Learning More Effectively with IBIS Diagrams

[Updated: If you want to see an IBIS version of this post, you can find it on Glyma.co here]

[N.B. If you haven’t read my introduction to IBIS diagrams I suggest you go read that first before reading this as there will be a lot of references to the information there.]

My colleague Neil Preston at PsyOpus is a very intelligent and deep thinking man. As such, my favourite question to him when he has his weekly conceptual breakthrough is to ask “So what Neil?”. As you can imagine, Neil gets annoyed with me quite a lot. This post will be what I will now refer to as the “So what?” type of post. In my last post on IBIS diagrams I gave you a run down on the notation and pointed you to a piece of software that can help you build them, but so what? Having a new visual notation is no value if you don’t have a use for it and I didn’t give any actual explanation as to how I use IBIS every day to improve my work. In this post, which I’m planning on being the first in many, I hope to provide you with techniques for using IBIS to increase the effectiveness of your learning.

Just a side note, I use the word “effectiveness” not “efficiency” because, in my opinion, if you’re wanting to learn something you shouldn’t be looking to do it as quickly as possible. I could rant forever about how annoyed I am with the present thinking that “faster is better” and the growing number of people that apply this to learning, but I won’t. Instead I’ll just point to what underpins all my posts on sense making and what I believe the intention of learning is, the relentless and often never-ending journey to acquire knowledge and improve understanding.

My Method of Learning

Before I go into the details of how to use IBIS for learning, I’m going to quickly go over the method of learning I’ve adopted. This is pretty important background information as you may need to tweak the way you use IBIS diagramming if your style of learning is vastly different from mine. My style of learning has clearly evolved over the last 30 years of my life. Over the past decade since leaving structured education I’ve become more aware of my own learning process. As a result of reading various articles, posts, and books like The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, by Susan Wise Bauer, I’ve also become more disciplined in my approach.

My approach to studying a book, video, podcast, etc. Is pretty much the same and just slightly differs between the different mediums. For all media I use the following technique –

  1. Get an overview of the entire piece I’m studying.
  2. Sit through one viewing, from beginning to end, of the piece. This is just to see the piece in its entirety.
  3. Sit through the piece a second time taking more care to understand the concepts and reviewing where necessary.
  4. Go back over the notes I’ve taken, with reference to the piece I’m studying, and critically thinking about what is being said.

The first three steps are more analytical steps where I’m attempting to absorb the information. The fourth step is what I refer to as a synthesizing step. The intention is to try and assimilate the new information into my knowledge and belief systems.

Just as a quick outline, here is how these steps differ for me according to the medium.

  • Video/audio recordings
    • I will usually do step 1 and 2 at the same time by watching the video from beginning to end.
  • Articles, essays, whitepapers, and other short forms of text
    • I will usually do step 1 by looking at the summaries and the headings.
    • For step 2 I’ll read through the entire piece.
  • Books
    • I will usually do step 1 by reading the introduction and looking at the chapter headings to get an idea of where the book is heading.
    • For step 2 I’ll actually only read a single chapter before performing step 3, rather than reading the entire book through. This is more because I’m not the fastest reader and it takes me too long to read through an entire book.

Turbocharging Learning with IBIS

Now that you have an idea of my study routine, I’ll provide you with the nitty gritty of how I actually weave IBIS diagramming into it by using an example essay. I want to make it clear though that weaving IBIS into your study routine won’t come naturally at first and that it will take practice to do it proficiently. What I’m sure of is that, once you get the hang of it, you will find that it makes you a far more effective learner. Not only will you absorb the information better but you will more appropriately apply it.

The example essay I am using is George Orwell’s popular essay “Politics and the English Language”. I’ve chosen this piece mainly because it’s pretty easy to find online, if you want to read through it, and because it’s not technical (I’m already pretty technical in my day-to-day life and in a lot of posts on this blog).

Step 1 – Overview

For this particular essay, I’ve read the first two paragraphs quickly just to get an idea of what this essay will be about. This helps me in getting an idea of what the point of this essay is and I know the context in which to read it. Now normally for this kind of material I won’t bother building an initial IBIS diagram at this stage as the essay is relatively short and the subject matter is easy enough to understand. Other times when I’m doing something like a book, I’ll do an outline based on the introduction, chapters titles, and maybe even the blurb. Just to give you an idea of what I might do for a larger piece of prose, I’ve done an example using this essay. Of course anything larger would have more in it so the outlining IBIS diagram would be much larger.

