How to Conjure Value in a Land Without Magic

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Far far away, there is a land without magic. In this land there is a small city named Storybrooke. The mayor of Storybrooke, Regina Mills, one day decides she wants to deal with the illegal dumping problem in the city. She calls together her staff to discuss possible solutions. As she addresses her servants, she states:

“We’re spending massive funds on illegal dumping sites in the city. I want to solve this. You’re going to build me an app. With the app we can ask our citizens to inform Grumpy of the Waste Management Department and he can then quickly clean the sites up. This is going to solve my problem.”

And so it went. Without further discussion, as it was well known only a fool would challenge the Evil Queen, the servants began to build the app. Captain Nemo made a list of requirements, which he passed on to Pinocchio. Pinocchio was in charge of the estimates, for each item on the list he came up with a number of days of work it would take. Then Nemo asked Tinkerbell to come up with a plan. As Tinkerbell knew Pinocchio’s estimates were unreliable she added a couple of days, multiplied by 5, divided by 3 and returned a go-live date to Nemo.

In the meantime, Cruella heard about Regina’s plans. She frequently had issues, when driving around, with the many potholes in the streets of Storybrooke. “So”, she figured, “maybe if our citizens can also report potholes in the app, Sleepy, from Road Maintenance, will fix them sooner”. She went to talk to Nemo and explained her problem.

Nemo realised there were probably even more use cases for the app. So he went back to his drawing table and started to rewrite his requirements. Certainly a major criteria for the app would be to easily add new types of reports which would then be dispatched to whoever was responsible for handling them.

Around that time Mary Margaret walked in. She heard about the benefits of sharing data and how other cities were advertising their open data policies and standard practices. Certainly the City of Storybrooke, who was deeply committed towards its citizens, should lead the curve when it came to open data. So Nemo asked Robin Hood to look into open data and if there was a standard they could use.

A couple of weeks after the initial gathering, Regina was wondering when she would be able to announce her next big achievement. So she summoned Nemo and asked him why the app was not finished yet. Nemo told her they didn’t even start building it, they were studying to make sure they were going to build the best solution possible.

Regina was furious, she said: “I don’t care about all that other stuff, I just want an app to report illegal dumping and your plan takes way too long, I want it at least in half that time.”

Nemo, deeply demotivated, stumbled back and went to get a drink. At the bar, Mr. Gold, sitting next to him, noticed something was bothering him. “Troubles with Regina?”, he asked. “If I can give you one piece of advice, just get it over with and move on.” So that’s what happened. Nemo grabbed together everything he had, added it to the initial list of requirements, moved Tinkerbell’s go-live date earlier to meet Regina’s deadline and urged Dopey, Happy and Sneezy to start working, 24/7, until the app was done.

And so it went. After some more hurdles and delays, finally the app was released. Regina organised a big launch event, proudly announcing the illegal-dumping-app.

Nemo and his team didn’t bother to attend, they were so disappointed about the result, about all opportunities they didn’t pursue and maybe mostly about the fact that it was so hastily put together, that it was barely meeting minimal requirements.

A couple of months later, Valet, Regina’s most loyal servant, visited Nemo’s office. He informed Nemo that Regina was requesting an update. He said, “We need to add a secret key to the app. Only citizens that registered for a secret key, should be able to make reports.” Nemo didn’t understand the request. He thought that the purpose was to have as much citizens as possible submitting reports to get value. Why make it more difficult. To get a better understanding, he requested an audience with Valet and Grumpy, the head of Waste Management.

At this gathering Grumpy started to present some results, stating that the Waste Management Department was now much more efficient in cleaning up illegal dumping. Nemo still didn’t understand, why would they make the use of the app more difficult. But then Valet said: “Ever since we launched the app we see a 10% increase in the collected total weight of garbage. We believe”, he continued, “some people are abusing the app to easily get rid of their waste.”

Nemo couldn’t believe what he just heard. How did they come to that conclusion, and if they really believed that statement, was there any purpose for the app? And still, there was a big increase in efficiency. But Grumpy countered, “The efficiency gain is nice, but it doesn’t add real value, we really need to reduce illegal dumping.”

Nemo continued to come up with other reasons why there could be more illegal dumping. But eventually he realised both Valet and himself didn’t have the data to back up their statements. They had data from the app, but it wasn’t actionable enough to make a root cause conclusion.

He remembered the words of Lumière, who owns a large retail shop close to Pine Lake, “Bias for action”. Most of the time, when uncertain, the speed of moving forward and learning outweighs the damage done by a mistake.

So Nemo started to think. After his previous disappointing experience he had learned that, in a land without magic, there is no such thing as a best solution. “What’s more”, he realized, “there are just so many things we don’t know. If I want to contribute my expertise and add value to the city, I need to accept that uncertainty.”

Pinocchio and Tinkerbell would often complain about the rigidity of the city administration. Tinkerbell would tell about Neverland, where they could do as they pleased. “If only they could transform the administration at scale”, she sighed. Pinochio heard about Wonderland from his friend Alice. He said, “It’s so much better there, here we’re really stuck. We’re not even given the opportunity to contribute value.”

But Nemo, who was an eternal optimist, heard about GIST. With this tool he could combine the core benefits of Neverland and Wonderland and put them to use, regardless of the rigidity of the city.

In spite to what he used to believe, that he needed to guard scope, time and budget to create value, he came to a new revelation.

He had already known for a while that estimates in time and budget were unreliable. So when he built something, he would make sure to chunk it up in small pieces, to allow for fast feedback on the actual progress.

But now he also realised the value of predefined scope was often uncertain. To contribute value with his work, he needed to define what goal they were pursuing, what value they were chasing. And secondly, as most ideas showed eventually not to be adding value, he needed to get fast feedback, not only on delivered work, but also on added value.

With this new knowledge at hand, he regained confidence. There was a clear goal now, which formed alignment between all stakeholders. They needed to reduce the amount of illegal dumping. He had two ideas that needed validation: app registration and data investigation.

Instead of starting endless discussions and ordering months of study, he quickly sat together with his team and discussed the quickest way to gain additional insights on the validity of the ideas at hand. This way he could return value as quick as possible to Valet and Regina, work on things that did matter and eventually make sure that what was built was indeed adding real value to the city.

And they all lived motivated ever after…

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. No person or entity associated with this article received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of value contributing tips. No animals were harmed in the making of this article.