The Big Questions

by on November 21st, 2010
4 CommentsComments

Stonehenge Replica in Washington StateDavid Chilcott has posed an interesting question on a blog a few hours ago, “What is value?”. It’s a big question, a kin to “What is truth?” and “Why are we here?”, that most certainly helped drive the ancients to look up into the stars and wonder, and then help them build artifacts like Stonehenge which was duplicated on a hill in Washington state which I have pictured to the left in front of high tech green energy that also was driven by the big questions.

David is the founder of Outformations and board member of the Agile Project Leadership Network. He was also someone I enjoyed meeting at the last Agile Open conference in San Francisco where he acted as the Open Space facilitator. He has laughter in his eyes that comes out in his interactions, his transparency, and playfulness. It is also refreshing to talk to someone in the software and business world that also has an ear for the deeper questions.

I had a chance to speak in more depth with David after we both attended Lyssa Adkin’s most amazing “Coaching Agile Teams” experiential workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area last month. And we hatched a plan to dive into some deeper questions with an online conversation. And David began this exchange with his blog entry.

The context of David Chilcott’s question derives from the field of Agile Software Development, where the goal of an agile project is to deliver “business value”. What is value? is a very practical question which unfortunately doesn’t always get asked. David reports that people seem to think they know what it is, but they actually seldom agree. Some may answer that business value is just money. Let’s ignore for a second the obvious recent social problems that seem to have arisen from that assumption. Is value just money?Money

If value is just money, perhaps the field of economics is the right place to look. Classical economics had a theory based on the amount of human labor put into goods, called the labor theory of value. This was a fundamental building block of Marxism, but wikipedia reports that it has been replaced by the marginal utility approach. If you wish, you can look at the complicated equations involved with marginal utility. Although I’m sure there’s value in this concept, that the utility (value) of anything diminishes the more you have of it, it’s not very satisfying. It feels like we’re missing something important. Let’s dive back into the world of software a bit to see if we can get someplace.

In the software world, most serious projects have some element of dedicated testing. If the project is large enough, it may even be done by a separate group. These groups of testers have generally adopted the term “Quality Assurance” or some variation thereof.

The author Robert Pirsig wrote a biographical thriller and a rather deep philosophical meditation which includes a philosophy teacher, Phaedrus, who poses this question to his students: “What is quality in thought and statement?” Pirsig describes how the classroom Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancebecomes “explosive” after they try and fail to fulfill the assignment. Phaedrus is genuinely curious to get an answer and tries to find it with his students. Although Phaedrus confesses he does not know the answer, his students ask him about what he thinks about the question and he replies “I think there is such a thing as Quality, but that soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire. You can’t do it.” The name of Pirsig’s book was “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, with the subtitle “An Inquiry into Values”. Yes, values.

This is profound. Value and Quality are things we know exist, but we can’t really define them. For those with any familiarity with religious thought and metaphysics, the concept of the undefinable should strike a chord. But rather than dive into theology, perhaps this little story can express some of this connection.

In my twenties, I had been agnostic but had for some reason read the Tao de Ching. I was working for Xerox at the time, and Xerox had unfurled a huge program called “Leadership Through Quality” or LTQ, to try to beat back the Japanese who had taken away huge segments of Xerox’ copier market when the original copier patents had expired. David Kearns, then president, trying to combat cynicism and annoyance at this new program, had said that LTQ was not in the way, it was the way. The Tao is often translated into English as “way“, and the first line of the Tao de Ching says “The way that can be spoken is not the true way.” There were a lot of great things in LTQ, but on hearing the Xerox presidents assertion, I joked that according to the Tao De Ching, it meant that LTQ couldn’t be spoken if it were true. I thought I was just telling a joke, but now I think not.

David Chilcott has run workshops trying to help teams answer this question of value – specifically business value – and proposes building metrics around it. It may sound like this article is questioning the “value” of such an excercise – far from it. If value can’t be ultimately and absolutely defined, maybe it can be locally defined. We all seem to subjectively experience value and quality. And values clarification seems to be a large part of any personal productivity plan I’ve ever encountered.

So let’s find ways of asking this question, “What is value?”, both with ourselves, and with each other in our teams. And even better, let’s find ways that we can determine whether we’re achieving our values or not. But always in a local context, and never being satisfied that we’ve answered this question for all time. Perhaps that is what makes the Big Questions Big – that they must be asked, but we can never trust the answers – at least not for long.


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  • Excellent. This is a question that has bugging me for a long time. My current thinking is that it depends on what the customer needs, not just says that they want, and they may not know what they need themselves (it may require a lot of reflection and self-understanding). Maybe Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is caught up in all this somewhere.

  • If you mean “value” as in “wealth”, possibly the following wealth typology may be of interest : http://openmoney.info/sophia/index.html ; http://p2pfoundation.net/Wealth_Typology


  • harold

    Thanks Dante, interesting article. There’s been so much work done on alternative currencies that would definitely help this conversation. Most people think in terms of currencies for larger communities, such as a city, a nation, or international exchange. I wonder what would happen if we could more honestly bring in a kind of community exchange currency within a team. Would it be harmful? Or might it actually make visible what people are currently actually doing. Right now, I’m tending to think that what is most powerful is the idea of a modern gift economy – with some kind of social identity based trust system.


  • harold

    Hi Luke, thanks for commenting. Needs versus wants is a big big question. It probably deserves several tomes and not just a short blog entry. I’m thinking that in a hierarchical system, especially a parent-child system, the people at the top get to determine what are truly needs, and what are “merely” wants. With adulthood and maturity – I suspect that the difference starts to fade. I’m especially fond of the meme I’ve heard, it’s a kind of affirmation, that “all my needs are met.” Kind of like the Rolling Stones song. Once you take needs off the table – which are often about the lower items in Maslow’s hierarchy, then the interesting fulfillment items can start to be placed on the table.

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