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May 21, 2024

The Three Elements of Effective Action

By Steve Pereira ,Andrew Davis

This post is adapted from the book Flow Engineering: From Value Stream Mapping to Effective Action by Steve Pereira and Andrew Davis.


As we presented in a previous post, scale brings many challenges. But perhaps the most insidious are the difficulties of developing and sustaining value, clarity, and flow, the fundamental elements of effective individual and collective action.

Value, Clarity, and Flow

Value informs direction, clarity provides understanding, and flow lets us get things done.

When these elements are present, effective action is possible. When any are missing, effective action is difficult or impossible. These three elements are critical for establishing and maintaining effective collective action at scale.

Value broadly describes our individual and shared preferences for some outcomes over others. Essentially, it’s why we’re in business. Value drives the behavior of organizations on a macroscale and of individuals on a microscale. Value sets the target to be reached by our actions. Value is the pleasant experience of something that solves a problem or fulfills a wish.

Clarity describes the ability to accurately understand the key aspects of our situation. To have clarity means that our mental models align correctly with our observations. Because each of our perspectives and mental models is limited, building shared clarity in a group enables a more reliable perception.

Flow means unobstructed action that emerges from the effective pursuit of value. It refers to smooth, steady, sustainable activity that is both predictable and satisfying. Flow is the delicate balance between execution and adaptation, allowing us to circumvent obstacles and continually experience progress. Individuals are at their best when they can sustain a state of psychological flow, and teams are at their best when handoffs from one person to the next lead smoothly to the creation of value for the customer.

While our target is collective flow, the same factors apply at both a collective and individual level. It’s impossible to achieve individual flow in a collective environment full of friction, delays, and interruptions. One of the principles of cybernetics is that similar patterns can be seen at every scale. This book is aimed at providing you with clear practices to improve collective flow across individuals and teams and enable individual flow as a by-product of that effort.

These three qualities (value, clarity, and flow), while common in our language, are often hard to establish. And once gained, they are easily lost. The connection to value may fade over time. Clarity can become muddied. Flow can become blocked or slowed as conditions change. A problem with any one of these three qualities can spell disaster for a team or an organization. And these problems are exacerbated with scale.

How Value, Clarity, and Flow Interrelate

Value, clarity, and flow are mutually dependent. Our orientation or sense of value dictates what information we seek and how we interpret what we see. Thus, value is preliminary to building clarity. Clarity, in turn, allows us to see where we have opportunities or constraints and thus enables action. In particular, a high degree of clarity is required to achieve the skillful and continually adapting type of action we describe as flow. Flow makes optimal use of our energy to develop value, which unlocks new possibilities as we receive feedback. Flow enables the cycle to continue or accelerate. This mutually supportive relationship is shown in the following figure:

A key aspect of the three elements of action is that they apply at any scale. As individuals, we must go through the loop of identifying value, building clarity, and enabling flow on an ongoing basis. At larger scales, both teams and entire organizations must do the same: set a target, understand their current state, and take action collectively. The problem of scale emerges when teams or individuals move in separate directions without establishing shared value, clarity, and flow.

As is represented in the image below, value, clarity, and flow help to align teams for collective action. Value represents the shared goal of the team or organization, clarity allows the team to understand a path to that goal, and flow reveals the optimum path to that goal.

Conclusion

Effective action depends on value, clarity, and flow. And effective action at scale requires those elements to be shared across individuals and teams. Human collaboration doesn’t scale naturally. Varied perspectives, goals, and contexts breed too much confusion when trying to work toward a common purpose. Confusion, waste, and friction are the leading causes of transformation failures.

Organizations rise or fall depending on their systems of collaboration. Systems of collaboration require a foundation of value, clarity, and flow. As we’ll see in the upcoming chapter, mapping is a lightweight superpower for building the three elements of action. Different types of mapping can be used to clarify challenges with goals, processes, or dependencies. And mapping can be scaled and repeated to meet the demand for change.

Mapping in the form of Flow Engineering is ideal for effective collaboration and is the process for developing value, clarity, and flow. In the next chapter, we’ll demonstrate how a clear sequence of collaborative mapping activities can identify value, create clarity, and enable flow.

- About The Authors
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Steve Pereira

Steve Pereira has spent over two decades improving the flow of work across organizations. He’s worked through tech support, IT management, build and release engineering, and as a founding CTO for enterprise SaaS. He serves as lead consultant for Visible Value Stream Consulting, as a board advisor to the Value Stream Management Consortium, Chair of the OASIS Value Stream Management Interoperability technical committee, and co-founder of the Flow Collective to bring flow-focused professionals together. Since 2017, he has been developing and facilitating Flow Engineering to make flow improvement in large organizations accessible, collaborative, and actionable.

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Andrew Davis

Andrew is Chief Product Officer at AutoRABIT, focused on the next generation of DevSecOps on the Salesforce platform. He is also the author of the leading book on the Salesforce development lifecycle, Mastering Salesforce DevOps. He was formerly Senior Director of Methodology and Training at Copado.

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