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"Even Over" Statements

The “even over” is a type of statement that gives direction to generally choose a type of “thing” over another type of “thing.” This is used as a way to write down tradeoffs that might be considered in a strategy, manifesto, or set of principles. Each “thing” in this case should be a theme, type, or category rather than a specific situation. It can be simplified to just an “over” statement as well.

I first heard about “even over” statements from Jordan Husney of Parabol as a strategic tool. They had written a post ​​How to Use Even Over Statements for Prioritization but I’m not sure of the origin of these statements. 

The Agile Manifesto is probably the most well known set of these statements to help define how “agile practitioners” should act (bold emphasis mine):

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

In these statements there is guidance on how to choose, by default, one thing over another but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. As the Agile Manifesto states “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.” It is meant to be guidance in decision making or a governing constraint.

The benefit of “even over” statements is that it should simplify or make easier hard decisions for everyone on the team. It should also convey the general decision making belief of senior leadership within the team so they can avoid unnecessary escalations. 

Writing great “even over” statements

The key to a good “even over” is that you should look at the hard decisions currently being made by your team and encode them inside an “even over” statement. It should be two things that could be entirely good choices but we are going to choose one over the other. The statement should not be a choice between an obviously good and obviously bad option. That won’t make people’s decision making easier because they will already plan on making that decision.

First, you should identify the key controversies inside your organization and make a choice between two “good” choices to write a particular “even over.” There could be multiple but it is key to not write too many. It is hard for people to remember a lot of these statements. 

Next, you should try to find an example of where you made the choice inside the organization. Examples can be very helpful in describing and making these statements real. If there are no examples for a particular statement it may be aspirational rather than currently used. 

Finally, you should aim to make the statements less specific and more generalized to allow them to apply to more cases in your organization. You can do this through “why laddering” and “challenge mapping” exercises to understand the underlying reason for the statements you come up with. 

You shouldn’t be concerned that the “even over” statements may overlap and could possibly contradict each other. These are not meant to be MECE or perfect in their logic. They are meant to be a written down model of what your organization chooses which will sometimes be contradictory. 

Communicating the “even over” statements

Once you have “even over” statements you should create a way for people to hear what they are, understand the reasoning behind them, and ask questions about how it might apply in particular circumstances. This can be part of a larger strategy presentation. When performing strategic rehearsals (aka “war gaming”) you should focus on these statements as a guide for making decisions to see how they work.

You should also save the statements with your key strategic documents. This is where recent examples can be helpful in setting context. 

Using “even over” statements in your day-to-day

The statements should provide a way to detect that something that seems right based on intuition but is not a recommended tradeoff by the statement should be discussed. It can be an early warning sign of strategic drift or changing circumstances. 

When making a new decision consider whether any of the “even over” statements apply. If so, which side do potential paths from the decision side on? 

This is closely related to prioritization methodologies in how it can become a rubric to help stack rank and compare/contrast between possible paths forward. 

“Even over” anti-patterns

Remember, that these statements are meant to make decision making easier but should not stand in the way of good decision making. If there is evidence that you shouldn’t follow the “even over” statements you shouldn’t do so. This may point to a need of adjusting them but they should never lock you into what is considered a “bad” decision. 

Also, if you find that people keep writing their own “even over” statements for their documents without pulling from the main statements then they may not be valuable. 

Adjusting your “even over” statements

As you use these statements you may find that they don’t apply to most decisions or are not helpful. In those cases you should choose to drop or modify the statement. 

If you are finding that there are many escalations taking place but have a common theme, it may point to a need for a new “even over” statement. 

It is ideal to review your “even over” statements on some cadence that you would review, test, and update your overall strategy since this is a way for everyone to apply it to their day-to-day.