Self Coaching with IBIS

When I try to understand a complex issue in my head I often end up in a “rabbit hole”: I follow a chain of questions until I forget how I came to this particular follow-on question. Or I lose the context of the question, and look at a minor aspect of the issue – maybe without even realising that it is minor. Or, while the way to the question was clear, I cannot see whether I work on the most important question. Is short, I am simply not able to think a complex issue fully through in my head. 

Over time I might work complex issues out in my brain, but there is no guarantee that I see all options and that I don’t already start looking for evidence instead of searching for new aspects. 

f you don’t these kind of issues then please let me know how you manage (reflected input only, please). If you have similar issues then this post might help you, too. The topic is “self coaching”.

What is Self Coaching?

Self Coaching is a term that describes methods that apply two-party coaching methods to a single party. In short, you become coach and coachee in one person. I typed in “self coaching” into my browser’s search bar and Google told me it has about 420 million hits for me. So, it seems to be a big thing. 

As a coach, you generally don’t give advise, instead you listen and ask. The coachee needs to deliver all answers him/herself. The clue is to ask the right questions and let the coachee find the way forward. Questions should be void of any judgement and open up new ways of thinking for the coachee. Often enough the best questions are very simple. My favourite is “What else?”, a simple question to trigger more answers. 

I tried self-coaching in my head, with moderate success as I tend to end up in the rabbit hole as I already mentioned. But having a visual representation of the questions and relevant answers did help me to overcome this and other issues. 

How Self Coaching works for me

Now, I am drawing IBIS diagrams (see example) to support my self coaching. IBIS diagrams are consisting of 4 elements:

  • Questions
  • Answers or Ideas
  • Pros (comments supporting an answer or idea)
  • Cons (comments that show negative sides of answers or ideas)

Questions are answered by answers, answers can have pros and cons. In addition, questions can be attached to any element. You can question a question (“why is this relevant?”), or an idea (“is this realistic?) or pros and cons (“do we have data for this?”). These four elements are used by a method called Dialogue Mapping in order to map out full dialogues between a group of people. See IBIS Domain for more details on how Vithanco is supporting self coaching and read the example graph below for a quick understanding of IBIS.

Example of an IBIS diagram
Use visuals to help you during self coaching

How self coaching works (for me)

I use this simple notation to map out my thinking, just as a good coach would do with me. I will still provide the answers as in a normal coaching session. So, with me as my own coach will I explore paths, I will challenge my thinking, and I will improve the picture (pun intended). The previously mentioned question “What else?”, is useful to trigger more  answer/idea to a question node (even if I don’t note it down on the IBIS diagram). This way I can easily trace my thinking, I can explain it to others, I could even ask others to improve my thinking by adding to the map – the notation is so simple that anyone will understand the gist of my thinking (assuming that I expressed my thoughts well enough). They can ask questions, which might be added to the diagram. 

Eventually, I will have reflected enough and my  inner coach stops asking questions. I will conclude the matter at hand and can be sure that I did a reasonable good job. And I can come back to the topic after a few days or after years. 

Bonus Thoughts

  • It is impossible to always replace an outsiders opinion. You will most likely not challenge all your assumptions. It takes training to even see a few of your own assumptions. Hence, a coach is always a good idea in an important situation. But you can easily shore your train of thoughts with the coach via the diagram. 
  • No article should be written touching the topic of decision making without mentioning the book “Decisive” from the Heath brothers ( One of the lessons I took from that book was to always have more than two options to choose from – “What else?”. Try this video as a summary.

Focus on a Concept – Keep the overview for big Concept Maps

This week a more technical post, dedicated to all users or Concept Maps. It is an addition to a previous post: Deriving Value from large Diagrams

If you work with Concept Maps then you will reach the point where key concepts are connected to so many other Concepts that the relationships are along long lines which makes it simply difficult to see the full set of relationships for the concept. If you want to review that concept then you suddenly need to scroll a lot and it will be hard for the reviewers to follow.

The lastest version of Vithanco has a shortcut to help.

Focus on Concept
Use the button highlighted in this screenshot.

With this Button, only the concept highlighted, the relationships with the concept and the related concepts will be displayed. All other concepts are no longer presented, which leads to a nice way to review that particular concept. Autolayout ensures that the map is nicely readable.

In the resulting focused view, just click the button in the top right corner to return to the full map.

Happy Reviewing!

Concept Mapping or “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

There is a great quote regarding communications:

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw

What did he mean by this? People misunderstand each other more often than we would like. Sometimes, these misunderstandings are trivial, e.g. a PO can stand for Product Owner (IT department) or for Purchase Order (finance department). These problems are found quickly.

But often, the misunderstandings are more difficult to catch: people can use the same terms in a similar way but with differences. To stay in the example, one person might think a Product Owner conducts the testing, the other doesn’t. These two people might have a completely normal conversation about the POs and both believe that the other  is aligned to their own views – that is until the testing starts.

Concept Mapping supports communication.

What is Concept Mapping?

Concept Mapping is a visual thinking method to reduce this issue. It brings people to “truly” communicate with each other. It does this through alignment on terminology.  It is therefore the perfect method to start any new initiative, whether it is a project/agile initiative, a new team setup, an interest group, etc.

Concept Mapping is basically the reoccurring shared review of one or more concept maps.

