Lopsided Value Generation: Who Is Better Off?

Look, she’s doing well. She made lots of money. Look, they are doing well. We helped them. Are they better off? How do you know?

One way to assess whether someone is better off is to see how much is flowing into their lives. These are inflows. Another way is by looking at what they are able to do, which you can assess through how much is flowing out of their accounts for products and services, for experiences. These are outflows. Whether they are better off can also be looked at by the wealth they accumulate, how much is in the stock of money, things, or experiences they have. This stock goes up when the net flow (inflows minus outflows) is positive–more inflows than outflows–and goes down when the net flow is negative–more outflows than inflows.

While the three ways of looking at better off might all be valid, they tell different stories. Based on what story you want to tell, you would use a different one of these three. They are better off because we gave them inflows. Inflows sound good. More is better. And, to know if someone is better off from the inflow, you need to know their outflow as well. For example, we helped them get 1,000 calories of food. Good. More is better than none. We can also see that these 1,000 calories are to feed 4 people for a day. They need to consume 8,000 calories (4 people times 2,000 calories/day/person). The net flow is still very negative–1,000 in and 8,000 out. They are better off with the inflow, but not enough to cover the outflow. Likewise, we can focus on the outflow narrative. They purchased 8,000 calories of food. Good. Did they have the inflows to cover that, or did they deplete their reserves to do that?

While both the inflow and outflow narratives seem powerful, they are usually partial narratives, often to the benefit of the storyteller. A fuller narrative looks at the stock with the inflows and outflows. They are better off when the stock stabilizes or increases, improving their resiliency, their reserves for a future day, and when their access to inflows is greater than their outflows. To summarize, the stock increases when the net flow increases. You are worse off, now and going forward, when that stock decreases. You are better off, now and going forward, when that stock stabilizes or increases.

That is a focus on the individual. Expanding the view to include multiple individuals, a different question arises. When these individuals interact, who is better off? We can look at their stocks, their accumulations of inflows and outflows.

Most better-off narratives focus on the inflows, outflows, or stocks of one of the individuals in the mix. Rarely do they focus on the net effect of the interaction on all of the individuals in the mix. They avoid telling the fuller story. Look at the massive amount of press on the accumulated wealth of the rich. Or how they helped the poor. All of these narratives focus on one of the inflows or outflows or stocks, not on the whole mix.

To know if people are better off because of someone’s actions, a simple thing to ask is whether all of the individuals in the mix are better off. At time zero, this was what was in each person’s stock. After the action taken, at time one, this is what is in each person’s stock. If all of the stocks have increased, everyone is better off. If one or more of the stocks have increased, and others have decreased, then that value was taken from one and given to another. It was redistributed. The total amount of value in all of the stocks stayed the same, moving some from one person to another. This is extraction. People don’t like extractive narratives, so they tell the story of how one person’s stock increased. They don’t tell you where it came from. Did it come from an overall increase in everyone’s stock or by extracting it from one person’s stock?

A straightforward calculation of the total amount in everyone’s stock is to look at the Total Value Generated for those involved in the ecosystem of the interaction. Sum up the stocks of all those involved at time zero. Sum up all of the stocks at time one. Is the value generated in each person’s greater? Is the total sum of the value generated greater? If yes, then everyone involved in the interaction is better off. If no, then someone gained at the other’s expense.

It is often challenging to know which scenario is playing out in a story you are being told. More value generated for all or extracted from some for others. Often this is because they are telling you about specific inflows or outflows or stocks, and not about the net effect on all involved. An easy way to do this is to talk about outputs instead of outcomes or impacts. This is what we did, our output. It hides what happened, the outcome, what that did, the impact of the net effect on everyone involved in the interaction.

Northwestern professor Gillespie and Harvard professor Bazerman formulate this as parasitic integration, where a win-win agreement contains losers. The net effect of the interaction is lopsided. Someone gains from the others. It might be a win-win for some, but not for all.

By asking the question of the Total Value Generated, you are providing a principle that suggests that a person’s actions within any ecosystem can leave the whole ecosystem better off. Instead of accepting the narrative of how someone is better off because she made lots of money, you can ask the question of whether she is better off because what she did increased the value for everyone involved.

This could change your understanding of what actually happened. Did you buy the food because it was cheap, or was the food cheap because the people doing the work were underpaid and the quality of the food was very low? Or was the food cheap because the company figured out how to profitably pay the workers well for high quality food, in a way that was less expensive to you. Were you and the company lopsidedly better off, while the workers were not, or was everyone better off?

By measuring the Total Value Generated, you can look at the Value Generated for each person (the net effect on their stock of their inflows and outflows) and for the whole of those people involved in the ecosystem. If the Value Generated for each increases, they are all better off because of what you did. A more efficient interaction.