Planning for 2021: Value-Creating Systems

Every year, around this time, I share a simple tool which might help people think ahead when making personal plans. In 2019 and 2018 I offered variants of the “Arrows of Time” diagram. The arrows provide a way to reflect on the things which may await us in the coming year, and those from the past which will still be with us on our journey into the future.

This year, I want to share a different tool. You still don’t need anything more than a pen and paper to use it.

This year, I want to think about relationships and values.

2020 has been a strange and difficult year for many of us, with more of our life than ever before spent online: in Zoom meetings and conference calls, online quizzes and get-togethers in new, sometimes awkward, digital settings. All of the emotions, frustrations, and opportunities of these spaces have been magnified by the pressures of COVID-19.

We increasingly expect, and are expected, to deal with constant streams of information from many sources. There’s more stimulation, but we might also be more distractible, less focussed, less aware of our environment, less able to process everything cognitively and emotionally. We might not be tending our relationships as well as we might.

So why not take a moment, map your relationships, and see what difference they’re currently making? It might guide you in the decisions you make as 2021 arrives.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to bring together the work of a few different thinkers and writers in a simple tool. I’ll tell you more about the sources I’m drawing on at the end of this piece.

But before then, if you’re willing to join me, it’s time to get started.

We’re going to draw a map. Let’s begin by putting you at the centre.

Now, around you, add all of the relationships in your life – with people, entities, communities, organisations. It might include your relationship with your loved ones, with specific workmates, with your bank, your employer, your school, your government…even your phone.

Follow your instinct as to the level of detail you need when thinking about the coming year; this is just a sketch, and you can always go back to add more relationships in due course.

Now, for each relationship, reflect on the difference made by that relationship – in both directions, to both parties.

You can express that difference in whatever terms you wish. It might be specific, measurable, monetary. It might be something fuzzier and more qualitative: something social, emotional, or even spiritual.

Make a note of those differences – the value generated – for each relationship on the map.

Looking at this map can help you see the difference each of your relationships makes – both to yourself and to your wider world. You might already spot the places where you wish to make a change, by increasing your efforts, decreasing them, or changing your approach altogether.

You can also use this map to ask six questions, adapted from the Cambridge Value Mapping Tool.

For each relationship, you can ask, what value is:

  • Captured: you give something, and get something in return?
  • Missed: you give something, but get nothing in return?
  • Destroyed: you give something, but the other party doesn’t want it?
  • Surplus: you give too much or have too much?
  • Absent: the other party wants something, but you don’t give it?
  • Undiscovered: there’s an opportunity to find new value?

(You can, of course, ask these questions of each relationship in both directions, putting yourself or the other party as “protagonist”).

These questions can help identify opportunities to change what you do in each of your relationships, in order to create more of the value you want to see, share, give, or experience. For example, there might be surplus or destroyed value which you could stop, surrender, pause, or ease off on, freeing you to seek out undiscovered or absent value elsewhere.

After looking at this map, you might want to run through last year’s Arrows of Time questions to help you consider next steps, future uncertainties, ongoing challenges, and the ways in which the map might change in the future.

You could even start thinking about the difference made, and the values which exist, in relationships on that map which don’t involve you directly.

Looking over the map you’ve created, consider: what conversations might you need to start having, based on what the map has shown you and the ways you’d like it to change? Are there new actors you might wish to invite into your world?

What existing conversations might you need to change? How could you have those conversations differently?

Are there any conversations you’re currently having which simply need to end?

These are big questions, and not easy ones. But taking the time to consider them, and focus on our relationships, might make all the difference in an age of endless informational bombardment.


This approach is a simple sketch to encourage reflection on your relationships and the difference they make. It draws on the value-creating systems approach articulated by Rafael Ramírez and Ulf Mannervik in their book Strategy for a Networked World, which directs strategists and leaders to think about how value is co-created within systems of relationships.

I’ve also drawn on the work of the psychotherapist Jeffrey Kottler, particularly his book What You Don’t Know About Leadership But Probably Should, which offers a holistic and relationship-focussed approach to leadership in every aspect of our lives.

Kottler, in addressing the ways that digital devices can fracture and distort both our attention and our relationships, highlights the importance of conversations and meaningful face-to-face interactions in every aspect of our lives, including “advancing new ideas, solving intractable problems, and planning for the future.”

In this frenetic, task-focussed Zoom-world, we can find ourselves endlessly hammering through video calls, text messages, emails, updates, and notifications with little or none of that crucial space and time for reflection, and for the enrichment of our relationships.

The mapping tool I’ve offered here could help you attend to the quality of your relationships, making a positive difference to your life and to the achievement of the goals that truly matter to you.

Good luck – and happy new year.

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