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To create a truly sustainable, values driven organisation, I believe it’s essential to be crystal clear on what the values are and then communicate them widely.
When we’re values driven, our thoughts, words and deeds are coherent. We must all be held to account when they’re not.
I’ve written before with some ideas to help make sure the values are sustainable and don’t end up being our “fair weather friends”.
It’s an obvious truth that we all believe many things. I certainly do. Some of them have been with me for decades, some are more transient. Some are huge conceptual beliefs, some are trivial. I believe the values of an organisation should be an anchor, there shouldn’t be a long list or a detailed check sheet. They should be big ideas that can stand the test of time and guide our actions through difficulties that we have not yet contemplated.
So what are the values of our business?
Let’s start with a list:
And then dig into each a little bit deeper before pulling them all together at the end.
Some years ago, I was preparing to take a supplier to court when my lawyer gave me a book and asked me to read it before making my final decision.
The book was called “Getting to Yes”. The authors (Fisher and Ury) had learned their craft advising in the peace settlement between the Egyptians and Israelis and they ran the negotiation skills courses at Harvard.
It urged me to see the dispute from the other party’s perspective and concentrate on generating value for all the stakeholders. They called this approach “Win Win” and it seemed to me like such an obvious thing to do, but it ran counter to the overwhelming management philosophy in the business at that time. I adopted it as my own and it has served me well.
I never went to court, we worked out a “new way”, we all got back to work and the programme got back on track.
Yes, it was a long time ago, and it was a turning point in my life that crystallised a framework for thinking about how to get things done.
And after a while, I concluded there was no point waiting for a dispute to happen before we start to systematically think about generating value for all the parties. How much better it might be if we think about that value for all the stakeholders from the very beginning and drive all activities towards its creation.
Of course it’s not trivial to find paths that generate value for all the stakeholders all the time. Sometimes it seems like the value is not really created but just transferred from one stakeholder to another. It’s pretty obvious we can call that “Win Lose” and is often accompanied by an imbalance of power or information.
In my experience, the parties on the losing side of that partnership eventually realise it and then do everything in their power to redress the balance. The tragic slow dance towards “Lose Lose” is begun.
Nature can show us the way! This Egyptian Plover get’s a meal and the crocodile gets his teeth cleaned. The trust between them looks precarious to us but consistent behaviour over a long period of time builds a strong bond. More of that later!
So our value of “Win Win” means that we systematically and explicitly aim for value to be created for all the stakeholders from our first interaction onwards.
When we act with integrity, we have no mask, there is no pretence and we reap the rewards or suffer the consequences.
Integrity is really important and we don’t challenge ourselves to be mostly honest, most of the time. Our challenge it to be completely honest, all of the time. It’s binary, not grey. If the truth could hurt us then tell it. If the truth could kill us, then tell it. It’s better to drag the issues into the sunlight to be disinfected than leave them hidden in the dark places where they can multiply.
The image above is a fractal called The Mandelbrot set. It has a couple of characteristics that make it interesting to me here. The first is that there is infinite detail in the shapes perimeter. The second is that the shapes you can see on the perimeter repeat themselves at all levels of detail. No matter how closely you look, you will always see the same fundamental characteristics. It’s my intent that our organisation is the same. There is no veneer, nothing hidden. No matter how closely you look, you will always recognise the same features.
Integrity for us, is an active thing. We don’t allow stakeholders to misunderstand because they didn’t ask the right question. And we don’t sit on information that could bring clarity. Actively, we bring it to our stakeholder’s table.
Knowing that we will always take this stance makes us think carefully about the way we operate, the projects we undertake and the commitments we make to all our stakeholders.
Of course, this high standard of integrity has ethical roots, so it’s good for our souls. And it’s also good for business
When we demonstrate these high standards consistently over long periods, then the people we deal with can predict the way we’ll behave. And they can come to trust us.
When they trust the things we say and they believe our commitment to these values, they know that we will do everything in our power to deliver the win they are hoping for. And we will do it again and again and again.
To be the winner, it’s not possible to just walk on the same beaten track as everyone else. We need to be able to think differently and to practise our skills at thinking differently. In this way, we can innovate on demand. And perhaps more importantly, we can help those around us to increase their creativity on demand too.
Systematically innovating and helping our clients to innovate is deep within our DNA. I’ve written before and at greater length about the five pillars of innovation that everyone can use to help imagine new worlds with new and exciting products and services.
