Wednesday, March 21, 2012

VFT Redux

Recently, I posted a quote from Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, aka ZAMM, and opined that this quote summed up the Value-Focused Thinking (VFT) concept perfectly.

"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands."

Heart, head, hands. Values, plans, actions. Perfect. So nice. Lovely, really, and inspirational. Words to live by. As a VFT scholar-practitioner, I then paraphrased Mr Pirsig's approach thusly: 

  • Start with values
  • Make a plan
  • Grade results against values, not against the plan

To my mind, this 3-step approach is VFT in a nutshell! I don't know whether Ralph Keeney, the father of VFT, read or was influenced by ZAMM, but to my mind it's as if ZAMM (1974) presaged VFT (1992).  The plan is derived top-down from values, not bottom-up from problems. Therefore values, not plans, should govern actions. Conformance to values, not conformance to plans, should be the standard for results. In fact, one could go a step further and say that results reflect values!  

We use our brains when we compare alternatives and when we make plans. However, identifying the most important problems, defining expected outcomes, and allocating resources across the system are, or ought to be, matters of the heart.

In the same post, I made a direct relationship between Pirsig's "heart, head, and hands" language, and Keeney's "values, plans, and actions (or results)" language of Value-Focused Thinking.  With the following bullet points, I explicitly connected Pirsig and Keeney, point by point: heart and values; head and plans; and hands and actions.
  • Values (Heart). Get the values right or the numbers don't matter.
  • Plan (Head). Get the numbers right, or the results don't matter.
  • Action (Hands). Execute the plan and get results that matter.

I solicited comments, and Chicago Diva obliged, saying, in part: 

"I'm missing something here... I get the heart, head, hands thing... but the middle "Plan" somehow messes with my sense of logic in trying to follow it... If you have the values right - but values aren't mentioned in "Plan", then where is the values to plan/action?"

I thought Chicago Diva's comment warranted a more visible blog post, rather than a private comment response. So, here we are. To answer Chicago Diva's query, it's helpful to walk the logic back from the end to the beginning.
  • The aim is "results that matter"--not just any results that might come from filling the time, but billable results, valued results, results that make a difference by satisfying a value gap. 
  • One gets those impactful results by executing a plan--not just any plan, but a data-fueled plan, one that is transparent--one that can be adjusted to the changing situation. Transparency and flexibility require a common language--the language of numbers.
  • This plan is not a bottom-up or reactionary response to a short-term problem. Rather, the plan follows, top-down, from values. Value gaps identify the problems. Values then drive competitive resource allocation decisions. Ultimately, values are reflected in results.

Now I will bring in the voice of Ralph Keeney, creator of Value-Focused Thinking. Dr. Keeney makes a distinction between bottom-up, alternative-focused thinking and top-down, value-focused thinking. Many problem solvers and decision makers, Keeney says, will encounter a problem and immediately set out to find alternative solutions. We all do this. For example, you notice you need to replace the  tires on your car. You immediately think about alternatives for comparison. You consider new or retread, style, performance, driving habits, and price. These and other variables will help you weigh the alternatives and make a choice. 

This alternative-focused thinking, and it's very common. It's stimulus and response thinking. It is essentially context-free thinking, or thinking from the inside out. A systems approach such as VFT stands opposed to alternative thinking by orienting from the outside in.  VFT is long-range, strategic, or top-down--from the general to the specific. The issue Keeney describes is that a decision-maker might spend energy, time, and dollars on buying tires when his own values would require a different allocation of those constrained resources if he used a systems approach.  

This alternative-focused approach leads to a number of shortcomings. Often, people will take action to fix a problem before understanding the effects of the fix on the system. There is also the fact that focusing from the inside out, a person will fail to notice bigger problems.

Keeney goes on to describe value-focused thinking as a completely different paradigm. There are no problems, only decision opportunities. Decision opportunities come from all angles, but not all are of the same importance. A tool Keeney calls a Qualitative Value Model helps a decision maker anticipate value gaps and create solutions to decision opportunities. 

It is apparent that shared values are at the top because those top-down values will define which problems are important, which solutions are best, what direction we are headed, and to what end. Values should come first--individual, team, or corporate Values--then Plans, then Actions. 

Again, I love how Pirsig said it:

"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands."

I admit that Chicago Diva's comment helped me see that my trilogy response contains a  breakdown in the flow. The third line does not really convey the idea that true values are reflected in final results:

  • Get the values right or the numbers don't matter. (Check.)
  • Get the numbers right or the results don't matter. (OK, But what happened to Plans?)
  • Execute the plan and get results that matter.  (Makes sense but doesn't flow.)
How about 
  • Get the results right, or the values don't matter. (Flows but doesn't make sense. And the second bullet needs something about Plans....)

To address Chicago Diva's point more explicitly, I propose the following re-stated bullets:
  • Values (Heart). Get the Values right, or the Numbers don't matter.
  • Plan (Head). Get the Numbers right, or the Plan doesn't matter.
  • Action (Hands). Get the Plan right, or the Results don't matter.

Results Reflect Values 

Does this help? Comments welcome!

H/T: Chicago Diva

Links to books cited:
Keeney (1992) VFT
Pirsig (1974) ZAMM