When the Chips Are Down, Our Values Show Through

When the Chips Are Down, Our Values Show Through

There comes a time in every Product Manager’s life when they face adversity and challenges above and beyond the day-to-day administrivia that we struggle with every day.  And it’s in these moments, at these times, that we find out what we really believe in, and what we’re really willing to do to stand our ground and push through the barriers before us.  This is especially true in organizations going through a transition period — whether it’s growth, changes in ownership or management, or even shifting patterns from front-loaded development practices toward more agile approaches to product development.  And it’s not only our values that come to the front when these things happen — it’s the organization’s values that stand out — often in stark contrast to the espoused positions that sound good when things are going smoothly.

What is it that drives these vast differences in behavior, and what can we do to bring the two closer together, especially in times of struggle?

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values—they’re hobbies.
– Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

There’s a psychological theory that accounts for this — it posits that we really have two existing theories about ourselves (or our organizations) at any given time:  the “espoused theory” and the “theory in-use.”  The basis for this theory is that we operate using mental models, and we have both aspirational models that we want to believe about ourselves and operational models that we resort to when challenged or executing an action.  For example, an espoused model that we’re all familiar with is the executive with the “open door” policy, who invites everyone to come into their office at any time, to talk about anything at all.  The operational model, however, is that they wind up with their doors closed 90% of the time because they’re too busy actually doing work to engage with people about administrative issues, questions, or other concerns of their employees.  If you ask the manager about their availability, they’ll insist that they’re available, open, and willing to discuss anything at anytime with anyone.  But if you watch what they actually do on a day-to-day basis, you’ll see that their actions are dismissive at worst, or that they’re simply too busy to engage at best.

We can also see these patterns in organizations, especially those struggling with actual conversion from waterfall approaches to agile approaches.  They’ve simply been working within the mental model of waterfall and big up-front requirements for so long that they revert to those patterns when it really matters.  Sure, they’ll say that they want to be agile, that they want to deliver in smaller iterative increments, but when push comes to shove, and deadlines are looming, they fall into bad old behaviors looking for specs and requirements, and talking about “releases” rather than iterations.  They want the “big drop” deep down inside, no matter what they say when they’re asked.

So what do we do about it?  Call it when we see it!

There’s absolutely nothing that prevents people from making their espoused theories and theories in-use more convergent and complementary, but that only happens when you can help people to realize that they’re acting in a way that’s in opposition to their espoused theories.  It’s about internalizing those values, making them your own and not just giving them lip service.  You can help people to make values out of these espoused theories, but you first have to make people realize that they’re only hobbies right now.  Then, demonstrate the value of following the espoused theories; demonstrate the pains of continuing to follow the theory in-use.

More often than not, people simply aren’t aware that they have these competing theories of the world; helping them to realize the difference between these two views of the world is the first step toward effecting real change in your organization.  Be that provocateur!

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