Learning by Opportunity

The figure below should not be a mystery to anyone. It is known by various names, most commonly the ‚”scientific approach” or “waterfall method” and is well ingrained not only into software engineering disciplines, but project management, policy manuals, textbooks and internal process standards for large organisations.


“Waterfall” is predicated on the notion that the best way to work on a problem is to follow an orderly and linear “top down” process, working from the problem to the solution in discrete phases. The general approach is to start by gathering requirements, analysing the requirements, formulating a solution, and then implementing that solution. The problem is tackled in a reductionist manner, where we break down the problem into smaller chunks and plan our solution design based on solving each of these parts, via a work breakdown or task based structure.

In his landmark book, “Dialogue Mapping”, organisational collaboration pioneer Jeff Conklin described the results of a study performed in the 1980’s that looked into how people solve problems where new learning is required. Participants were presented with a new problem, and asked to think out loud while they worked on the problem.

The analysis showed the participants worked simultaneously on understanding the problem and formulating a solution. They would start by trying to understand the problem, but they would immediately jump into formulating potential solutions. Then they would jump back up to refining their understanding of the problem. Rather than being orderly and linear, the line plotting the course of their thinking looked like the figure below.


Conklin referred to this manner of learning and problem solving as “opportunity-driven” because in each moment the designers are seeking the best opportunity for progress towards a solution.

Seven Sigma believes that for problems with even a moderate degree of complexity, opportunity driven learning is the predominant pattern of thinking applied by participants. Many IT projects are complex and novel, and as such operate much more in the realm of learning than already knowing. Therefore, problem solving and learning are tightly intertwined.

Seven Sigma professionals are trained practitioners in several tools and disciplines that are aimed at augmenting opportunity driven problem solving as well as tackling the forces that prevent convergence and shared commitment. Our core competency, where we are uniquely world-qualified is IBIS, Issue Mapping and Dialogue Mapping, but additionally, we utilise tools such as mind-mapping, business process modelling and aspects of Applied Information Economics.

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