, when I draw a Rich Picture, I’m the only one who ever sees it — because they are messy and too hard to explain. Occasionally I’ll show my Rich Picture to other team members, if I’ve cleaned it up enough for public consumption. Once in awhile I’ve drawn a Rich Picture on the whiteboard in a team meeting, to walk a team through my mental processes as a begin a new project.

I use the menomic “COW TEA” to help myself remember the elements of a Rich Picture.

C: Customers or users: the people who will use the system you are making

O: Owner(s), the person(s) with the power to make approvals or cancel actions

W: World view, or some kind of overall perspective on the project

T: Transformation of inputs into outputs, the core activity, or the primary change to be brought about. In other words, “We are going to build a system to <x>”

E: Environment, or factors which impact the project, such as time and resources

A: Actors, or performers of tasks on the project

Peter Checkland introduced the concept of the Rich Picture in 1981 in his book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, the textbook on his soft systems approach to creating solutions to human problems.

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