IN PRACTICE: Even/Over Statements
Strategic tool teams can use to address confusion & avoid working at cross-purposes
After Clarity Seeker wrote his question and we explored “the land of confusion,” I reached out to Tim Kastelle to ask him to teach us how to get thru confusion.
The reason I asked him? It’s what he’s recently taught me.
(For those of you that don’t already know of Tim, he’s an innovation professor at the University of Queensland. Not just any professor, mind you. He’s their poster child. And in 2021, he won the award that his peers gave for singling out excellence in teaching. We started as research colleagues and are now, luckily, friends.)
And here’s what he wrote:
The most common source of confusion around strategy is an unwillingness to make trade-offs, which is its heart – making choices and being clear about things you won’t do. If you can’t identify and resolve the conflicts inherent to your choice, you don’t have a strategy; you have hope.
One tool I’ve used to help reduce confusion is called “even/over” statements. This is a great way to frame trade-offs between two desirable objectives. An even/over structure looks like this:
*one good thing* even/over *another good thing*
(not as some like to do *my good idea* even/over *their shitty idea*)
Here’s an example from my work at the University of Queensland Business School. Much of higher education is experiencing confusion around what to do with micro-credentials, particularly online ones. Many people take online courses that include a micro-credential once they’ve completed it (this is one I made: https://www.edx.org/course/design-thinking-and-creativity-for-innovation ).
A university can have a few different goals when making a short course that includes a micro-credential. One common one is: that we want to use micro-credentials to give students an easy path to our complete degree programs. This takes advantage of our key value propositions: we offer credentials that employers and others recognize. If you build a micro-credential that articulates into a degree program, it needs to meet several criteria. There needs to be rigorous assessment so that the learner’s work in the micro-credential can be credited into the bigger program, and the pricing often needs to be consistent with the price of the whole program. We measure success here by how many students take the micro-credential to go on to enroll in a degree program.
But this strategy isn’t the only way you can succeed with a micro-credential program.
While UQ is an elite university, we don’t have much brand recognition outside of the Asia-Pacific region. So, another way we can use micro-credentials is to make trendy ones so that many people who haven’t heard of us before learn about what we’re doing. The criteria for this kind of micro-credential are different: they need to be accessible, they need to be pretty inexpensive, and the assessment can’t be so challenging that it becomes an obstacle. We can measure success here by how many people enroll, how many put their completion certificate in their LinkedIn profile, etc.
These objectives, leading to degrees or increased brand recognition, are highly desirable. But you can’t build one micro-credential that does both. You have to choose between:
Articulation (high quality) even/over brand recognition (high volume) or
Brand recognition even/over articulation.
Once you make this choice, cascading design and operational decisions follow to meet one objective over the other.
This is how confusion, or working at cross-purposes, etc., gets reduced.
The problem for many universities right now (including my own) is not seeing this issue – one bunch of people building micro-credentials thinks their target is brand recognition. In contrast, another thinks they’re recruiting articulation students. Because they’re not naming the invisible thing, they can’t solve or resolve the conflict between the two. As a result, they fight, often building something “in the middle.”
And the problem with this is probably obvious. But it’s worth spelling out. It creates something that no one wants. The educational institution neither builds a brand nor attracts new students.
Even though many good people tried to do “the right thing,” they effectively worked at cross-purposes because they couldn’t name the issue at hand.
Nilofer and I have run into another example on a project we’re working on that you’ll hear a lot about very soon. Many people in the business world advocate creating organizational cultures where “people matter.” This is a very admirable goal. Of course, people matter.
You can say “people matter,” while the only leadership style you value is a combative one.
You can say “people matter” while only listening to those with a certain profile.
You can say “people matter” while asking people to speak up, and not fixing why they’re not heard.
You get the point.
You can believe “people matter,” and your organization can still perpetuate harm against the vast majority of your people. It can still lack psychological safety, so people can’t bring their whole selves to work. It can still value the comfort and success of particular groups of people over that of others.
What if, instead, we build organizations where each of us is valued? That’s different. We must develop equality, psychological safety, and equity when we value each person. You design for Onlyness.
So: “Value Each Person” even/over “people matter.”
That’s the case for even/over statements. They’re a great way to increase your strategy's clarity and reduce confusion. If you have a clear set of them, it can guide in-the-moment decisions for your front-line people. If you want more detail on this idea, all of the organizations that spun out from Undercurrent do this well: