Thinking about your future, your department’s future or even organization’s future begins by understanding the value you provide to others. Determining that can be harder than you might think.
I had a boss who told me that there are people who do valuable work and people who do bad work; he also said that there are people who are known to do valuable work and people who are known to do bad work. The problem, as he saw it, was that he didn’t see any connection between the people who were actually doing valuable work and the people who were known as doing valuable work. While he’d like to believe that doing valuable work would cause people to think well of you, he didn’t find that happened very often.
Ensuring that you’re doing valuable work in the eyes of your clients/customers/boss/organization/peers/partners (let’s just call them “stakeholders”) is more important than you might think. As we point out in Learning Tree’s Strategic Thinking for Operational Managers course, strategic thinking begins by knowing and demonstrating your value to others — and it doesn’t matter whether you’re thinking about how your own career will develop, how your department should be run, or how your organization will succeed.
Recently, for example, I was talking with someone who worked for the division of their government that prepared plans to deal with a nuclear disaster. If their country ever has a nuclear disaster then the country would, thanks to this division’s plans, be prepared to deal with it. But that actually created a problem for the division: In the absence of a nuclear disaster, how could the division demonstrate its value? Somehow, triggering a nuclear disaster just to demonstrate how good they were seemed like the wrong answer (though you could understand how they might, occasionally, wish for a nuclear disaster to come along).
To put it another way: What is the value to stakeholders of a person who prepares a plan that is never used?
I’ve discussed the importance of knowing your value in another post, but “your value” isn’t really specific enough: What matters to your continued success (or your department’s or your organization’s success) is the value others assign to your work. That can create two problems. First, like the nuclear division, it may be hard to demonstrate your value. Second, we’re often unaware of what others regard as valuable about what we do. That turned out to the case with the nuclear disaster management division, as you’ll see.
But it’s also been true of me. Not all that long ago, I spent a significant part of every year presenting at conferences in North America and Europe (and, once, in Australia). One series of conferences I was continually invited to was sponsored by a magazine that was in direct competition to a newsletter I edited. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me: Why would this organization publicize me and give me a platform for talking about my newsletter?
Finally, my wife suggested that I just ask one of the conference organizers why they kept inviting me. I did and the answer I got back was humbling: “You get your stuff in on time.” It turned out that one of the conference’s major problems was getting material from the presenters early enough so that the organizers could organize the material and get it to the attendees. The organizers had discovered that they could count on my material be in on or before their deadlines. I was the “no drama” presenter.
This was like being promoted just because I always turned up for work on time — the actual quality of my presentations didn’t really make that much difference, apparently. Fortunately, it turned out that I was OK with that and, having learned what mattered to this client, just kept getting my stuff in on time.
But the same is probably true of your own work or the work of your department: You probably don’t know what your stakeholders actually value about your work. Or, for that matter, what they don’t value. One of the reasons that “Big Three” car manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) foundered was because they were confident they knew what their customers wanted…and were wrong. Based on their success in the 1950s and 1960s, they figured they knew what North American car buyers wanted in the 1970s. It turned out that the North American car manufacturers were wrong and, as a result, they took a shellacking from Asian car manufacturers who (it turned out) had a better handle on what car owners wanted in the 1970s.
Part of the problem is that what you value about your work may not be what your stakeholders value (or may only be indirectly related to what your stakeholders value). It’s also possible that, while you once knew what your stakeholders value, like the Big Three’s customers, your stakeholders have changed their minds. While you’ve been improving both your skills and the quality of the work you take pride in doing, you may have been missing the point.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t improve your ability to do the things that you value; I am suggesting that you shouldn’t assume that your values match your stakeholder’s values. This was the lesson that Taco Bell learned in the 1980s when, through its K-Minus program, it reduced the size of its restaurants’ kitchens. Why? Because Taco Bell discovered their customers valued the food they got and not the process that produced that food. Taco Bell has continued to apply that lesson in 2016 as they change their kitchen design again. Why? Because their current customers now do value the process that produces the food as much as the food itself.
With that nuclear disaster management division, it turned out that we were able to, at least, guess at the value the division provided to their stakeholders. For example, the division did constant research to determine what the effects of a nuclear disaster would be. Based on that research, the division also drew up plans for dealing with those effects. Finally, the division ran drills and simulations that allowed them to exercise those plans and resources.
I suggested that the value the division provided was in the simulations. Those simulations allowed the division to demonstrate to their stakeholders that the government was ready to take care of its citizens in the event of a nuclear disaster. The division demonstrated that they knew what was going to happen, who needed to do what and were able to ensure that got done. The value the division provided to their stakeholders wasn’t the plans that the division drew up. The value was the reassurance the simulations provided — the reassurance that, in the event of the unthinkable, people wouldn’t die. The division regularly delivered “peace of mind” to its stakeholders.
Of course, the division might be wrong about the value those simulations provided (the person I was speaking with was going to go back to work and check). If we were right, it did suggest that the division could deliver more value to its stakeholders by making changes in how those simulations were both run and reported on (it also suggested that, if the division wanted increase funding, they should tie it those simulations). If we were wrong, those changes might not help the division deliver more value to its stakeholders at all.
But we had to guess at what the division’s stakeholders wanted because the two of us were locked in a room and couldn’t access the division’s stakeholders. You aren’t in that position. While you could try to deduce what your stakeholder’s value (as we did), you have a much simpler way to find out: Ask them. I bet you’ll be surprised as I was when I talked to those conference organizers.
As we point out in the Strategic Thinking for Operational Managers course, determining your value to your stakeholders (typically, by asking them) is only the start of strategic thinking. But it is the right start because you’ll now be in a position to really be valuable.