Why I developed a notation for innovation

As a consultant and methodologist I have always placed an emphasis on abstract thinking. I enjoy drawing all kinds of fancy diagrams, from simple SWOT charts to rich systems engineering models that support enterprise architecture (EA). Over the years I have attempted to keep abreast of developments in the field of modelling approaches. During the period 2001 to 2005, for example, I became intimately involved in an open effort to define standards for BPM products. One output of that work was a new notation for the modelling of executable business processes (BPMN).

Following work on process management, I started thinking about innovation management. Surely it too needed a visual notation? Innovators, I argued, were inherently creative people. They used Post-it notes, after all!

Before I explain further, I need to describe how I think about all visual models. I believe they fall into two main categories:

  1. Structural models such as organizational charts, data structures, entity relationship (ER) models, UML class diagrams and the like. Structural models show the decomposition of a system into its parts and how the functions of parts relate to the whole.
  2. Behavioural models such as simple flowcharts, more complex process models like BPMN, causal link diagrams, state transition diagrams and others. Behavioural languages are designed to describe the observable behaviour of complex systems consisting of components that execute concurrently. These languages focus on key concepts such as concurrency, synchronization and communication. They can also describe non-deterministic systems.

(I am excluding from this discussion any consideration of numerical or algebraic models.)

Some modelling languages are structural and behavioural. Process models, for example, represent not only the flow of activities and tasks among participants (human or system) but often the structural relationships between higher-level processes, sub-processes and indivisible activities.

As I looked at many kinds of visual notations, it struck me that all were missing an important (and relatively simple) idea, an idea inherent to all innovation and change. Put simply, the vast majority of visual models do not express the perspective from which we wish to improve and redesign the system.

An org chart, for example, says nothing about what is working and what is not working in the organization it depicts. It may be clear who reports to whom and how the matrix organization is supposed to operate, but beyond that there is mystery. How some roles and units help or hinder others is far from clear.

The same is true of all process diagrams. They may describe the operation of a business system in excruciating details, but how well the process is supporting the goals of the enterprise remain obscure. It is not possible to look at a BPMN process diagram and determine which steps are working well, and which are not. Yet that is precisely what is needed for process improvement! And that information could be more important than fleshing out low-level details of the mechanism behind the process.

Everyone is familiar with pros and cons. Suppose we could label the boxes in the org change, or the activities in a process map, or the elements of a systems model, such that it was clear which we considered pros and which cons. That would be a useful first step to understanding how to improve the system. It turns out, however, that a list of pros and cons by itself is not that helpful. It is often the case that a pro is accompanied by one or more cons. A faster engine, for example, uses more fuel. Vice versa, a con could provide a benefit (a pro). We even have a saying for that in English: Every cloud has a silver lining. It is therefore the relationships between pros and cons that matter to the innovator.

Take this example:

  • Burning fossil fuels produces cheap energy AND
  • Burning fossil fuels produces CO2 which produces global climate change

Is the burning of fossil fuels useful or harmful? To the owner of a coal mine it would no doubt be considered useful. An environmentalist, concerned about climate change, would argue the opposite. Both might agree, however, that cheap energy is useful for a vibrant economy.

contradictionIn reality, the burning of fossil fuels is both useful and harmful, but to leave things there does not give us a path forward. Should we avoid burning fossil fuels altogether and find an alternative source of energy, or make the process more efficient, or look for more fossil fuels to burn? And what about the knock on consequences of our actions? Do we need to manage climate change via other means, or reduce our economic growth to reduce our energy consumption? Depending on how we view fossil fuels we would not know which of these two directions to follow. Either:

  1. Reduce the burning fossil fuels, while finding other sources of useful cheap energy OR
  2. Find more fossil fuels to burn so that we don’t run out, while managing the consequences

Clearly, both directions are in contradiction. We need to decide. That’s the first step in innovation.

From the simple idea described above, Southbeach Notation evolved through several versions. Red and green boxes represent pros and cons, useful or harmful. The boxes are joined by different types of arrows to signify increasing or decreasing influences or “effects.” There are different shapes for different kinds of agents in a situation. For example, a diamond shape represents a “choice” as it does in a flowchart. But unlike in a flowchart the outputs are not alternate paths, but resulting effects on the situation. Having to make a choice itself can be represented as either useful or harmful in a situation.

The scope of Southbeach is beyond this post, but the following can be observed from my experience with Southbeach in perhaps a hundred projects, with colleague or client teams:

  • The notation can be used more or less formally. It can be drawn on a whiteboard, using nothing more than red and green marker pens, or it can be supported by a software tool.
  • Developing the best Southbeach models is a team sport. It can help capture and then align the perspectives of team members and of stakeholders.
  • Southbeach method is highly general purpose. It can help drive innovation in any “system” or “situation,” be it an organization, an architecture, a business process, a product design, even a legal system, public policy or ideology.
  • Southbeach Notation can be used to “mark up” other diagrams or models, but is more often used standalone, primarily due to the current state of the art in supporting software tools.
  • Southbeach analysis can stop at the diagram (i.e., “a picture paints a thousand words”) or rules can be used to generate directions for problem-solving. Rules match patterns of contradictions in the situation depicted. The output from rules can be natural-language sentences, short phrases or longer reports.
  • Southbeach fits naturally with other common ideation and creativity practices such as 5Whys, 6 Thinking Hats, Root Cause, Theory of Constraints, Business Motivation and many others. Rule sets can be developed to support those methods, output from Southbeach diagrams.

To illustrate the last point, consider this rule:

produces(&a, &b=useful) produces (&a, &c=harmful) “Find a way to obtain {&b} without the need for {&a}”

For the non-programmers among you, this is not code. It is a simple macro language.

I started this post by explaining that the majority of visual models are either structural, behavioural or both. Southbeach does not fit easily into either of these buckets. Some have called it perspective-based modelling. Others, including myself, have called it a situational improvement method. It is easier to state what it does, rather than to label it.

If A produces useful B, and A also counteracts useful C, then A has (de facto) been decomposed into its useful and harmful functions: its pro and cons. That simple idea lies at the heart of Southbeach. Everything is useful and harmful. Pros and cons. Yin and Yang. By decomposing the many perspectives inherent to a complex situation, legitimate directions for problem-solving emerge. Actions (blue boxes in Southbeach) can then be added.


Read more here:

What Innovation Isn’t, Warwick Business School, March 2014
The Elements of Southbeach Notation 0.9 – Specification
Red, Green and Blue – Situational Improvement using Southbeach

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