I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it. – Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys
Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) is an approach developed by Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann to help consultants working on complex problems involving social processes – ones that involve people trying to deal with situations.
There is a tendency, especially among engineers, to ignore the people side of things.
We’re more comfortable working on hard problems – designing or creating solutions or trying to work out what software or technology will let us do something.
The world is out there, it’s objective, we can see it, see what’s wrong and fix it – in our view you just need the tools.
When people get involved, however, you have to start worrying about subjective stuff.
What this means is that instead of an objective world where are problems are of the type “how do we get this heavy block from here to there?” we have to worry about what’s in people’s heads – like “how will the position I take on this affect my chances of promotion and should I do the right thing for everyone or the right thing for me?”
Let’s go through some of the points the creators make about why and when and how to use the method.
Why and when to use SODA
SODA is an approach, a set of methods, that will help you manage and facilitate discussions about a situation.
People have to talk things through in order to understand what they think and what they are willing to do.
This is different from going into a room by yourself and collecting lots of data and writing a report.
This is about getting people talking, sharing, exploring their ideas and constructing a story, a narrative that captures what they think.
SODA is a good thing to use to start off a project because you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper rather than a preconceived framework.
It’s the difference between going into a meeting with a slide deck and saying “I’m going to spend the next 40 minutes talking about myself” and opening your notebook and saying “Let’s talk about what’s important to you.”
A lot of people are comfortable with the slide deck, they know they have to just get through it and answer questions and they feel like they’re in charge.
The second is far more scary – you have to know what you’re doing, be comfortable that you can cope with wherever the conversation goes.
But what are you actually doing?
How SODA works
The key thing to understand about a method like SODA is that what you create during the process – the notes, the drawings, the maps – are temporary things.
For example, at the core of the SODA approach is the ability to do an interview with your clients and create a cognitive map.
The interview and initial cognitive map
A cognitive map captures concepts and the links between concepts that the clients have in their heads, it’s simply getting down short sentences and links to other short sentences that capture what they’re saying to you.
If you’re going to do this on paper you just sit down with your client and have a notebook – A4 paper on a clip board is fine.
Start about a third of the way down the page and ask a starter question and note down what’s being said.
Make a few notes before you start connecting the ideas and then explore things further, go where it’s interesting, where the client wants to talk, follow trails and clarify things you don’t understand.
Your job is to interview the client – not with an agenda or a purpose – but in order to help them talk through and understand what they think.
What you’re going to end up with is something messy and with lines everywhere – but that’s ok.
The point is to see and learn and understand, not to make it pretty.
For example, here’s an extract from the way my maps look – there’s nothing neat or even readable about them at this point.
Extend and redraw the map
Once you’ve finished the interview then you need to sit down and write it up, preferably when things are still fresh in your mind.
This act of tidying up the map is an important part of the SODA method, and Eden and Ackermann have developed software to help with the task and you can get a free trial version.
At this stage there are a number of technical points that the creators of SODA suggest you should consider.
First there is the idea that concepts are bipolar, they form a range between two extremes.
The client is somewhere between those two extremes one that concept, which then relates to another, which is different.
For example, let’s take the concept of the attitude of employees who want to work from home.
One extreme that people take is that this is good and productive and saves time on the commute while the other extreme is that people who want to do that are lazy and just want to sit on the sofa while still being paid.
So, you have this concept of attitude to home working that’s then connected to the concept of safety practices at work.
Then you have the idea of trying to reword what you’ve heard in more action-oriented language.
In the sense that rather than simply whining about a subject you try and see where things are moving, where you might start and progress and finish.
What you might also find, during the process of redrawing the map, is that ideas fall into clusters, and you can see them as part of a larger set of ideas.
Discussion and action
What you’re doing is trying to create a structure, a hierarchy, a flow that suggests that you are moving towards a state of doing – a point at which you can agree on what the situation is what you’re going to do about it.
And the way you do that is to sit down and use the maps to have a discussion.
You’ve got the structure in front of you and now you can follow it, revisit the ideas, mark up things that work or don’t work and refine and redraw the maps.
The point about the approach is that rather than trying to keep all this in your head you’ve made it visible, you’ve created a map on paper that tries to capture the map in the client’s head and so it’s easier to talk about it and see if it makes sense or not.
Does it help?
The point about approaches like SODA is that you can’t really say whether they work or not – the question is whether they help you in the situations you face given the type of person and consultant you are.
People who crave order and structure may find that the free-form and blank page style initially scary and daunting.
Later, perhaps, when they’re doing the mapping, they might find it easier and more fun to do.
But, like the other tools that I’m going to go through, it’s not easy to do because you need to understand some theory, develop some craft skills and get some real-life experience messing up.
You have to pass your own test – which is whether you feel like you helped your client or not.
But the good thing is if you keep at it, you’ll work out a way that works for you.
But before we look at that, we need to consider another way to approach complex situations in the next post.