A Parable is worth many ‘values’

November 25, 2012

The parable of the sower occurs in three of the four gospels, and its always been one of my favourites.  Here it is from the King James version:

Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, some an hundred. He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.

Now there are various interpretations but the most common is that it is allegory for the Word of God and its reception.  I've used it, possibly sacrilegiously, to describe the marking approach appropriate to new ideas of products.  In a complex, emergent world you cannot know in advance exactly which markets or customers will be receptive.  So you cast your seed widely and see where it grows, sometimes it pops up unaided, other times just when you think its dead it pops up again.  The one thing I will guarantee is that trying to work out in advance what will work is more luck that judgement.

Parables however have a wider purpose, they carry what I have long called necessary ambiguity.  They provide a core message, but that message can adapt to a changing context.  Its very noticeable that Christ teaches through parables, he does not create a catechism. 

There is a lesson in this for the whole mission and values movement that seems obsessed with trotting out variations of a limited set of platitudes with nauseating consistency.  There are after all only so many ways that you can say you will be nice to customers.  OK if you were part of the team that went off site with the expensive consultants to put them together then they means something to you; they represent a journey you went on.  But when you return, like Moses from the mountain, but with pocket cards and posters rather than tablets of stone; then don't be that surprised if you are met with indifference and/or resignation from those who have not been down the same path.

The other problem with the ubiquitous promulgation of hackneyed banalities (I'm in a bad mood, my hip hurts) is that all you are doing is to teach the manipulative game players in the organisation the language of power.  From now on every powerpoint presentation and business proposal will be changed to use the new language.  I remember when IBM went from “e” everything (in the @ format) to on demand a whole raft of executives immediately hot the find and replace buttons on their word processors.  They didn't think about the brand change or its meaning, they just used the linguistic tokens to evidence their orthodoxy and seek funding.  OK maybe it was just a new CEO doing the human equivalent of the alpha male dog pissing on all the trees, but it still required some thought.  OK, with the benefit of hindsight, I should not have said in a meeting that anyone who did play the find and replace game should be fired as a sycophant.  I still think I was right, but if the recommendation had been taken all bar one participant would have had to leave the room, the building and the company.

Parables in contrast take a little more time to create.  You start with the raw micro-narratives of the organisation and map the underlying values and beliefs.  From that material you ascertain which narratives provide exemplars both positive and negative that create an awareness of the underlying heuristics of behaviour or understanding you are seeking to promulgate.  You refine the stories, determine propagation methods, test the idea, make sure its ambiguous enough, but not unambiguous and there you are.   

Its all to easy to justify deviant behaviour to a value statement, its very difficult in the face of a teaching story of parable.   You can add in archetypes for good measure by the way.   The process is one we will be teaching on some of the new courses next year.  Its more than time to break the motivational posters with old chestnuts prominently displayed and move to something more sustainable, more resilient.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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