30 September 2009


I haven't talked about the topic of values in a while, and after some lively discussions with B. Smitty, I figured I'd spend a little time on the topic again, because assumptions about values are at the heart of most of the problems in project leadership (and a lot of the disagreements too).

The values I have in mind are "the things we think are important." In engineering speak, values are measures of merit. They are the signs of sophistication and other desirable attributes (and the context I have in mind is organizations, technologies and processes). This stuff matters because our values shape our objectives, and at the end of the day, values are the yardstick we use to assess whether good things have happened or not.

In my FIST-related writings, I talk about values as the answer to the question "What is important and good?" and I often describe FIST as a values-based approach. It basically says "It is important and good to be Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny." There are other value sets out there, and mostly they go unstated, unexamined, unconsidered and untested. That's a HUGE problem.

See, if we value complexity (either explicitly or unconsciously), we'll make the system more complicated and think we've done something good - even if it's not actually any better. You see this a lot in PowerPoint presentations - people who think they are effective communicators because they included every word, every comma, every data point and every possible nuance of every diagram in their 800-chart presentation (for their 15 minute time slot). You also see this in over-engineered systems, chock-full of a million good ideas. I'm going to suggest these are examples of values out of whack. Overvaluing complexity drives unproductive behavior.

Similarly, if we think spending a lot of money guarantees quality, we'll feel reassured by a high price tag, even if a smaller price might have delivered better results, better quality. Same thing with time - if we value the slow-and-steady approach, the fact that it took 20 years to deliver a system gives us a warm feeling, even if such expenditures were unnecessary.

So, the questions are: what values drive your project? What values contribute to positive outcomes, and improved operational effectiveness? And to come full circle to the afore-mentioned discussion, when people praise the F-22 as "the most capable aircraft" in our inventory, what are they really praising? What values are driving that assessment? What basis is there for those values?

Frankly, this question doesn't come up often enough in program management circles, which is a bummer because I think it's at the core of the whole discipline.


Andrew Lavinsky said...

Great post! If I might throw out some comments: where I don't follow is that you appear to be talking about values at two levels: the project level and the organizational level.

The organization needs to determine what its values are, which is often an exercise in problem identification. Based on how the organization reacts to the product of the project, the organization will define or redefine its own values. No problems = no need for values.

As part of the requirement to define organizational values, projects should be FIST. This creates a value for the PM of that project who can use it to identify his/her own problems, i.e. variation from the FIST path.

Dick Field said...

It's been my observation that complexity, length, and cost are used by the intellectually and emotionally impoverished as a mask for the absence of values - or at least values for which one can be held accountable. It is easy to hide in bigness, with the satisfaction that no one has a grasp of the entirety of the thing (say, a program) and that irresponsibility, sloppiness, and a lack of real productivity will be absorbed and invisible. Values, in that context, mean things like "let's just keep our jobs", or "go along to get along", or "don't rock the boat". Being FISTy requires courage, risk-taking, visibility, and a passion for the outcome.

The Dan Ward said...

Hey Andrew - welcome to the discussion, and thanks for the comments!

Your observation about project & organizational values is astute. I am indeed talking about both. That is, I'm saying that whatever our core values are, they'll shape our behavior across the spectrum of decision making.

So, if we think it's "important and good to be Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny," then we'll design both our projects AND our organizations with those values in mind.

And I think everyone has values - we just aren't always conscious of them or deliberate in our selection of values.

The Dan Ward said...

One other thought - a lot of this comes down to the fact that program managers and other deciders spend a lot of time pursuing Good, without really examining their assumptions about what actually constitutes Good. What are the attributes of a project or organization that are truly desirable and productive?

All too often, we think that complexity is a sign of sophistication, for example. Or that more money equals better product. Or that taking our time (call it "due diligence") ensures a good outcome. And it just ain't so.

@Dick - I think you're onto something, but I'd phrase it a little differently. When a person values avoiding accountability, or thinks it's important to be invisible, unnoticed and not make waves, then they make decisions that are rooted in those values - decisions that lead to big, inhuman organizations and projects, endless schedules, etc.