Values Ecosystem


I actually enjoy it when someone causes me to re-examine my core assumptions and values.  I never know what I will find and the exercise is always invigorating.  A recent post by Dan Rockwell, The Most Important New System You Could Implement in 2016 stimulated the most recent trip down this path.   You can read the post for yourself –it is an excellent one – at your leisure.  In it, Dan makes a strong case for linking values with behaviors.  Essentially, values that are not acted upon are valueless.  You will have no argument from me on that point.

There was one sentence in the post that caught my eye and triggered a response from me.  He wrote: “The most important new system you could implement is one that enables you to evaluate and align behaviors with values.”  I added my thoughts to the comments following the post and Dan responded.

Steve:  I like to think of it as an environment or ecosystem of values and behaviors. There needs to be room for evolution and adaptation, supported by the alignment meetings and such. Terrific post, Dan.

Dan:  Thanks Steven. I’ve read that our values don’t change. Your comment suggests that they could. I know mine are evolving. Perhaps the core ideas don’t change, but expression might.

Dan’s thoughts made me stop to consider the question of changing values.  Can they really change or are the core ones foundational and essentially carved in stone?  In general, I would be willing to admit that core values are relatively static for most human beings.  And yet, there are many documented instances where external events have shaken a human being’s core values at their foundation and consequently wrought a tectonic shift. While not perhaps tectonic, I have my own story to relate by way of example.

At one time, I despised many individuals with viewpoints – and more important, values – in radical opposition to my own. I devalued them as human beings and I had a rhetoric to accompany that viewpoint.  My act of devaluing was a behavior, but it was driven by a core value (expressed if not precisely perceived or understood) that linked their worth as human beings to my set of values.  Consequently, I was in the habit of judging other human beings in black and white terms which allowed me to dismiss their point of view on anything out of hand.  One day, an event occurred that afforded me a glimpse into the life of one of these people in a way that demonstrated clearly that no human being has a perfect monopoly on evil or good – right or wrong. The insight was transformational and some of my core values changed that day.  It has altered completely the way I work with adversaries. (This link is an articulate follow-on to that self-revolutionary idea).

In articulating this example, I come back to Dan’s reply.  On the surface, I would aver that values do sometimes change.  But that statement represents just one viewpoint. Another equally valid one is that perhaps we don’t really know or recognize all of our core values at a point in time, and that life is the process of testing our values against circumstance and context, stripping away the misperceptions and irrelevancies to reveal the true nucleus, much the same as Michelangelo “released” his figures from the raw marble.

I think this is a useful distinction when working in a leadership role.  Just as personal values may be an evolutionary process, most certainly shared group values are as well. Groups are more fluid than individuals, with members joining and leaving and thus continually changing the mix of shared and unshared values. The successful leader, therefore, engenders an ecosystem wherein these values may be tested together against circumstance and context, evolving a shared value set that is more life affirming for the group.  Such an environment nurtures those behaviors that create true value in the real world.

The reason that I chose “ecosystem” over “system” is because the word implies not so much a structure as a sharing of balanced nourishment that allows the sum of the parts to flourish.  The value-based behaviors sustain the environment for all of the shared values, while allowing adaptation or evolution when context and circumstance demand.  An ecosystem may require tending, not merely management.

How that ecosystem is created and managed is as individual as the group.  However, the shared values can’t be imposed from without.  The group members need to discover and articulate them together.  Leadership provides the opportunity for this through periodic facilitated retreats and review meetings.  Leadership can also provide positive reinforcement for those behaviors that align with the values.

I have to hand it to Dan.  He manages to stimulate my thinking on a regular basis.  This time, he inspired me to test my own assumptions regarding core values.  Just being able to articulate a different point of view regarding their mutability will be instantly useful in my work as a consultant and facilitator.  So thank you, Dan.

Do you have a shared values ecosystem in your organization?  Do you think core values are mutable?



Cat in the Hat at The Exchange

CatHat_HeaderLet me state up front that this post is about accountability.  It could have been an indictment of the Affordable Care Act, a political party, a specific company, or a member of government.  It is none of these.  This is solely about a characteristic I consider to be the single most important component of personal and organizational integrity.

In November 2014, I overpaid my health insurance.  It amounted to one month’s premium and occurred because of a unilateral decision made by a computer system at the Washington Health Benefit Exchange (The Exchange).  It was an individual health plan so it was a meaningful amount of money.