The really important thing to notice here is how I have a question for the two ideas even though none is actually posed in the material. As IBIS practitioners, we know this as being a “hidden question” as it’s not been explicitly written in the essay. This is a very important concept in IBIS and I’ve got a short explanation further down in this post.

Step 2 – Viewing the Material (in this case reading the essay)

I refrain from building an IBIS diagram at this stage. This is so that I don’t distract myself from the content of the material. As you become proficient with IBIS you’ll find yourself building the IBIS diagrams in your head anyway as the notation becomes second nature and helps with understanding. If you live it and breathe it like Paul Culmsee and I do, you’ll find that you even do it when you’re listening to people to help you understand them better.

Step 3 – Reviewing the Material with IBIS

This is the part where you really focus on capturing the material in IBIS. Now to make it easy for you to read (and to make it easy for me to write this post), I’ve only captured the first chapter in IBIS. This step is more on the analytical side and seeking to understand the author’s concepts.

Step 4 – Synthesis

When you get really good with the IBIS notation and the principles it espouses, you’ll find that you will do a lot of Step 3 and Step 4 together anyway. The following is my revised diagram after absorbing the chapter and trying to understand what Orwell is attempting to communicate. At this point I’ve already had a chance to digest what Orwell is attempting to say and I try to rephrase it in a way that may help me understand it better. I do this by rephrasing nodes, changing the node types, and searching for more “hidden questions”.

“Hidden Questions”

I’ll go into “hidden questions” at greater length in one of my future posts, but for now I’ll provide a brief explanation. The simplest way to explain a “hidden question” is the US game show “Jeopardy!”. In” Jeopardy!” the contestants are told an answer by the host and they need to provide the correct question that the given answer is answering. This is often the same in life with prose, presentations etc. The author provides us his argument and often assumes the reader to be familiar with the background to the argument. Its then up to us, as the audience, to come prepared with the necessary knowledge to understand the argument.

Not knowing the “hidden questions” to an argument is the root cause of many misunderstandings. It would be no different to a 12 year old (assuming he’s not some Doogie Howser smart arse) attempting to read and understand the book “Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Field Theory” before learning gravity, general relativity etc. That may be an extreme example but the situation happens more often than you may imagine. We often assume we understand the explanation of X in relation to Y only to find out from someone else that the explanation of X was actually in reference to Z. One of the fundamental principles of IBIS is to always explicitly ask the “hidden question”.

Refactoring IBIS Diagrams to Improve Understanding

If you compare the diagram I had in Step 3 and the diagram in Step 4, you’ll notice that I added a few of the “hidden questions”. As a result of adding these questions, I’ve then been forced to rephrase some of the idea nodes and move them around. We refer to this process as “refactoring” the IBIS diagram. What you’ll hopefully notice is that these questions are never actually written in the essay. This is my personal attempt at trying to understand Orwell’s essay.

Before anyone says it, I want to make it clear that by refactoring the IBIS diagram and adding in these answers I have possibly muddied the meaning of Orwell’s essay and that I’m well aware of this. I want to remind those people that the purpose of this particular diagram is to facilitate my personal learning and to visualise my personal learning journey.

My personal feeling is that the real value of using IBIS comes from having easy access to the refactoring process. Learning should be a fluid task and our knowledge should be malleable when more information comes to light. The IBIS diagram acts as a malleable surface on which to visually organise and refine my thoughts. When I learn something new and spot inconsistencies in my thinking I can refine my understanding. In addition to my own refining, I can also seek the input and feedback of another source for further refinement. At the same time I can share my learning journey with others to help them with their journey and hopefully aid them in their refinement.

Diagramming your Own “Learning Journey”

Towards the end there I got a little abstract so I’m going to stop the post at this point and hope that what I’ve explained above is enough for you to go off and attempt a few IBIS diagrams. Getting familiar with IBIS comes with practice and your first diagrams will always look pretty bad to begin with but don’t let this discourage you. I personally like to think of IBIS as an imperfect scratchpad for all my thoughts (my memory sucks if you weren’t already aware) that is in perpetual search for perfection. Along the way outputs like reports, essays, software etc. emerge out of the contents of my IBIS diagrams as they are required, but the diagrams themselves continue living and learning.

As a final “invite”, if you want a homework assignment please have a go at developing an IBIS diagram for George Orwell’s essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” and send me your IBIS diagrams (send me the Compendium XML export or a screenshot). I’ll try my best to reply and provide constructive feedback to help you on your journey to becoming a pro with IBIS. Get in contact with me through Twitter and I’ll happily send you my email address.