Succinctly, our five pillars of innovation are:
Our business was born by searching for innovative ways to solve a problem that has been a recurrent theme in my business life:
How can we find out what customers believe about the product or service we supply and how can we inject their voice into the heart of our business to make those products and services even better?
When clients engage with us, they can expect that we’ll apply our skills to help them create innovative solutions for their problems and to capitalise on their opportunities. It’s in our DNA.
There are many people who talk about “Agile” as a set of tools and processes that dictate how solutions should be developed. The IT industry has somehow hijacked the word and too often the plain english meaning is forgotten.
Agility is the ability to change direction quickly because a new context demands it.
When we’re agile, we can avoid threats and capitalise on opportunities more effectively. It’s probably obvious but “weight” is an anti pattern to agility and it appears in many forms.
Once we’ve internalised that concept, almost everything else required to make us more agile can be deduced or learned quite quickly.
Work in Progress (everything created that does not yet deliver value) is a really obvious and risky example of business weight. In virtually all circumstances it’s a good idea to try and reduce it. For some people, large and growing amounts of WIP create the illusion of progress. But it’s an illusion. A team carrying their load in the wrong direction isn’t a good thing. No matter how fast they’re going, It’s a bad thing.
When we put our WIP live then the world changes, a new context is created and the value creation is crystallised. The new context and the amount of value created is either in line with our predictions or not (spoiler alert: predictions about the future are difficult and we’re often wrong).
With a new context, the likelihood that our next planned phase is still the optimum set of actions to deliver maximum value reduces, and the bigger the deployment we made, the more the optimum direction is likely to change.
Work in Progress is an important example of “weight” but it’s not the only one. A large team takes more effort to change direction than a small one. They have more weight. A large team with a high output (velocity) can be even harder to steer in a new direction. We could think of it as a problem of momentum.
A large team going really fast in the wrong direction has huge momentum. They will find it harder to turn and they will be less agile.
When we deploy, it’s essential to get feedback so we can realign our old forecast of the world with our new reality. It’s like checking the location and the compass when sailing across the pacific. Within limits, getting feedback more often is better than getting feedback less often. Until we check, the distance we’ve travelled is work in progress. When we check, it crystallises the value created and our new context. That knowledge allows us to plan the optimum next step. A team that doesn’t make conscious efforts to get feedback on the progress they’ve made, won’t know how the world is changing and won’t be able to plan their next steps optimally. They will be less agile.
A team that can’t work together effectively has more friction. Friction is the thing that stops us moving. They will be less agile.
An organisation that hasn’t really decided what it wants to do will find it more difficult to get everyone moving in the right direction. They have friction and insufficient driving force. They will be less agile.
Agility is a mindset. We must look for weight, momentum and friction. When we find them, we have to quantify the harm they may cause and the cost to reduce them. We must check that we have sufficient driving force and systematic ways to get feedback. When we do these things, we are more able to change direction quickly and we are more able to avoid danger and capitalise on opportunity. We are more agile.
A shoal of fish can change direction almost as a single organism to seek opportunities and avoid threats. They are agile.
We can google agile methods and find endless advice on scrum, sprints and many other techniques that can be extremely helpful for teams trying to deliver value quickly. We should be careful with that advice as agile communities suffer with more than their fair share of “religious wars”. Their fake certainty can distract or mislead us as we look for ways to improve our organisations.
In this section, I haven’t concentrated on the tools, tactics, systems or methodologies that try to help teams become more agile. Rather, I’ve tried to focus on the underlying philosophy that we adopt in our business to guide us when we help our clients to create more value, with more certainty, sooner.
And I haven’t even mentioned Darwin or Mintzberg! You can trust me that their thinking also underlines the importance of agility or you can give us a call and we’ll happily meet with you to kick it around!
Saying that we’re a values driven business is one of the easiest things in the world. Sticking with them through thick and thin, in the long and plentiful days of Summer as well as the cold and desperate days of Winter is much, much harder.
We encode these values into our contracting principles and we share these early on in the engagements with all our stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers and all the people and organisations that we touch.
We talk about the values often and we share them freely. People that see the world in a similar way are drawn to them and one way or another, we like to do business with those people. Often as customers or members of our team.
As the founder of ux-insight, I can’t promise that every decision ever taken in our organisation will be in line with these values.
And I can’t promise that I’m perfect.
But I can promise that every decision that comes to me , I intend to take with these values at the core and that when I do accidentally cock it up and make a mistake, then hopefully, our organisation should be strong enough to help me get it right.
Curious problem solver, business developer, technologist and customer advocate