My experience with the The Exchange has been an unhappy one from the beginning.  This is because the systems were implemented based on a sloppy design driven by sloppy thinking and followed by sloppy delivery.  Key systems that ordinarily share information did not do so in timely ways.  This left consumers – forced to transact all business through the web portal – looking at incomplete information.  Presentation of data made it impossible to determine exactly how the balance due was calculated.

The most important flaw in this technical hairball was that the systems were designed to apishly implement the law without any human oversight or accountability.  Thus, if a consumer were accidentally to drop a zero from his annual salary when entering the requisite financial information, he and his family would be summarily put on Medicaid and his regular insurance terminated without his knowing it.  There would be no notice that this was happening either at the time the computer made the determination nor later in written form.  The consumer was left to find out the next time his Primary Care Physician tried to bill the insurance. It happened to us, and it took months to set right.

It was a similar situation that resulted in my overpayment.  The computer made a unilateral decision behind the scenes without any requirement to share that decision with the consumer, leaving the consumer (in this case me) to figure it out weeks later.  At this point, I did what any reasonable person would do and called customer service.  The answer I received – that The Exchange could not issue refunds and that I would get it credited as part of my income tax return – was utter hogwash. There began my personal Odyssey Through the Land of Zero Accountability.

Enter The Cat in the Hat (with apologies to Dr. Seuss).  Do you all remember the big pink bathtub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back?  Well, hang on to your hat.  My next step was to call customer service again and open a ticket requesting a refund. The agent informed me that it might take three to four weeks.  After four weeks had elapsed, I called to find out the status of the ticket.  “It is in process.”  “Where in process is it?” “I don’t have visibility to that.”  I played this game for a number of weeks until finally I convinced an agent to escalate the ticket.

It turns out that escalating a ticket at The Exchange is akin to one of those fake knobs on TV sets back in the fifties that were just on there for show; you can turn it but nothing happens.  Over the ensuing weeks, I “escalated” that ticket three times.  I talked to supervisors.  Nothing.  “Well, what’s happening with this issue now?”  “It’s over in Finance.”  “It’s been there for six weeks.  Where in the process is it?” “I don’t have visibility to that, Sir.” “Please transfer me to Finance.”  “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”  “Let me talk to your superior, then.” “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”   “Then put me in contact with someone who is accountable.”  “I’m not authorized to do that, Sir.”  Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not making any of this up.  There is no service level agreement of any kind at the Exchange.

Being resourceful, I decided to perform an end run around customer service.  But it turns out that when it comes to accountability, The Exchange was designed like a medieval keep.  There is a single drawbridge and that is customer service.  On the website, it is the only phone number.  If you want to register a complaint the number is the same.  There is not a single shred of accountability anywhere.  All of the executives and board members have bright smiling pictures along with glowing biographies, but no contact information.  There is a web interface for filing a complaint, but without any service level agreement.  Dead end.

In desperation, I wrote to my state legislators.  I was stunned two days later when my representative’s legislative assistant called me.  I was the third such complaint that week and she was preparing to walk them across to The Exchange herself.  Accountability at last!  Within a week I was in contact with a real live human being at The Exchange in the form of an Operations Analyst.  Within another two, she had researched the records, determined that the money had been paid to the insurance carrier, worked with the carrier to calculate the exact amount owed (they actually found an earlier overpayment I had given up on), and agreed that the carrier would issue the refund within two weeks.  Wow!  Talk about accountability.

It turns out that what happened only made the pink cat stain worse.  When no refund materialized after a few weeks I called the carrier and started over.  All anyone could tell me was that it was “in process.”  Once again I began demanding accountability and talking to supervisors as the weeks accumulated.  Finally, I was able to get someone’s attention.  At first, it appeared to be more of same as there were several phone calls with no actual information exchanged.  But she seemed genuinely hurt when I suggested that the next voice she might hear would be that of my lawyer.  Low and behold, she called back within the hour.  As it turns out, the carrier had refunded the money to The Exchange two weeks before I even opened that initial ticket.  Would you be surprised to learn that The Exchange has no record of this transaction? My contact at the carrier has promised to follow this up and to send me a status email weekly.  I think she means it this time. Besides, it’s my management style to give folks enough rope either to own the solution or to hang themselves.  And in the latter case, my legislative contact is ready to step in again.

