A discussion about ‘Value Sync’ with Robert Sabourin

14 June

At STANZ 2013 this coming August guest speaker Robert Sabourin – adjunct professor of software engineering at McGill University, President and Principle Consultant for Amibug.com, and author of ‘I Am A Bug’ – will be providing a keynote speech on ‘Value Sync’. The following discussion explores talking points about his keynote and gives you an insight on the importance of being ‘on-purpose’ – to Value Sync and develop quality that matters.


When and how did you realize the importance of being on-purpose – the ‘value sync’ – as a pre-requisite priority in planning? 

Robert explained that he had always been subconsciously aware of the principles of being on-purpose within any project effort but the importance of performing value sync came during the late 1980s when he’d inherited a project in crisis about partway through its planned duration. The project was critical for the organisation and its shareholders, and he was assigned to manage the quality assurance team at that time. He found that the testers on the QA team were especially depressed and struggling with the demands of the development team. Upon close examination, Robert noted that the ideas for success within the project effort were different for various members of the project team. There was a lot of pressure to hit some sort of release date and they also felt that the software was nowhere near ready for use.

“I see that as being revealing because actually, the ideas in the heads of all the different players were very different and they were really working towards dramatically different purposes and on dramatically different schedules of value”. 

Indeed, the intent of the project effort was to demonstrate to shareholders that their capital investment could be turned into new, revenue-generating technologies. Neither the testing team nor the developers involved had any knowledge of this purpose and thus the necessity for realigning values was obvious. The realignment involved all members of the team and its extended stakeholders; testers, developers, project management, sales, finance, and board-level were involved. The effort of synchronizing values throughout those involved brought many members of the team back from a point close to quitting. Furthermore, by establishing a stronger understanding by all for the shared value each has in the project, the value sync spurred a heroic effort that brought the test team to the highest levels of recognition by the shareholders of the company. The QA team was applauded for ensuring the success of the project and the $2.3 million it generated in new equity.

This was and is ‘value sync’, an effort to align people’s expectations for the effort in hand. As Robert explains, “Once I knew what they really cared about, once they knew what we really cared about, and we were in sync about these things then we found fantastic solutions to problems which we’d never dream of if we had just tried to solve them using tactical testing techniques.” 


In his keynote at STANZ, Robert will detail three different types of values and how those values may be revealed. He lists these as emphatic values, dynamic values and emergent values.

Why is value sync important for every stakeholder and team member? 

It isn’t just cutting down barriers of communication between project members but it is really finding out what matters to everyone involved, including the customer, and then looking at those values that are at cross-purpose and eliminating them. Sometimes someone is trying to get a value out of a project that another person is trying to put in and so we have to normalize that effort in order to be effective.

“It’s almost humorous sometimes”, Robert describes, “the answer is sitting there in front of your face but because you don’t know what people value you fall back to your own default values.”

Robert’s talk will address values related to project development with case studies weaved into his keynote speech. Each case study has a twist, an unexpected lesson learned, that emphasizes the understanding for being on purpose.

Robert further describes the value sync as an all-inclusive process. It involves everyone. It includes management, stakeholders, team members, support, sales, and user community. The value sync provides each individual with a better understanding of their own perception of value-expectation and with an understanding of other team member expectations involved. Once communicated openly then alignment can proceed accordingly.


Is being on purpose only relevant during the planning phase, or how frequently during a project should expectations be checked and realigned?

Robert elaborates that the habit of asking daily questions on what is still relevant or what may have changed is necessary in industry sectors subject to quick change. But, in more consistent environments, every two weeks is a fairly typical frequency. A key practice is to listen actively for any context changes. Anytime context changes then that can be a trigger for checking everyone is still on purpose. When such changes occur do people still care about the same things? No, so realign. Once achieved then one ought to have a good understanding of everyone else’s core values in the effort. Active, context-focused listening is fundamental to knowing when value sync is needed.


What combination of skills are needed to facilitate and accomplish successful value sync with everyone clear and on purpose? 

Robert clarifies that during the past few years he has become cautious of using the word ‘skill’. He prefers the notion of  ’skill ideas’ to encourage others to engage in the open dialog needed for value sync. But what are skill ideas? “Well, it’s a little bit of grey hair”, Robert smiles, “I got to admit that you have to walk in there with credibility. If you don’t have credibility, you can’t achieve value sync in my experience.” He adds that with credibility one also needs to earn respect and, especially, strong active listening is more important than speaking skills. As Robert puts it, “There are beautiful reasons for things, and many people need time to tell their stories or even the right moment to tell it.”

The use of tact and lateral thinking are important too given there are so many different dimensions to realizing core values. Sometimes introducing randomizing methods to generate ideas and discussing them with others to check relevance. Furthermore, the value sync should only take a few minutes or even seconds to perform, and not months for analysis. Get the information quickly and then act on it; something that quick heuristic analysis can help people think outside the box and expose values that are important.

