In late 2016, my family took a road trip from Maryland to Central Texas, a trip which at its best is a 24-hour road trip. Our plan was to leave around 10 pm, drive straight through the evening, and only stop for food or for bathroom breaks. We figured out the fastest route, got plenty of snacks, charged up all devices, and began one of the most horrible experiences of my life.
Between not leaving when we originally scheduled to leave, to constant complaining from the kids about being hungry and bored, to almost falling asleep at the wheel five times, clearly the plan had many areas for improvement. We got to our final destination within hours of our originally ETA, but we were all miserable and couldn’t even fathom getting back in the car to return home after our visit. My husband and I came up with a plan, and we stuck to the plan to the bitter end.
Nowhere during the trip did we consider augmenting our plan, and I am not sure why. The first time I started nodding off, I should have realized that maybe that would have been a good time to pull over and maybe get some rest at a hotel. At no time did I consider changing the plan because I was fearful of what the change in plans might yield - potentially greater headaches, more money, and ultimately taking longer for us to get to our end destination. The irony is that once we got there, the experience was so horrible that no one, and I mean no one, wanted to relive that agony.
After a week, we needed to start our trip back home. This time around, I wanted to do things completely different. Instead of leaving at dreadful hours in the middle of the night, we left after lunch. Instead of just powering through with making as minimal stops as possible, we stopped often. Instead of taking the highways for the entire trip, we often veered off to alternative routes so we could actually drive through the towns and cities for a more scenic route. We stopped to shop at small stores along the interstate. We stopped to take pictures. We ate at local diners. And at night, we got a hotel room so we could get a good night’s sleep and a fresh shower in the morning.
The return trip took three days, but the whole family loved every moment of it. Our kids, some of the pickiest stakeholders in the family, couldn’t stop raving about it. When my husband and I stopped focusing on the plan and just adapted as the mood called for it, it was a much more enjoyable experience.
I like to ponder on that experience often, and use it as a point of reflection to determine if my team is stuck. I start to question if my team really understands what our customers want and what they consider value, or does my team like sticking to the plan (regardless of it being good or bad), just for the sake of sticking the plan.
I learned three valuable lessons from the road trip that I apply directly to my teams every day to ensure they understand how to be value-driven, and not plan- (or task-) driven.
1. Understand the Customer
During the road trip, I assumed that we didn’t have any customers. Mainly because my husband I were doing all the work, I didn’t pay attention to the perspective of my kids in the backseat. I only focused on trying to occupy them so I could focus on driving. And that was the wrong attitude to have.
How many times do we focus on maintaining our production environment for our customers, but forget that the development and test environments could be just as important? While our end customers may not use the development and test environments, the development organization does. If that environment is not available and reliable, then it hinders them from meeting the mission, which means it ultimately impacts the services that can be delivered towards the end customer. Understanding who are all the customers (directly or indirectly impacted, seen and unseen) is crucial to understanding who would define whether value is being delivered.
2. Understand what value is
One great lessoned I learned during undergrad, is that the person delivering the goods cannot define the value. Often times, we presume to understand the value of something based on our own assessment. But that is entirely the wrong way to approach defining value. When we start to define value for others, we ignore our own perceptions, points of references, and biases. Instead, we have to understand our customer and simply ask what are the things that are important to them (rather than assuming).
In my road trip example, I assumed that my kids wanted electronics and to be fed. I didn’t consider that they would think of the road trip as an adventure to explore our great land. Once I understood what they considered valuable (experiencing different parts of the country as if we lived there), I was able to bring them enjoyable and memorable experience.
In the work place, we presume that having available systems beings value to our customers. But effective communication and collaboration is part of the value package.
3. Constantly Reevaluate
Once I acknowledged my children as stakeholders and potential customers for the road trip, I wanted to make sure I gathered feedback, and I did it often. I can count on four hands the number of times my organization made a semi-good decision which they recognized was bad midway through, and continued with the plan to the end. Their justification was that they wanted to evaluate when we were complete to ultimately determine if it was a failure. But the funny thing is, they saw signs all along. Because of fear, shame, embarrassment, we often carry ideas, plans, and initiatives, further than they should go.
We have to be ok to let it go and move on. There are no bad decisions, just ample learning opportunities.
Making the shift from being plan-driven to value-driven is hard; it challenges us to be vulnerable in showing our inexperience and naivety. However, we have to make this evolution as leaders if we want to be value-focused instead of being led by a plan.
Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, DevOps thought leader, and educator with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She obtained a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. She started her consulting company, AC Miller Consulting, in 2013. Since then, AC Miller has provided services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries helping with ITIL and DevOps transformations. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. She is the co-creator of the BVE Summit, a conference for entrepreneurs and business owners. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.