P.S. Thanks to Neil for pointing this out… I never actually pointed out what the “hidden questions” were in my final refactored IBIS diagram above. Tweet me what you think are the hidden question/s above and also for all of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” essay.

From Analyst to Sense-maker

[UPDATED: The IBIS examples in this post are available on Oystr.co at https://oystr.co/christomich/mymemorysucks-maps/introduction-to-ibis ]

About 6 years ago, whilst still at my last job, I was feeling pretty disillusioned about the software industry in general. After only having worked as a software engineer for about 5 – 6 years, it felt to me that the entire industry was full of miscommunication. All too often clients didn’t know what they wanted, and software engineers were too self-absorbed to listen (me included).

It was at this time I thought I’d try something new and try to build my own consultancy. In what was a perfectly serendipitous event, Paul Culmsee, an old colleague I worked with at a job 3 years earlier, had also gone out on his own a year earlier. Paul was now looking for a business partner with a software engineering background and I was in desperate need of a mentor (I had only really been in the IT industry for a total of about 8 – 9 years at that point). It was at this point Paul introduced me to the one tool that has pretty much come to shape everything I now do as a consultant, Issue-Base Information System diagrams. Soon after this, Paul and I went to the US to meet and learn with the guru, Jeff Conklin, and everything else, as they say, is history.

It’s the continued use of IBIS, and the further pursuit of mastery in it, that has shaped me from being just an analyst to being a sense-maker.

Issue-Based Information System – The Knowledge Worker’s Swiss Army Knife

Issue-Based Information System (or IBIS, pronounced as i-bis, kind of like iPhone) is a diagramming technique very similar to mind mapping. Paul had found it while researching about wicked problems and had begun to use it to analyse projects he was working on. Because of the simplicity of the IBIS notation and its visual nature, Paul was able to give me a quick rundown of how he had used it for his projects.

I immediately saw the power in helping how I organise vast lists of requirements collected from clients. In these early stages I used IBIS to organise these thoughts but over time I’ve come to realise it is so much more than that, a proverbial “swiss army knife” for any knowledge worker, which I use for –

  • Analysis
  • Learning
  • Synthesis
  • Facilitation
  • Communication

Quick Sidenote – Software to do IBIS

Clearly if you’re wanting to use IBIS, it’s going to make your life easier if you use a piece of software to create the diagrams. Thankfully, many years ago there was a research project that developed a piece of software precisely for this purpose called Compendium. The research project has since ended but Compendium still exists as a community supported open source application. I won’t go into the software here as I’ll let the project site and community support forums provide more information on it than I could. You’ll find the Compendium software site at http://compendiumng.org/ .

Introduction to IBIS

The true beauty of IBIS (particularly for the mathematically minded such as myself) is that it provides a very simple visual notation upon which any conversation can be represented. Below is a very simple example of the components of an IBIS diagram.

[ To see this map in an online IBIS tool, go to https://oystr.co/christomich/mymemorysucks-maps/notation-of-ibis ]



Each individual component of an IBIS diagram is called a “node” and these nodes represent one of four basic conversational building blocks common in everyday language. These being –

  • Questions –This is literally a question that has been posed.
  • Ideas – This is any kind of statement that has been made in response to a question.
  • Pros – This is a supporting argument for an idea.
  • Cons – This is an opposing argument for an idea.

Each of these building blocks are then linked together by an arrow to form an IBIS diagram. Below is a meaningful IBIS diagram to give you a better idea of the structure.

[ To see this map in an online IBIS tool, go to https://oystr.co/christomich/mymemorysucks-maps/sample-ibis-diagram ]


To read an IBIS diagram, first you read the left most node and then any nodes that point to it are a ‘result’ of the node to the left. In the example above, the ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ nodes are a result of the posing the question, “Should I get a cat?”. It’s at this point I’ll introduce the first two important rules of IBIS for questions and ideas.

IBIS Rule #1

Questions can result from any node.

IBIS Rule #2

Ideas can only result from questions.

These are the most important rules for IBIS as they underpin the core values that make IBIS an invaluable analysis tool.

Following from the questions and ideas, there are then pros and cons that result from ideas. One important rule for IBIS is that pros and cons can only result from ideas, not questions.

IBIS Rule #3

Pros and Cons can only result from Ideas, they can’t result from Questions.