“I’m never worried about being complete”, Robert goes on to say. “I always listen for more but I know I’m always going to get incomplete information. Once you find it, there’s this other thing that I call ‘affinity analysis’”.

Affinity analysis is basically putting together the ideas found from one community or team with the ideas from another, and then noting the correlations and recognizing patterns in common; what is similar and what is different. Then talking with those who hold different values may help find a way to align them. Alignment can occur even if there is a disparity in values because they all care about the effort in hand which can bring them together. The task is not to get everyone to agree but rather to consider what is valued, especially when individuals hold their own reasons for different values. When those different values are recognized and understood then they are reflected in those decisions.


So, much of the effort is in helping people to draw out of themselves what they may not have already consciously perceived as a pertinent value? 

“Exactly and that’s where I say; ‘ask, listen, observe.’” Robert nods.

Through asking, listening, and observing one can perceive values that are evident from behaviour and not just statements. One becomes more aware of people’s purpose and intent in what they value. Purpose is very personal to individuals and, once observed, becomes a powerful insight into the motivations for their actions and efforts.

“I’ll tell you something wonderful”, he enthuses, “because I get to work with great testers all the time and the communities around us, especially organisations like STANZ, are fantastic, experienced testers. [Such] testers are good at measuring, assessing and learning. They actually are good at a lot of the skills you need to actively observe projects. They’re just usually applying it to very technical things like a piece of software, or maybe a workflow, or a decision table, or something. But I suggest that if you take some of the really cool skills people have that they’re applying in their everyday testing, especially trying to understand emergent behaviours, they’re going to be able to get to the real cause or purpose very easily”.

Those skills found in testing, especially those needed to get at root cause through measuring, assessing and learning, are key to this process. Robert emphasizes that testers are naturally very good at this.


This approach establishes very strong communication throughout a project team and its extended participants, yes? 

Robert explains that communication is tightly coupled with what happens to him when performing value sync. It’s very natural to discover the common values and finding out what people care about, and what they care about sharing with him creates good information channels as the whole team moves forward on the project path. He points out that a good side effect of performing value sync is building very good relationships and strong communication channels.


How often does a project team need to check the value of service or product under development with the baseline sync? 

Robert reflects on turbulent projects since 2000; projects subject to rapidly changing requirements, or significant changes in technology, or often frequent shifts in market drivers. He explains that it is a simple question to ask, ‘Are we still in the same business today?’, and he has often found that as you walk through the door you discover you’re not in the same business as yesterday. What mattered yesterday does not necessarily matter today and, in the case of such projects, one might want to ask that question on a daily basis to see if a project team is still on purpose or in need of value sync.

Typically though, for most projects that are not subject to such fluidity of purpose, every two weeks is normal and can be conducted over lunch or in a jam session.


Is the risk of drifting expectations during a project effort, such as changing requirements, a significant modifier to those original on-purpose targets? In other words, how malleable are values to unplanned changes in the design and effort? 

Robert identified that used to be the case but not so much with recent projects. “I have to say that people are trying to get things out the door so fast these days that I don’t think I see too much of that”.

But then he adds, “Also, from a point of view of value perspective, it takes a keen eye to catch that. It’s really interesting and, sometimes, politics plays into it where people want to line up with new stakeholders. Let’s say you have a boss and everyone wants to be nice to the boss, and so you find out what does the boss care about. Eventually, everybody’s lined up with the boss. Of course, that’s because their ambitions seem to be to look good in the eye of the boss. Actually, a lot of bosses that I know when they notice this they basically ask, ‘what the heck is this? I hired you to be different from me!’” 

Robert goes on to stress the importance of core, implicit values that one would find engrained within the environment or culture of an organisation. He identifies such values as significant factors for successful enterprises. He also stresses the executive role as essential to ensuring those values are maintained consistently throughout an organisation. Robert cites Toyota’s quality systems as the classic example of core values that are principle to what represents Toyota as an enterprise.

“That’s where I see that sort of management perspective; make sure our core values are passed on. Companies that I see really kicking butt and succeeding are the ones that do that very well. And those that are not succeeding are the ones that take short-term opportunities and then they build up almost exactly the same thing that we call technical debt but in the world of values.” 


Or even just the kind of cultural models; Japan is a great example where quality is implicit. 

Robert grins broadly. “And you said it right now, you said the word, the exact word I was hoping you would say. ‘Cultural’”.

Robert stresses the need for cultural values and expectations to be considered, especially with current off-shoring efforts. There are new challenges present in getting value sync across cultural considerations. We have to learn more about culture; corporate culture, community culture, social culture. He does not suggest that different cultures cannot collaborate but suggests instead we need to consider cultural values as part of being on purpose to ensure broader success for all involved.
Robert concludes, “I’m interested in the value sync cultural perspectives, and that’s the next generation.”

At STANZ 2013 this coming August guest speaker Robert Sabourin – adjunct professor of software engineering at McGill University, President and Principal Consultant for Amibug.com, and author of ‘I Am A Bug’ – will be providing a keynote speech on ‘Value Sync’.