Information architecture often deals in the invisible. I make my living out of moulding concepts, categories, constraints and assumptions. They’re invisible building blocks. But they’re definitely not inconsequential just because they’re immaterial. They’re just hard to think about. They’re hard to picture.
Without a concerted effort to concretise our ideas, it’s harder for IAs to play a substantive part in the design process and decision making. Information architecture implies and empowers meaning-making. But until we can communicate it in language (words or pictures) IA can be a periphery concern.
As so much of my work can be invisible and immaterial (at least at the early stages of the process) I’ve always prioritised making things visible. I’ve taken the view that a bad idea is better than no idea. And that a faulty description gives us something to critique. It moves us forward from uncertainty to a greater degree of consensus. Even if the consensus is that we recognise we don’t all yet share the same view of the problem or solution, at least we agree on something.
Getting IA ideas into words and pictures increases our influence. But it also helps us develop our understanding. Each attempt to describe an idea forces us to rehearse our understanding and argument. Communicating IA is a form of deliberate practice – it’s what we do, and at the same time preparation for what we do.
Today I thought I’d share one of the ways I describe how I build and exert influence — Dan Ramsden’s Spectrum of Intervention. I created it when I was thinking about how I get stuff done. I wanted to visualise the different states and skillsets that I should develop and practice to develop and exert influence. This is drawn from my perspective of working within an organisation. But I think some elements, or the thought process behind it might be useful to all IAs.
I know it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s in the shape of a clock. Situations and relationships can move in either direction around the face-and even jump around a bit too. But I like to keep as many relationships/situations between the 12ish to 5 o’clock-ish position. Anywhere in the green is good.
This section marks agreement, where I can actively direct the situation and exert influence with lower levels of effort and engagement.
In this zone I’m goal oriented. I’m probably exploiting deep levels of trust. If I’m consolidating a relationship that began in disagreement, then I’m listening and confirming we still agree. Then I’m building and developing –actively shaping the labels and language people use. I’m keeping my promises and encouraging people to actively agree with me. I might need to do some maintenance, keeping in regular contact and checking that our language, beliefs and behaviours are still on track. But for a lot of the time I can focus on delivering work, rather than working on the relationship.
The section that hovers around 5 o’clock to 6 is a dangerous area — the end of office hours. I’ve probably slipped into passive monitoring and have less engagement in these relationships/situations.
Here I could easily smash into the ‘Roadblock of unrecognised disagreement.’ This is where people are assuming they agree, maybe using the same words — but have different assumptions or meaning behind them. This is dangerous. You should treat the sign as a roadblock and dead-end. Use it to encourage you to regularly wander back into ‘Maintenance’ even if you have a high degree of confidence in a relationship or team. Maintenance sees you exploring language, comparing the words and labels you use — finding time to talk face to face to share and shape a common perspective.
When you’re not actively developing, maintaining or looking out for relationships (pushing at the periphery) you can easily wander into ‘The fog of confusion’. I think of ‘The fog of confusion’ as containing people and situations that I don’t even know exist. There might be someone with power and influence who disagrees with me, but we’re yet to meet — we might be working against each other without even realising it. Anyone in the fog doesn’t have all the information they need.
It’s great when you get out of the fog backwards — where you find someone predisposed to agree with you — a nice, new ally. But often the only way out of the fog is forward into the blue zone.
Maybe they agree?
The Blue zone of ‘Maybe…’ represents the relationships and situations that you need more information about. As soon as I enter this stage I (most often) focus on facts. Developing a higher degree of factual confidence in the situation means I can start to try to exert influence, underpinned by the knowledge and my expertise.
But there might be times when I need to prioritise feelings over facts. This is more likely to occur with people predisposed to disagree with me [I’m not sure why, I’m lovely]. But here, no matter how many facts I have, if I don’t try to build rapport or some understanding for the antipathy, I’m not going to get anywhere.
I switch from being topic-oriented, focused on the work, to focusing on the people. I do a bit more listening than talking at this stage — it’s important to remember that listening isn’t passive. The best kind of listening is active and it can still be a form of influence to let someone talk.
Depending on the scale of difference of opinion, I’m likely to try to use negotiation techniques. I want the other person to give me the solution to the issue of disagreement, rather than have to invent one myself. So the most powerful question in this situation is often, “What’s stopping us achieving our goal?” — that might be a specific goal or just the goal of finding a common perspective or understanding.
Where we’re in serious disagreement and I have a high stake in the outcome I can directly challenge. I can still use questions to push the solution-finding to my partner. “How can I do that?” and “How can I accept / defend that?” are powerful questions to try to enforce some empathy on the other person and give them a chance to see things from my perspective. I’m trying to move them to some area of agreement. I can then work on consolidating and expanding that and then inching them over into the green zone.
So that’s a quick overview of ‘The Spectrum of intervention’. It’s another example of how I think IAs can help shape situations by describing them. And it hints at the power of adopting a more reflective practice.