The value triangle

My colleagues and I were chatting about the idea of a “good change,” and a lens popped into my head, along with the name: the value triangle. I swear it was an accident.

When a team is trying to discern whether a change they are imparting on their product (and thus the world) is “good,” it’s possible that their conversation is walking the edges of a triangle. This triangle is formed by three values: value to business, value to the user, and value to the ecosystem. 

When something is valuable to business, this usually means that the team benefits from this change. When something is valuable to the user, it is usually the user who perceives the change as desirable in one way or another. The third corner is there to anchor the concept of a larger system: does the change benefit the whole surrounding environment that includes the business, and all current and potential users? A quick note aside: usually, when we talk about this last corner, we say things like “thinking about long-term effects.” This is usually true – ecosystems tend to move at a slower clip than individual users. However, it helps to understand that the “long” here is more of a side effect of the scope of the effects, rather than a natural property of the change.

Anyhow, now that we have visualized this triangle, I am going to sheepishly suggest that a “good” change is an endeavor that somehow creates value in all three corners. To better illustrate, it might be useful to imagine what happens when we fail to meet this criteria.

Let’s start with situations when we only hit one of the three. If our change only produces value for our business, we’re probably dealing with something rather uncouth and generally frowned upon. Conversely, if we only produce value for our users, we’re probably soon to be out of business. And if we are only concerned about the ecosystem effects, it’s highly likely we’re not actually doing anything useful.

Moving on to hitting two out of three, delivering a combination of user and business value will feel quite satisfying at first and will fit right at home with a lot of things we humans have done since the Industrial Age. Unfortunately, without considering the effects of our change on the surrounding ecosystem, the all-too-common outcome is an environmental catastrophe – literal or figurative. Moving clockwise in our triangle, focusing on only producing value for users and the ecosystem yields beautiful ideas that die young of starvation. The third combination surprised me. I’ve been looking for something that fits the bill, and with a start, realized that I’ve lived it. The intricately insane web of Soviet bureaucracy, designed with the purpose of birthing a better future for humanity, captured tremendous amounts of value while explicitly favoring the “good of the many” over that of an individual. For a less dramatic example, think of a droll enterprise tool you used recently, and the seeming desire of the tool to ignore or diminish you.

It does seem like hitting all three will be challenging. But hey, if we’re signing up to do “good,” we gotta know it won’t be a walk in the park. At least, you now have this simple lens to use as a guide.

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