On Value

I have this idea of a hypothetical work unit. One work unit is the amount of value an average worker adds in a given time frame. This is similar to idea of Story Points and Velocity in Agile. The average number of Story Points a team accomplishes in a sprint becomes their Velocity. We can look at a worker's value in the same way. Whatever the arbitrary meaning of value is in a given job, we could theoretically designate workers as providing a certain number of work units. An average worker adds one unit of value. An above average worker might add 2 or 3 units. A below average worker might add a half or a quarter unit.

The point of any such designation is not about evaluating or ranking any particular person. I couldn't tell you how many units an individual provides because the concept is too ambiguous. You may have some sense that someone adds more value than someone else but scoring isn't where I'm going with this.

Where I think this gets interesting is that I don't feel that everyone simply adds value. In arithmetic, we have addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication. I think these concepts become an interesting way to think about relationships and value in the workplace.

Doing the Math

Addition is straightforward. A worker doing a job adds value. This is obviously important and having people that add value are crucial to any team. Some people may add more value than others but any added value has a net positive effect on the team and the work.

What about subtraction? What does it mean to consider someone subtracting work units? Taking a rock and putting it at a desk confers zero work units to a team. There is no value being added but there is also no value being taken away. Someone that subtracts is actively removing work units from a team.

A subtractor might be a worker who doesn't add much value on their own and also actively distracts or disrupts others from their work. Workers like this are not of benefit to a team and, if they couldn't be turned into adders, would ideally be removed.

That said, subtractors might simply be new to a team or an industry. Their subtracting of value could represent time spent by other team members (who would otherwise be adders) helping to educate and acclimate instead of directly adding value in terms of work units.

That is not to say that these efforts are without benefit. It is an investment to spend time turning someone from a subtractor (or a low adder) into a higher adder. I'm using "value" in the context of this discussion to simply mean the sum of all work units and not true value in any universal sense.

Division has a much more significant negative impact on a team. While subtraction could be in the form of a future investment, a team member would be considered a divider if they have a net negative effect on the whole team. People who cause serious deficiency on a team by creating a toxic environment, reducing morale, or otherwise diminishing the effectiveness of many individuals would be arithmetically dividing overall work units delivered by some factor (a quarter, a half, etc…). It is (thankfully) rare that one team member should have such a significant impact on their entire team. If the situation does arise, however, it should be dealt with swiftly to limit major impairment to a team.

If a divider can reduce value delivered by members of an entire team, then a multiplier can increase the value delivered by all of those members. This could be by improving working conditions, streamlining processes, or inspiring more valuable team interaction. Note that a multiplier is not just a prodigious worker. A single worker can provide a great deal of value to a team through their output but this only makes them a high adder, not a multiplier. A multiplier doesn't necessarily produce work units of their own so a team of solely multipliers wouldn't be overly effective (zero multiplied by a high number is still zero).

Delivering Value in Different Roles

What's perhaps most interesting about these designations is that certain roles on a team fall under certain designations more readily than others. A worker on a team would need to be exceptional (and not necessarily in a good way) to be a divider or multiplier. What one particular team member does is not that likely to affect all team members. Getting work done affects the overall value of the team but doesn't really have a direct impact on a fellow team member's ability to get work done.

Contrast that with the role of a team lead (this could be something like a manager, scrum master, or a technical lead depending on the type of team). Almost by definition, the actions of a team lead affect all of the members of a team. If a team lead provides value to a team, that is probably through facilitating team members in getting work done. If a team lead is providing good tools, processes, and leadership, then every member of the team can add more value and the team's overall value is multiplied. The opposite is also true. A team lead that provides little value to a team could easily divide the team's overall value by impeding (even subtly) every member of that team. A team lead might manage to be an adder or subtractor but it is much more likely that they are having a more profound impact on the team.

In Practice

So what practical application is there in any of this thinking? For me, this framework helps to crystallize thoughts I have about roles and responsibilities:

  • Developers should be adders, senior developers should be high adders, and architects should be multipliers.
  • Onboarding is what turns new subtractors into adders. Having a good system means value can be added sooner.
  • Having the right people in the positions that affect more team members is crucial. A divider as a team lead is a much more significant problem than a subtractor as a team member.
  • Multiple layers of management can mean that team leads have an exponential effect on sub teams.
  • A team lead that is not multiplying is underperforming.

The last point is what is most significant for me. The UI Architect role at the CBC is as much a leadership role as a technical one. Too often, I've been feeling like I'm adding more than I'm multiplying (some days, not even that). It may still confer benefit to the team but it's not what I'm here for. It's gotten me thinking about how I can do things differently to maximize the value I bring my teams. I haven't figured out any definitive answers but I have some ideas about what I might need to focus on:

  • Communicating to larger groups or entire teams at once to avoid repeatedly transferring the same knowledge
  • Working more on improving processes and tools than just using them
  • Thinking bigger about what we could be doing instead of being mired in what we are doing

None of these are groundbreaking. Despite my exhaustive preamble, my conclusions aren't novel. What I'm choosing to do, however, is a bit different. This blog is going to be a forum to express some personal views about what I see around me. It will likely be opinionated and speculative but I'm hoping it will inspire some thought and discussion in the name of moving things forward and providing more value to more people.