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Tuesday, 26 March 2013 13:48

Why incomplete diagrams are useful in reaching a common vision

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You may wonder why an incomplete or incorrect diagram would be useful. Shouldn't it make sense to aim at producing the right representation straight from the start, by modelling what needs to be built and achieved?

This article deals with a simple approach: incomplete diagrams provide a visual representation of the system to be built, that once shown to stakeholders, product owners, dev teams, and project managers, will trigger feedback and discussions to move towards a shared vision. This approach is compatible with iterative and agile projects where a diagram is not intended to be static and unchanged, but to be updated throughout iterations. In some cases, a diagram will have a single use to let the team agreeing on what needs to be achieved with no intent to carry updates in this diagram for any further use (idea of a "throwable diagram").

The first version of a model or diagram is probably incomplete as the requirements often change as progress are made in a project (proof of concept, prototype, business entity model, etc.). A good exercise to collect feedback is to organise a a workshop, where the initial version of the diagram should prompt reactions from each team member, whether they have a business or technical opinion. Updates can be carried in a "live mode" on the UML, SysML or BPMN diagrams via the chosen modelling tool such as Sparx Enterprise Architect, or later on when all discussions are over ; in both situations, the workshop will lead in a single vision and statement of the problem, acknowledged by the team.

Models and diagrams enable us to visualise the problem, state and discuss our views or opinions, and hence iteratively build a vision that's agreed, common, and shared by all. This will require more or less iterations and efforts depending on the context and specific needs of the project.

Updating models on a regular basis provides the benefit of delivering a set of diagrams and specifications on which the team can rely on, especially after the product delivery to assess impacts related with bug fixes, change requests, or to carry the product's maintenance.


Experience and benefits:

I recently got a feedback from a colleague to whom I sent an incorrect BPMN diagram from a business perspective, but correct from the BPMN semantics perspective. This diagram was aimed at capturing a full process to discuss a GO/NO-GO decicion; he told me that "the incorrect diagram has already made it possible to identify issues and make progress on the vision with the stakeholder". This initial feedback has easily and promptly been captured in a revised version of the BPMN diagram.

Other examples supporting the usefulness of incorrect or incomplete diagrams are common. I once had the task to define a functional model to identify information flows between two interacting products, implemented and maintained by two separate teams. Each dev team provided me with extensive information supporting their respective architectural and technical choices. Each team had more or less an idea of how the interacting product was working. UML component and deployment diagrams refined through iterations not only let each team have a common and final view over the mechanisms for their product, but also access to the same accurate view of the interacting product.

Through the use of an "obviously" incomplete diagram, numerous exchanges and conversations can be triggered and lead to a global and shared representation of a problem, an implemented product, e.g. to support business, technical or architectural decision to improve various of its aspects.

Below is an illustration of a BPMN diagram where the first iteration identified the following :

  • ETL activities aren't carried by "System B", but "System A"
  • A Sales Department has been identified

incomplete BPMN diagram : iteration 0

updated BPMN diagram : iteration 1