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Decisions On Wheels

13 August 2017

How do you get projects going in your organisation and how do you decide when failing ones need to be taken off life support? What about new services or new product offerings?

Conventional organisations put these sorts of decisions into the boardroom and ask for business cases that promise ROI (return on investment) or strategic alignment before anything can happen. If you work in public services - in the UK at least - there are even whole organisations whose job it is to make these sorts of decisions; doing the uber-managment work of commissioning or, even more uberer (!), strategic commissioning.

With so much going into starting initiatives, killing failing ones off is often a deeply political decision. Saving face can become as important as simply doing the right thing.

Such politics also serve to obscure whether projects are failing, leaving governance processes swimming in fake news and leaving decision makers as the last to know that a decision needs to be made.

The consequences of all of this are not just wasted effort and the throwing of good money after bad. There is, at the very least, the associated opportunity cost and also sometimes, a growing sense of division between those who do and those who decide.

So it was with great interest that, a few years ago, I read about how projects, products and services are commissioned (and decommissioned) at Valve.

For anyone who doesn't know about them, Valve are a tech company that defies easy description. They were founded by ex-Microsoft employees, Gabe Newell and Michael Harrington, and found initial success making computer games. They have since diversified into hardware partnerships (virtual reality, gaming focused PC's , etc) but also into services; their online gaming portal (Steam) is the single largest store front and community hub for gaming bar none. Bigger than Sony's PlayStation Network and bigger than Microsoft's Xbox Live.

A few Valve numbers of note:

  • Steam has 67 million active monthly users and is currently growing at a rate of 1.5m users per month.
  • In 2016, game sales through Steam were $3.5 billion.
  • 4 of the top 10 all time best reviewed PC games were made by Valve.
  • Gabe Newell's personal worth is estimated at $5.4 billion.

So they are not what we could call 'small beer'.

Sitting behind Valve's success is a unique way of doing business but, in particular, a unique way of deciding what business to do. Here's how it works, lifted from Valve's employee handbook:

What to Work On
We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100... There’s no rule book for choosing a project or task at Valve. But it’s useful to answer questions like these:
  • Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
  • Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
  • Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
  • What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most? 

And in order to enable this? Well, here's what the employee handbook says:

This is all supported by a comprehensive training programme too. Valve are leaving nothing to chance:

This is, of course, the sort of alternate reality that gives more conventional organisations nightmares. Perhaps they imagine that chaos will reign and that people will immediately initiate projects to mass produce chocolate fireguards or bicycles for fish?

The reality though is that nothing could be further from the truth. Armed with real responsibility for their own actions - no safety net of plausible deniability - people feel more accountable and operate more responsibly, not less so.

And while they do that, the organisation and its customers reap the benefits...

So what might it take to put your decision making processes on wheels too?


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