The Evaporating Cloud is a Thinking Process developed by Eli Goldratt. It forms part of his Theory of Constraints. The cloud helps you find “win-win” solutions to situations where on the surface it appears you have two totally opposite points of view. The cloud tells you that there really isn’t a choice involved at all, it’s only a matter of examining the assumptions that sit behind your points of view.
In this example I’m going to start with the objective, and then discover the conflict, but I have also been using the technique the other way around, and started with the conflict and worked my way towards the objective, it seems effective in both formats.
The Objective: Getting started
The objective in this example is simple. It is critical that once we engage with a new client that we start building a long term strategic partnership. So starting with a blank sheet of paper I will write our objective on the left.
The Requirements: Logical cause and effect
The key to getting started with this thinking process is to build statements of the form “In order to … we must”. Taking our objective of a long term relationship, the first statement is obvious.
In order to build a long term strategic partnership we must produce desired outcomes long term.
Of course it is impossible to build a long term relationship without getting through the short term so our second requirement can be written in a similar way to the first. The green arrows show the logical cause and effect relationship between the statements.
Pre-requisites: Self-similar Iteration
So far so good. No conflict in these two statements. In order to achieve the desired outcome we need to focus on both the short and long term. So now we just repeat the process, except this time our requirement has become the first part of our statement.
In order to produce desired outcomes long term we must challenge short term decisions.
With the second statement taking the same basic format. You can see the iterative (self-similar) nature of the thinking process and why it suits an agile mind-set. Why don’t you try reading this cloud using the “In order to … we must …” format now?
Conflict: Houston we have a problem
To achieve our original objective of building a long term strategic partnership with our new client, we must challenge some of their short term wants and needs. However by doing this, we jeopardise the objective because we don’t deliver the desired short term outcomes, and if we fail at the first challenge, no matter how good our intentions we won’t get to the long term bit where things tend to get interesting.
With the cloud drawn out in this visual way the two parties can now begin a constructive dialogue about the assumptions that site behind each of the green arrows. This can be as simple as asking “Why?”.
In this example if we look at the bottom left-hand arrow, we can start setting a new clients expectations about the kinds of outcomes they might see in the short term. If we can work together to build outcomes that can deliver both short and long term then we start to see a win-win situation emerge.
Sitting behind the top right-hand arrow, we can have a useful discussion about some of the challenging behaviour a client might see in the early days. Perhaps we can talk about techniques or processes for dealing with that conflict as it arises perhaps using a tool like this.
Toolkit: Pocket Knife
I like to think of the evaporating cloud as the pocket knife of the wider set of tools outlined in the Goldratt’s Thinking Process. It is a fast and effective way to get to the heart of almost any problem or decision and for those who sometimes fear conflict it allows a way to begin a dialogue and avoid a heated debate.
I’m an advocate of using pencil and paper, it is much easier to refine and iterate quickly, and I haven’t done a cloud yet where I got the wording correct immediately. I’m sure refinement is all part of the process. However for those fans of sticky notes and permanent markers it also works well in that format, but be prepared to screw up a view sticky notes along the way.