Concept Map on Concept Mapping
Key concepts relevant for Concept Mapping

A Concept Map is basically a way to define terminology. Each term (or concept) will be defined not through a dictionary entry but instead through its relation to other concepts. The map above is a simple Concept Map. During a shared review, two or more group members can conduct a shared review of the map.

What is a Shared Review?

In the shared review the group members validate each sentence on the map together. Which sentences? Each of the lines forms a simple sentence. “Concept Mapping results in a Concept Map” is one of them on the concept map above. If you have a sentence “Product Owner conducts the testing” on the map, the group members can agree (potentially after some discussions) or  improve the map in order to have a correct Concept Map. Any changes should then we validated with the rest of the group, which might trigger more changes.

New team/group member can be brought quickly up to speed as run-through through the map(s) can layout the field to them. They will become effective faster.

With any shared review the map normally improves. If there is a different understanding, the review brings it into the open. In my experience, only a few iterations are enough to reach general consensus. Subsequent discussions will shorten significantly as communication uses a shared terminology.

Is Concept Mapping a “Silver Bullet”?

Of course, Concept Mapping isn’t a magic silver bullet. If a relationship between two terms was never discussed then it will most likely not be on the Concept Map and hence differences in opinion can survive. But if you ever find something then add it to the map and spread the new meaning throughout the  whole group – or spark the discussion if the best relation is not obvious to all.

Personal Experience

I have so far made really good experience with Concept Maps. Projects that used them went generally a lot smoother than the others. You can start with a small team and later include new groups more easily. Imaging a project with external IT development (through a vendor) where the developers are simply not part of the initiating group. They join later and need to understand the documentation provided. For them the knowledge transfer of the map is really efficient.

But the biggest value from my point of view is that you simply have important discussions earlier. Just now it happened that we found a major difference in understanding within a fresh department. Key people responsible for a key deliverable had a substantial difference. The difference persisted already for a few months – in spite of regular meetings within the the team and in spite of road map discussions for the deliverable. The wording used was compatible in many ways and allowed both sides to keep two consistent pictures alive. I created a first map by extracting key concept from one member of the group and then conducted a shared review with 4 members. We didn’t even get half way through the map. Instead the scope discussion went off and will continue for a few more meetings. This important scope misalignment would have become obvious latest during go live – with potential severe delays. As we found it earlier, the impact on the roadmap is much smaller.

Concept Mapping is simply the best method I found so far to ensure that all members of any group are “on the same page” and can communicate efficiently.

Closing Thoughts

I created Vithanco for Visual Thinking methods like Concept Mapping. Try it yourself in the Mac App Store. Vithanco has a dedicated Domain for Concept Maps.


What is more relevant: the Visual Thinking Process or the Visual Artefact?

Last week, I talked to a friend who is as well into Visual Thinking. He was disappointed about the fact that the resulting diagram might be of less importance than the process of creating the diagram/artefact.

Frustrated as he was, it triggered a thought process on my side. Yes, I believe that a good visual representation is supporting most communications. It helps to transfer ideas. It’s just the proverbial “a picture says more than a thousand words”. I personally like structured visuals. Vithanco creates graphs and graphs can represent reality very well. Graphs can amongst other use cases define terminology (Concept Maps), capture discussions (IBIS), or reflect a project planning (Benefit Breakdown Structure).

But are the resulting visuals/diagram not the main benefit? Does the process of creating the diagram deliver more value than the outcome, the diagram/artefact itself? And if so, is this good or bad?


Today, I used a concept map to align on terminology. You know, words can be deceiving. People use the same terms but they might have a different understanding of what the terms mean. To cut through a potentially long story (I might tell it another time), it turns out that key terms of our mission were very differently interpreted. The creation of the concept map surfaced all the differences.

We now use the shared process of creating the concept map to align on our mission, to questions what we do and how we should achieve our vision. The outcome (a diagram) will come handy to explain to everyone else what we do and how. But the creation of the map aligns ourselves. This is where we create the full benefit. We could have pulled in different directions for (many) months without knowing until some difference in scope of a term would have become obvious.

Or have you heard of Dialogue Mapping? It is a facilitation method to align people, especially suitable for wicked problems. Dialogue Mapping uses the IBIS notation and at the end of the facilitation there will be a visual representation of a group conversation. Dialogue Mapping however is a method that focuses on creating a shared understanding of the facets of the problem. While important for the facilitation, the diagram itself has only historic value after the meeting.

Last example: Theory of Constraints. Its creator – Goldratt – was a smart person that used diagrams to support his thinking. E.g., he used Current Reality Trees to identify the root cause of observable issues. I doubt that he would have ever thought that the diagram is the relevant outcome. To the contrary, he was interested in identifying the main constraint (bottleneck), because that is the leverage point he was looking for. Once the constraint was identified, he immediately switched gears and created the next diagram to help him thinking how to widen the bottleneck.


It’s easy to think that the visuals are the key outcome of Visual Thinking. I thought this myself for a long term. But somehow, even the term of “Visual Thinking” focuses on the process and “ignores” the visual artefacts. Yes, the artefact of Visual Thinking can be very relevant. But in most cases, the process to create them will be more important and will create the bigger benefits.

Bonus Thought

My friend was frustrated. But it took me less than a minute to be positive about his insight. An hour after our meeting I saw the situation in the light of a proverb I see regularly in the city I have chosen as my home.

One man's trash another man's treasure
Graffiti in Copenhagen