Here’s the score.  A large amount of money that has been out of my control for 56 weeks cannot be adequately accounted for by the State of Washington AND a major health insurance carrier.  In my mind, the picture looks like this; the good Doctor captured it perfectly.

Cat2What this teaches us is the importance of personal and institutional accountability. The Exchange itself is organized in a manner that banishes accountability altogether.  Nevertheless, it is that single Operations Analyst from whom the organizational model should derive instead of The Cat in the Hat. For those of us who understand the difference, our customer’s problem is our problem and we must mobilize at our inconvenience to own the solution.  We need to empower our employees to make it right for our customers now (with appropriate controls), and worry about squaring the general ledger later.

I think that The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is the perfect parable for this lesson and I am delighted to have rediscovered it after so many years.  As for my personal pink cat stain, we may only be at Little Cat M.  I will amend this post as events develop.

Are your employees empowered to own customer solutions?  Do you have a pink cat stain story to share?






Recorder_HeaderDramatis personæ
Fred: Director of IT (the meeting owner)
Heather:  Senior Business Analyst
Oscar:  Accounting Manager
Ben:  Accounting Specialist
Cheryl:  Marketing Manager
Dablu: Senior Software Engineer
Other Stakeholders:  Corps de Ballet

Fred:  Okay, let’s get started now that everyone’s here.  We’re already ten minutes behind.  I’d like to pick up where we left off on Monday.  We had just decided to proceed with a custom application rather than an off-the-shelf package and…

Oscar:  Wait a minute, Fred.  You know I wasn’t able to be here on Monday and so I couldn’t be part of that decision.  I think we need to revisit that first.

Fred:  Oscar, I think we really need to move forward.  We spent the better part of Monday’s meeting putting the pros and cons of off-the-shelf versus custom in columns on the whiteboard and then prioritizing them.  Heather, you got a picture of the whiteboard, right?

Heather:  Well, no, actually.  I took a call on my cell right at the end of the meeting and by the time I finished, the folks in the next meeting had already erased it.

Fred:  Did anyone get it down on paper?

Dablu:  Well, I managed to take notes on some of it, but once we were up out of our chairs working at the board, I don’t have anything.

Ben:  Yeah, it was all moving pretty fast.

Fred:  Wow.  Well, okay, let’s quickly review what we remember the top reasons for our decision were.

Cheryl:  The top reason we had was that our custom information pipeline would not be supported by any packaged solution right out of the box.

Dablu:  I don’t think that’s right.  I remember it being our in-house expertise on the pipeline and the fact that we would be able to reuse code.

Ben:  No, no.  I think that changed when we started talking about the source control problem.

Stakeholder 1:  I don’t remember that at all…

Sound familiar?  A common challenge in most meeting formats is to produce documentation appropriate to the event.  When I am a participant in a meeting, I am the world’s worst note taker; my attention is on the meeting content.  In my experience, I am not alone.  Most others in the meeting are in the same boat.  In fact, good meeting notes require a focus and objectivity of their own.  Unless there is someone in the room dedicated to taking notes, meeting output gets lost just as it did for our intrepid players here.  In mere hours following the end of a meeting, the participants have developed diverse perspectives on what actually occurred.

Different meetings have different requirements with respect to documentation.  For daily standup meetings, the need is minimal.  For more formal meetings with prescribed decisions or output, the need for a published record of some detail is much greater.  For meetings of civic or governing bodies, precise documentation is legally imperative. As the need for documentation increases, so does the desirability of having a dedicated chronicler in attendance.

Facilitated meetings have a more complex requirement for documentation. Except in very rare cases, the role of facilitator must be focused on the process.  Because this requires 100% attention on the participants, the mechanics of appropriate documentation conflict with the role.  This is why most facilitators employ at least one trained recorder.

Role clarity is critical.  While the roles of the facilitator and the recorder are complimentary in practice, the requirements of the two roles tend to conflict with one another if one person is trying to perform both. Three key factors make them generally mutually exclusive.

  • Focus: The facilitator is responsible for keeping the process moving.  This requires minute attention to the individual participants and where each of them is with respect to the process.  The recorder, on the other hand, is responsible for listening accurately and transcribing in some medium with equal accuracy.
  • Orientation: The facilitator needs to be in constant personal contact with the participants.  This means not only making eye contact, but with a body orientation that is open to them (3/4 front to full front).  In most meeting situations, the recorder is working on a white board or wall at the front or sides of a room.  This means that his/her back is consistently turned toward the participants.
  • Pace: The participants set the pace of the process and it is the job of the facilitator to regulate that pace.  Depending on the activity, it is important for the pace to be consistent throughout the activity and not stalled by external constraints.  The recorder is constrained by how quickly he or she can transcribe oral statements to written form.  Often, more than one recorder is required to keep a process flowing.