Using these 4 simple nodes and 3 basic rules, ANY conversation can be visualised. And I truly mean any. Just to name a few things I’ve build IBIS diagrams for –

  • Meetings
  • Presentations
  • Books
  • Reports
  • Essays
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • Articulating images in language
  • Thoughts

There is honestly nothing I haven’t come across that could not be visualised using IBIS. Now that is not to say there aren’t other (or even better) visualisation tools to represent information, but IBIS is pretty versatile and to my experience, universal.

Principles of IBIS

Now that you know how to read IBIS, why would you bother to use it? Especially when it’s so simplistic in its nature. This simplicity is the immediate reason I became a massive fan-boy for IBIS. Because it is so simple, it means you aren’t bogged down in trying to understand it. Instead you are now free to use it in any manner to do the really important task – to understand and communicate a problem amongst a diverse group of people.

The beauty of IBIS is that it can show the logical flow and connections of any kind of information. This means that, if done masterfully, you can use IBIS diagrams to explore topics including the assumptions those topics may bring. If there is one thing I’ve learnt being a sense-maker over the last 5 years, it’s that “assumption is the mother of all f**k ups” (a quote eloquently spoken by a former junkie that my colleague Neil Preston used to provide clinical counselling to).

The 3 IBIS rules that were introduced before are also key to improving the exploration of a topic, reducing assumptions, and providing context (a very important concept in removing assumptions). The IBIS Rule #1 is important because it seeks to provide as much exploration on a topic as possible. This helps us to remove assumptions from a discussion and ensures that everyone is actually looking at the topic from the same point of view.

Have you ever had the issue where you were sitting in a meeting and Bob begins talking about a seemingly unrelated issue which leaves the room wondering what the hell Bob’s talking about? IBIS Rule #2 aims to resolve these kind of issues. The truth is we’ve all done what Bob did. We’ve all been guilty of answering a question before people know they’re going to ask it. In IBIS we call it the “hidden question” and we do it more often than not. Bob’s story is a more explicit case but often in books the author will make one statement after another with the assumption that the reader will be asking a certain set of questions. By always seeking to understand the context in which a statement is made, we help to further drive out assumptions.

The following scenario I’ve been in numerous times when there is a group of engineers gathered and a serious dilemma at hand. Someone will ask what appears to be a naïve question and immediately an “alpha developer” will cut them down and go “that’s a stupid question, let’s move on”. IBIS Rule #3 is for such a scenario. When we judge a question, then we limit the conversation. The reality is, if a question truly is stupid, the answers (idea nodes) will be quickly exhausted anyway and we’ll move on. IBIS Rule #3 helps us maintain an openness to the discussion so that exploration is encouraged.

Mastering IBIS

The biggest win from mastering IBIS is that it makes you a “super analyst”. What I mean by this is that you become more than just an analyst. The very definition of an analyst is “a person who conducts the detailed examination of the elements or structure of something”. When you think of it in that way, analysts are pretty useless people. What is the point of understanding something if you don’t go and DO SOMETHING with that knowledge? The better you get with IBIS, the more you will realise it’s more than just an analytical tool, it’s a tool that you can use for synthesis and communication.

Having worked with IBIS over the last 6 years in both passive (visualising books, videos etc.) and live situations (presentations, facilitating meetings etc.), and having recently just completed software to create maps (watch this space), I like to think I’ve become a bit of a master at IBIS. In addition to practicing your IBIS notation at every chance, I’ve come up with the following principles that I think need to be fully understood and acted upon if you hope to become a master with IBIS.

  • Improving understanding is tantamount. Everything comes second to this.
  • Context is everything. Every idea is answering a question. If the question isn’t at first apparent, find it.
  • Assumption is the mortal enemy of Context. The infantry in Context’s army are Questions so find plenty of good quality ones.
  • A good question is worth more than the ideas/answers that result from it. A good question can create new opportunities.
  • All questions are worth exploring but not all questions are born equal. The depth of exploration will always match its value.

Where to from here?

My recommendation is to start using IBIS to analyse whatever it is you might be wanting to learn in detail. It’s going to take a little while to get really proficient with IBIS. With enough practice you’ll be able to get to the point you’re able to use it like talking your native language (my colleagues and I find ourselves building maps in our minds whilst we listen to conversations now). Stay tuned to my blog as I’ll continue to provide more information on mastering IBIS and different ways in which I’ve used it within our consultancy.