Value propositions are speculative statements of what something is worth to someone.[^1] They come in different flavours by discipline. Marketing will dress it up in the language that the audience speaks, Management as the incremental change from existing circumstances in pains/gains, Politicians will link it to promises made to a citizenry, Activists will link it to a mission, NGOs impact, Designers will choose minimum function to influence favourable behaviour.
Stakeholder 1 helps Stakeholder 2 with Valuable X via Interface Y.<br /> Stakeholder 2 helps Stakeholder 1 for Valuable Y via Interface Y.
Once you see them you can’t unsee them, they are everywhere. Even this newsletter has value propositions, at least four for me, two for you, one for my service provider and so on:
- I write to fill my inbox with replies from people who care about the same things that I do; to have better conversations.
- I write to stay in touch with my network.
- You (might) read to follow what I’m doing.
- You (might) read for learning and/or personal development.
- I use the Buttondown platform for its contributions to fundamental software.
- I also use Buttondown because it’s developed by an old friend.
- Buttondown wants me to grow to distribute higher quality emails to people's inboxes.
Something for everyone
HR departments have caught on to this idea and started framing workplace culture as part of a value proposition for working there.[^2] I'm often skeptical of this framing, and the so-called 'real life stories' by 'real people' at company X to support these propositions. To be honest, they just don't feel tested by speaking to real people or by looking at backlogs of HR complaints and exit interviews. The employee lifecycle is much longer than a simple internet transaction, and there are lots of reasons why individual and collective circumstances get blurred into useless data points. Similar value distortion occurs in projects that last for a long time.
There’s always more than one value proposition, at least one for every stakeholder involved in that something.[^3]. There's always something in it for everyone, that drives enthusiastic engagement and consent in an organisation, even if it might not be conscious. If it's missing, it shows up in apathy, uncertainty and general organisational fragility.
Inclusive value creation
Value propositions aren't just about cash or financial arbitrage (rent); why do people show up to volunteer or dedicate themselves when lesser attention would suffice? It's worth expanding the scope of Value. I like this four-way split:[^4]
- (Economic) Exchange: what can be measured economically or otherwise as a beneficial outcome of transacting. The domain of Financialisation – making intangibles countable and orderly.
- Differential: what provides meaning through shared narrative, lived experience, inspiration or elevated status. The domain of Brands.
- Community: what forms relational bonds between people to meet our social needs. The domain of Collaboration.
- Greater Good: what is subjectively desirable for the future (of society, culture, planet); always described as Values, plural and Good, singular. The domain of Impact.
Once we start to incorporate this language and framing, in equal weight, it's harder to justify why one stakeholder class can make withdrawals for short-term gain, rather than value created for everyone.[^5] Value should be created for everyone, it doesn't have to be a scarcity model. Elusive impact like real community, narratives that reflect 'what citizenship means now' and climate stewardship that aligns organisational behaviour are some of the benefits of adopting a model like this.
Making these ideas explicit is helpful because it starts the conversation of what holds us together. They aren’t just affirmations, they are hypotheses to be tested over and over again. Every value proposition needs to be socialised by reality, and renewed like a vow on a regular basis.
Renew our vows
I love referencing the marketing-cum-innovation agency, R/GA, responsible for many famous Apple commercials in the 1990s/2000s. They reassess their value propositions every 4–9 years, originally due to superstition and now to buoy relevance and make sure they are aware of what they can do for their growing pool of stakeholders from talent to audience. Maybe we should do the same?
[^1]: The most common framing is how a commodity (a standardised, tradable good) is valuable to a specific, objectified audience. [^2]: With the large caveat that most people work to earn a wage to survive, and until that point any excess value in any scope is undermined. Struggle often means compromising for roles with benefits that are meaningless (think: pool tables and free beer for unpaid interns). [^3]: Some people conceive of this as what an enterprise is, the sum total of all players in a space with a 'shared commitment'. Described in more detail by Tom Graves, 'The Enterprise is the Story'. [^4]: A framework described by David Graeber in Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (2002) looking at the various theories of value across philosophy and cultural anthropology. [^5]: Some organisations have gone as far as to declare the planet as a stakeholder class, including the country of Chile.
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