What to Expect When You Start Using VBD?

When you first encounter VBD, its emphasis on metrics suggests that it is about measuring things. It is true but measuring the right things is not the first value you will harvest when you start working with VBD. Neither, I think, it is the greatest.

The first value you get from implementing VBD is alignment to the extent you (probably) never had before.

Why well-meaning people fight when choosing between alternatives?

Have you ever had a feeling, while arguing with another well-meaning person, that the consensus is more about “your way” vs “their way” rather than the actual merits of your respective ideas?

Or, have you ever witnessed a group of smart people with their common good in sight arguing about some alternatives stuck for no apparent reason?
Such conversations usually follow a pattern that looks like this:
— We should do ‘A’
— We should do ‘B’
[repated a few times] then:
— We should do ‘A’ because it is cheaper!
— We should do ‘B’ because it is faster!
— We should do ‘A’ because it is cheaper!
— We should do ‘B’ because it is faster!
[stuck in this loop until time runs out or someone gives up].

In reality, you will usually hear two or three advantages of each alternative but I’ll stick to this simplified example to make it easier for me to explain my point. The pattern still holds.

The pattern loops like that because both arguments are probably true. It is very well possible that solution ‘A’ is cheaper and ‘B’ is faster, but each fact alone is not enough to choose one of them. To benchmark the solutions against each other, you need to know how much slower is ‘A’ and how much more expensive is ‘B’ and only then you can move on and discuss the actual trade-offs between the alternatives, not merely opinions about which one is “better”.

If you zoom out a little, the root cause of these arguments is the lack of alignment about what “better” means. The person who was arguing for ‘A’ might have been from the financial department, and from their point of view, “better” means “cheaper”. But not for the other person who might be representing the operations department.

What it suggests is that in order for a group of people to have an informed discussion about alternatives they need to have a common understanding of what “better” means and have a way to compare alternatives by that definition (and the definition will consist several precisely defined ‘qualities’ of which cost and speed are good examples.)

How does a group get to alignment?

You can read the description of the four VBD steps in “VBD in a Nutshell” but here I’d like to examine what happens within the group after they went through the first three steps. These first three steps are:

  1. Identify the stakeholders,
  2. Figure out the needs of your stakeholders,
  3. Make sure you have a shared understanding of stakeholders’ needs by “putting a number on it”.

The first step makes sure that the group is going to be looking at the alternatives from all important vantage points. The second step ensures that they will pay attention not only to their own needs but also to what is important to other stakeholders (like the financial vs operations perspectives from the example above). Finally, in the third step, they will iron out their different interpretations of the words used in step 2 to describe stakeholders’ needs.

The crucial aspect of VBD is that people who would otherwise argue about alternatives go through these three steps together before there is any discussion about choosing some alternatives over others. The discussion about whether “better” means “cheaper” or “faster” cannot happen now because everyone now understands that they need something that is both fast enough and cheap enough. They have also discovered more important ‘qualities’—dare I say ‘requirements’—they didn’t think about before. It may be something like “the extra workload on customer service”, and they finally understand why Jack, who manages CS was always against their ideas.

Perhaps most importantly, the discussion about alternatives is now not “my ideas against yours”—which often translates to a zero-sum game where someone has to lose—but an intellectual puzzle to solve together. I promise you, each and every time I run the first VBD workshop someone will tell a variation of this sentence: “I’ve been fighting for this solution for months, but now I see it is not as valuable as others”. And they will say it without any feeling of shame or sense of defeat. Just a hint of sorrow as they are giving up something they were emotionally attached to.

This is how alignment feels :)

VBD Consultant