The facilitator and recorders need to have a firmly established working relationship.  The recorders need to understand the meeting process thoroughly and be attentive to the facilitator’s instructions as well as the needs of the moment.  These team members should establish a repertoire of subtle visual and vocal signals to indicate the need for a course correction.  For instance, if the recorders feel that they are falling behind, they might parrot back the last idea as they transcribe to indicate to the facilitator that they need a little more time.  Conversely, if the facilitator notices one or more participants squinting, he might ask, “Do we need to be recording a little larger?”  The recorders would automatically adjust without stopping the flow of the meeting.

The recorder role is more than merely writing down what is said.  There are many characteristics of the ideal recorder, but here are the most important ones.

  • Impartiality: The recorders should not color what they are documenting with their own viewpoint. The process becomes contaminated if the content ceases to belong to the participants.
  • Accuracy: The recorders should record in the participants’ own words. Rewording invalidates the participants’ contributions.
  • Legibility: The recorders should strive to make the output large enough and clear enough to be read by the participants. This includes changes of color or format when necessary.
  • Inclusiveness: The recorders should record everything, even if it is “off topic.”  The group can later decide if an idea needs to be reclassified or moved to a “parking lot.”
  • Knowledge: The recorders should familiarize themselves with the terminology of the business ahead of the facilitated sessions.  The concepts need to flow from mind to wall with minimal need to interrupt for explanation.
  • Flexibility: The recorders need to go with the flow and not get hung up on details such as spelling (which can be corrected later). Also, they need to understand that if the dynamics of a meeting so dictate, the facilitator may change the process from what the team rehearsed.  The recorders must be able to take the change in stride and support the new process.

Being the recorder for a meeting, whether facilitated or not, requires detachment from the meeting content in order to capture what is actually occurring in the room.  The recorder needs to understand the level of detail required in the documentation for that particular circumstance.  Following the meeting, the recorder needs to complete and submit the documentation for distribution as soon as possible so that the results may be validated by the participants and stakeholders.

Meeting planning consists of much more than cranking out an agenda.  Meeting documentation is one of the key considerations in preparing for and leading a meeting process.  At the minimum, it should reflect decisions, issues, and accountabilities that resulted from the meeting. At the end of a facilitated process, it also needs to reflect group input and consensus at each stage of the process in order to support the process outcome.  In this, skilled recording is essential.

Let us return to our drama which began above.  You get the idea from what was said that in the prior meeting the team had followed a productive process even in the absence of a facilitator.  Nevertheless, the value of the work and accomplishment of that meeting was lost.  Let us look in again and see how Fred refloats his team’s sinking boat and sets it once again on course.

Fred:  Hold on, everyone.  It’s clear that I’ve dropped the ball on this process.  We had a pretty effective meeting on Monday, didn’t we?

Cheryl:  I thought so.

Dablu:  Me too.

Fred:  Well, by failing to preserve the output of that meeting we’ve lost pretty much everything we did together.  So here’s what I propose we do.  I’ll adjourn this meeting and reschedule for early next week.  In the meantime, I’ll talk to the Project Management Office and contract for a Recorder and a Scribe.  When we meet next week, we’ll see that everything gets recorded so that we can always pick up right where we left off.  The Recorder will get everything down on flipcharts and butcher paper and the Scribe will get everything else.  We’ll publish the meeting notes within twenty-four hours of the meeting and at subsequent meetings we’ll rehang any relevant output from the preceding meetings.  Does this make sense?

Oscar:  It does to me.

[All heads nod agreement.]

Fred:  Right, then.  Thanks, everyone.  Meeting adjourned.


Do you employ dedicated recorders in your meetings?  How does your organization determine the level of meeting documentation required?



10 Reasons to Hold That Big Meeting Away from the Office


Meetings are an essential element of running any organization.  Even in an Agile world, the necessity to bring individuals with diverse viewpoints, values, and needs together to arrive at a single, agreed upon decision or solution is inescapable.  Further, not every meeting can be conducted as a 30-minute standup.  Some require several hours or even a couple of days.

