Gatekeepers can be a huge source of risk to doing great work.

Whether it be a manager or a reviewer or inspector, people in positions of authority feel a sense of responsibility. Like anyone else they have a job to do and they want to do it well. If work is presented to them and they make no changes they may fear they have shirked their responsibility. Too often they look for something – anything — to change so they can feel confident they did their jobs. I call this Value Add Disease.

I heard a story about a video game design team who had developed a character they really liked. But their manager suffered from Value Add Disease and never let them out of the room without making a change. They devised a solution. They added a duck that flew around the character. At the end of the review the manager approved the character on the condition they get rid of the duck. In some circles the term “duck” is used to describe features added specifically so they can be sacrificed later.

I am told a similar technique is often used by architects when they are reviewing their plans with planners or inspectors.

If you find yourself faced with someone infected with value add disease there are things you can do to help short of the subterfuge described here. Don’t accept changes you don’t believe in without returning to the first principles that led to the decision in the first place. Highlight ways in which your results were the consequence of guidance already provided to you. Whenever possible frame meetings in terms of getting advice rather than asking permission.

The most important thing you can do is inoculate yourself against contracting value add disease. Get comfortable with adding no value to the work you are responsible for. Consider instead that building teams that create good work without your help is precisely the kind of value you should be adding. In the times you do feel compelled to add value you should ask yourself whether something went wrong earlier that forced you to get involved at this point.