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Norm, head of engineering for a small software company, looked out his office window. At a gorgeous view he usually appreciated. Just right for calming him as he puzzled his way through a problem. Today, though, his gaze went right through the view. “I am reaching the edge of what I know to do,” he said.

“What’s that?” Bathilda, head of product, asked from his doorway, startling him.

“Wha-huh?” Norm replied. “Oh, just talking to myself. I didn’t know you were there.”

“I had just walked up when I heard you say something,” Bathilda explained. “I didn’t quite catch your words. So I wasn’t sure if you were talking to me.”

“I wasn’t, but I am now. Come on in,” Norm said, waving her into his office.

“Thanks. What’s got you talking to yourself?”

“This bloody release. It’s driving me batty. We were supposed to ship yesterday. But every change we make to fix one problem causes two more to crop up. I’ve just about gone through my entire bag of tricks, and so has everyone else on the team. I’m not sure where to go from here.”

Explain the issue to an outsider

“That’s rough,” Bathilda said empathetically. “We had some hard cuts to make, deciding what to fit into the release. I guess we should have trimmed back even more.”

“Wouldn’t have helped,” Norm said, shaking his head. “The new code is fine. It’s the old code that’s giving us fits. You’d think it is feeling unloved and throwing a temper tantrum for some attention. It’s been untouched for years, and now every line of code seems to be acting up.”

“I guess we should have introduced the new puppy into the family more slowly?” Bathilda said with a smirk. “But, when you say ‘old code,’ how old are you talking? Last release, or further back?”

“Old. The code I wrote way back at the beginning.”

“Ouch. But that has nothing to do with the new features we’re adding this release, right?”

“Right. At least, we didn’t think so. But, clearly, there’s some connection.”

“And you didn’t just forget to feed the compiler gremlins or something?”

Norm sighed. “No. I wish it were that easy. We’ve even been putting extra snacks out this week. We see little gremlin tracks in the leftover crumbs every morning. So, we know they’re satisfied.”

Bathilda stared at Norm, not sure whether he was kidding or not. Engineers could be pretty superstitious, at least these ones were, she’d found.

“How can I help?” Bathilda asked.

Explain the problem in a new way

“I know you’re not super technical. Can I walk you through everything we’ve tried so far anyway? Maybe trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand all the deep technical details will help me find a new approach.”


Norm took Bathilda through the entire history of the release, from start to finish. As he talked, Bathilda drew diagrams on his whiteboard to help her keep track of everything Norm told her, and to keep the relationships between things straight.

Finally, Norm said, “And that’s where we are today.” He looked up. “What’s all this you’ve drawn?” he asked.

“I process information visually,” she answered. “This is how I take notes: drawing diagrams. It’s the only way I could keep track of everything you were saying.”

“What’s this big diagram filling the middle whiteboard?” he asked. “I recognize everything else. This middle one, though, I don’t get.”

“Oh, that’s a Diagram of Effects. I built it up as you talked. It shows how the different subsystems in the product and the teams building each interact.” She laughed as Norm turned his head sideways, trying to make sense of it. “Here, let me take you through it.”

Build a model of your experience

Ten minutes later, Norm looked at Bathilda in awe. While he had offered a few corrections as she explained her model, she had mostly gotten everything right. “You extracted that from what I said?” he asked in disbelief. “It’s so much simpler than the model I have in my head.”

“Well, I updated it a bunch as you talked. And, I have the luxury of learning everything from scratch. So, I didn’t have any preconceptions about how any of it is supposed to work.”

“It’s an amazingly succinct summary. And, it gives me several ideas for what to do next. For one, it highlights connections between areas of code we’ve all assumed are isolated from each other. For another, it shows me a few places where our quality gates may be failing us.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help.”

You always have another step you can take

“You definitely did! First, you’ve reminded me I always have another step I can take, even when I feel boxed in and hamstrung. Second, you’ve reminded me how powerful taking a new point of view can be. Third, you’ve introduced me to a fabulous tool for generating those new points of view. And fourth, you’ve shown me my world from a brand new perspective. How can I ever repay you?”

Bathilda grinned mischievously. “You can grant all my requests for the next release.”

Norm barked a laugh. “Is that what you were coming to ask about? Planning our next release?”

Bathilda nodded.

“Sure, let’s get into it. But, let me get a photo of these diagrams first. Your Diagram of Effects, especially, I don’t want to lose.” He took out his phone and snapped a panorama of his whiteboards. Then, he and Norma set to work erasing them in preparation for filling them with new notes.

“So, here’s what I’m thinking,” Bathilda said, and they got to work.

I unfortunately do not have an example Diagram of Effects handy, and my websearches are coming up bupkis. If you’d like to donate one, I’ll happily accept it. And If you want to learn more about Diagrams of Effect and other nifty tools, Gerald M Weinberg’s Managing Yourself and Others is a great place to start.

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