Effective meetings do not happen by accident.  Any meeting – be it a daily scrum or a two-day planning retreat – requires both purpose and structure.  Meeting objectives and output need to be clear, and the participants need to understand their roles.  Further, meetings that are more than merely informational benefit from facilitation, whether formal or informal.

In general, institution-level matters are the ones that demand meetings of longer scope.   Annual planning retreats are a good example.  These are usually conducted by Boards of Directors and/or senior management.  Of course, there are other reasons for retreat-style meetings.  These include institutional problem solving, task force deliberations, project or product road map development, and team building.  Each example has a specific objective, concrete outputs (e.g., documents, decisions, plans) that must be delivered, and require that the participants have achieved some level of consensus by the end of the meeting.  In each case, objective facilitation is a key success factor.

An equally critical success factor is the need to move this category of meeting away from the normal place of work.  This is not a trivial consideration and it deserves thoughtful planning.  For instance, moving the meeting to the office building across the street will do little to help you achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead, the meeting location should be treated as a destination, some place special where the participants will thrive and unexpected synergies can emerge.  In fact, locale is almost as important as the process itself in achieving success both for the meeting and the organization.

Following are the top ten benefits I have observed over the years when key meetings have been moved to an offsite destination.  Taken together, these benefits are powerful.

  1. Eliminate Interruptions: Critical meetings can suffer from the distractions of the work environment.  It is just too easy to reach someone and ask them to “step away for a few minutes” to put out a fire.  Off-site meetings send a strong message to both participants and non-participating co-workers that this time is important and is not to be interrupted.
  1. Boost Morale: Off-site meetings boost morale in a variety of ways. Just being included in such an event can provide a lift to a person’s attitude.  But imagine a group of individuals returning from a successful retreat with a body of successes to share with their co-workers. This is value that will penetrate across teams and departments throughout the organization.
  1. Recharge Your Batteries: As it is, many of us do not take sufficient time off.  Getting away from the grind and commotion of the office environment is a way to clear our heads and open our souls up in fresh new thoughts.  If the meeting is truly located at a destination where the participants spend a night or two in a hotel or retreat center, it almost becomes a mini-vacation while still being a working “holiday.”
  1. Change Your Perspective: New vistas and experiences always change one’s perspective.  We cannot help seeing things differently when we have new input.  By taking away the familiar sights and sounds, the brain is more open to new ideas while creativity is boosted.
  1. Enhance Meeting Focus: Interrelated with all of these benefits is the increased focus that the group will have as a result. The usual distractions are gone and the increased effectiveness of the participants can create additional energy and focus for what might otherwise be a grueling and tiring experience.
  1. Nurture Social Capital: When individuals come together in retreat situations, they begin to work together in new and different ways.  Combined with the social events that accompany destination retreats, new relationships develop, trust is heightened, and stronger teams materialize.
  1. Optimize Your Tools: Destination retreats offer tremendous flexibility with respect to meeting tools. Spaces can be reconfigured (sometimes on the fly) to be able to respond to the distinct requirements of the process.  Technology components (e.g., projectors, file sharing, sound systems) can be customized. Unique or different tools can be incorporated that might not be possible at the home office.
  1. Generate Energy: Remote retreats, properly conducted, are energy factories.  New experiences, achievements, and fresh viewpoints all generate excitement that is simply infectious across the participants.  It is not unusual, in fact, to see an energy boost at the end of a long day even if that leg of the process is running overtime.
  1. Embrace Flexibility: One of the true benefits of the destination retreat is that the time “boxes” become elastic.  A process segment that runs a few minutes long does not impact someone else’s meeting.  Participants do not have to be out the door at precisely 5:00 to catch the train or ferry.  The process can evolve to meet the group’s needs as they change over the course of the retreat.
  1. Build Your Team: Whether or not specific team building exercises are incorporated into the retreat experience (although I heartily recommend them), the process of working together more effectively and creatively will enhance your team’s long term performance.  Every member will have a clearer idea of the strengths and capabilities of their teammates, and will be better able to contribute to team success.

On the surface, destination meetings are expensive.  There is the cost of travel, food, lodging, facilitation, and ancillary activities to consider.  But viewed in the light of the overall value that the enterprise ultimately reaps from the meeting output – value which is measured not only by the desired objective and products but also by the ten benefits discussed above – the return on investment is high. Consider these when planning your next big meeting.

What other values do you see from off-site meetings?  Do you have retreat success stories to share?