The value of values

I read with interest Alexander Kjerulf’s blog post on 10 things companies should stop doing now. Obviously any article in a top 10 format is going to talk in very general terms but I was surprised to see number four on the list… Corporate values.

I think that rather than simply casting aside values there is a greater need to define what we mean by values and where they fit into an organisation. To simply stop considering them is very much in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Values do not exist in isolation. This is where I think Alexander’s problem is with values;  corporates coming up with vague nebulous values and simply imposing them on the company. Or values are simply stored on a piece of paper gathering dust, rather than acting as a unifying set of goals and principles.

Values exist in an onion shape, in that there are multiple layers of values. Corporate values are just one of these layers.

At their most basic, values can be thought of as existing at these three levels:

  • Personal
  • Team
  • Organisation

Dr Steve Peters in his book The Chimp Paradox talks about the stone of life, where we store our personal values. Organisational values are critical to the Toyota way (lean) as mentioned in the book This is Lean by Niklas Modig. Team values are important in Agile and there are well defined techniques for helping teams develop shared values (see Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins).

These three value layers feed into each other. If we have team or organisational values which conflict with our personal values then we will likely experience cognitive dissonance, causing us stress.

This means that in most instances values at the team and organisational level should be negotiated and agreed. Only our personal values are non-negotiable. Although like anything our personal values can change with experience.

Values are living and breathing entities, like plants they need light and water to grow. We need to ensure that when the seeds of values are sown they take root and we attend to them regularly.  Also that unrealistic or unhelpful values are pruned back as we, our team or organisation grows.

Values far from being a static burden are a living embodiment of who we are and what we believe and as such they are at the heart of any organisation. Use dusty old values as a catalyst for change and don’t simply toss them away without at least first trying to fix them.

Persistence hunting and the art of agile

Thousands of years ago on the grassy plains of Africa before the bow and arrow, early hominids used to literally run their prey to death. Their prey was fast and cunning. But crucially it could only run short distances and if the hominids persisted they could eventually catch their prey by wearing it down.

When we are managing projects we need to take a similar approach. If we plan the hunt in great detail the prey will slip away almost immediately, easily able to sprint off whilst we remain static trying to second guess what will happen.

However if we get started quickly and persist, allow ourselves to focus on the objective of running the prey down, change direction as we need to, not panic if the prey gets ahead of us (as long as we can still see it). Then in time the project will slowly tire and we will get close enough to finish it. This model reflects how projects will start off volatile (full of energy and change) but as we progress and deliver, slowly become more manageable.

It is part of our evolutionary history and makeup to think like this. It seems absurd that we find this an alien way of thinking and must invent process to try to engage in a hunt. Instead all we need is to lean back on what made us successful in evolutionary terms.Then we will find that we have all the mental tools needed to work in this way.

Tools such as working as a team in relentless pursuit of our prey. Not knowing how long a hunt will last but remaining clearly focused on the objective. Changing and adapting to the conditions as we find them. Communicating across the team to effectively bring our collective resources to bear on the object of the hunt. Also and most importantly progressing at a sustainable pace, as that is the very nature of persistence hunting.

There can even be roles for specialists on the hunting team. Trackers who are adept in reading the prey’s mood and whims so we always stay with them. Sprinters who quickly catch up with the prey and fall back at other times. The management and leadership of the team is rotated and seamlessly switches from person to person as the hunt progresses.

So get Palaeolithic on your next project and remember that through agile techniques we are simply attempting to reconnect with our innate ability to work in this way.

More about persistence hunting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_hunting

Are you doing or being Agile?

It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen companies saying they are doing Agile, when in fact what they have is a ritualised version of Scrum without the good bits.

The very term “doing” Agile should always ring alarm bells. You can’t do Agile at all. By adopting this mind-set you invariably fixate on the tools and rituals of (usually) Scrum, without ever-moving to the understanding stage.

In fact I’d say that it doesn’t really matter what framework you tell yourself you are adopting the main part of becoming more Agile is a shift of mindset. This shift of mindset can be hard to achieve, in fact you could say being Agile is like being happy.

It’s something we all want but often don’t know how to go about. This again is often because we focus on the method or the tool of being happy. If I lose a few ponds I will be happy. If I could just run a marathon I’d be happy. Again this is focusing on the mechanism not on the mindset.

This is why I am beginning to see all sorts of ranty blog posts about how Agile sucks and it isn’t all it’s sold to be. This is normally because what people have experienced is what I call mechanised Agile. A process imposed from on high to a problem that is cultural.

So take time to think about your current Agile practice, are you being or doing? If you are simply doing then take a moment to reflect on one thing you could change that would help you or your team be Agile.

Perhaps you could start with the standup and do away with the interminable three questions ritual which often becomes an anti-pattern. Or perhaps just introduce the elephant in the room; that rather than being Agile you are merely doing.

When did you last help your boss?

Put your hand up if you have ever moaned about your boss (ok, don’t actually put your hand up the boss might be watching). I suspect it made you feel better but didn’t solve the problem.

Next time instead of venting to someone else, try and recognise the human in the bosses suit. They have needs, desires, fears and insecurities like the rest of us. Perhaps try and see things from their point of view.

Why not even try and help them? Try and work with them to help them understand what you need from them and what they need from you.

Obviously there are some alpha wolf types who can’t be helped but often your boss is just someone trying to get their work done the same as you.

We all have values and needs and we need to recognise this  in everyone that we work with. But someone has to make the first move. Will it be you who starts making the work environment a better place or are you waiting for someone to do it for you?