Getting Started with Wardley’s Doctrine Is Easier Than You Think

Let’s talk about Wardley’s doctrine — what it really looks like and how to find opportunities to practice. Don’t worry! Getting started is easier than you think.

(Special thanks to Jenna Dixon for the writing prompt.)

Wardley’s Doctrine

In Wardley Mapping, doctrine is a list of the things we should always do. You might think of it like training or fitness. The extent to which an organization is practicing good doctrine is generally the extent to which it is ready to respond to difficult challenges.

Since good doctrine is seldom taught and seldom practiced, Simon Wardley put together a reference table based on his own research and experiences to help us get started. These principles are organized into categories like communication, development, and learning, and the table can be used to evaluate organizational fitness along these lines.

Tweet by Simon Wardley: swardley/status/1331218747374391301

Simon’s rubric ranges from “good” to “weak” to “warning,” but it’s a little unclear how to self-evaluate, and even more unclear how to improve. Instead of taking an elaborate approach to this issue, I hope to highlight how accessible these principles actually are, especially through everyday opportunities where simple, unsophisticated action can make a big difference. 

My absolute favorite place to practice doctrine is in meetings. Bad meetings are all too common, and they fail to produce meaningful clarity or action. Wardley’s doctrine cuts through the nonsense to get to the heart of what matters, and all it takes to get started is a few innocent questions.

Weeks 1-2: Know Your Users

In Wardley Mapping, “users” are the people whose needs are met by our work. There are often many types of users for any given system, but it’s okay to just start with one.

In your next meeting, pose one of the following questions:

  • “Who are we hoping to serve through our work?”
  • “Who will benefit?”
  • “Who are we forgetting to consider?”

Here are a few example responses:

  • A SaaS product might say “Customers” or mention a specific persona.
  • A leadership coaching service might say “Clients.”
  • A healthcare company might say, “Patients, insurers, and care providers.” 

You might not get an immediate answer to your question, and that’s okay. Be persistent. After all, how can you make good decisions if you don’t know who you’re doing it for?

Discussion and disagreement is normal here. Help the room negotiate and work towards defining one or more users, even if it’s only tentative. Do this for every meeting you join, and you’ll soon find your own skillful way of asking the question. “Just remind me real quick, who are we hoping to serve with this feature?”

Once you can define the users in every meeting for two full weeks in a row, move on to the next doctrinal principle.

Weeks 3-4: Focus on User Needs

If you consistently know your users, the next thing to do is understand what they need. In your next meeting, pose one of these questions:

  • “What do our users get out of this?”
  • “What do our users really need?”

Again, here are a few examples of reasonable answers:

  • The SaaS customers needs dashboards (or perhaps to be informed).
  • Leadership coaching clients need to reflect on their actions and growth.
  • Patients need healthcare, insurers need to manage claims, and care providers need tools and resources to do their job well.

And again, if the answers are hard to come by, that’s okay because at least now you know what to work on. Help the group make decent guesses, and consider doing some user research to get better answers (Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research is a great resource for getting started).

No matter what the meeting is about, framing it in terms of how it fits into fulfilling user needs will give it clear purpose. And if there are no user needs to be met, then why hold the meeting? (Hint: Sometimes internal users have needs, too.)

Once you are able to define both users and their needs in every meeting for two full weeks in a row, move on to the next doctrinal principle.

Week 5 and Beyond: Use a Common Language

To use a common language, you first have to build it. The good news is that you’ve already been doing exactly that for the last four weeks. The users and needs you’ve defined since the start are the first entries in your language’s dictionary.

Now the focus shifts to paying attention to the work you are doing to meet those user needs. Meetings are again an excellent venue. Look for opportunities to ask these key questions:

  • “What work are we doing to meet these user needs?”
  • “What do you mean by _____? Say more?”
  • “_____ seems to mean two things. What’s the difference?”

A few reasonable examples of work terms that might emerge:

  • The SaaS company might talk about Hosting, Data Pipeline, or Web Design.
  • The leadership coaching service might have terms like Inquiry, Note-taking, and Email.
  • The healthcare company might define the work in terms of Diagnosis, Prescription, Claims Submission, Patient History, and more.

Building a common language is a bigger challenge than just knowing users and needs, and the only way it helps is if the language itself persists beyond any single meeting. It becomes especially important to create a way to recall terms and definitions from one meeting for use in another.

A really easy way to do this is to take and publish meeting notes. Once you have a few meeting notes recorded, see which terms keep coming up. Start a glossary of terms people ought to know and use it for shared reference during future meetings. (Never underestimate the power of being the person who took good notes!)

Let Me Know What Happens

It takes a long time and a lot of patience to develop deep skill in strategy, but that’s no reason to get discouraged. Even the smallest of steps forward can be incredibly rewarding. That’s why meetings are an amazing opportunity to take your first steps with Wardley’s doctrine. All it takes to get started is the right question!

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