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as he sowed, some fell by the wayside

May 6, 2011

Representation_of_the_Sowers_parable.jpg One of the points I made in yesterday's keynote was that it is a mistake to write down your values, as the act of codification results in their loss. In effect we shift an ideation culture (the way we do things around here that we all understand but can't really articulate) to an explicit rule based culture. Aside from the fact that I have yet to see a set of organisational values that were not a set of well meaning platitudes, all you are really doing is teaching the politically manipulative the language of power. Now as expected a few people were concerned about this statement and it came up in the post keynote discussion and subsequently throughout the afternoon.

Now I stand by the statement, but it doesn't follow that I don't think we shouldn't articulate values, but we need to do so in a way that carries with it necessary ambiguity so that the statements can adapt to context, and also so that their form allows for verification of actions, not just linguistic form. Fortunately there are several ways in which this can be achieved, and all of them have more pedigree and more sustainability than a few pious banalities on a motivational poster. All of them involve small, pithy and frequently paradoxical stories. The point here is that a story carries context with it, as well as the ability to create resonance. Critically it allows for ethical validation; saying that action X was consistent with a mission statement is easy, matching it against a story is far more difficult.

So what form could this take? Lets summarise a few:

  • Parables are the basic method in the New Testament to convey complex ethical principles. I have always liked the parable of sower to give direction to marketing new ideas (the illustration is from an Orthodox Church in Romania). The parable of the good Samaritan is so much more powerful than a bald statement about empathy and action, due to its narrative form and its reference to hypocrisy, something that always attracts human attention.
  • Fables are a long standing type of parable, but using animal proxies. The sheer pervasiveness of Aesop's fables (especially the fox and the hedgehog) is a tribute to their longevity. However fables are probably a little too new age fluffy bunny (sic) for a modern day management environment. If you want some elaborate forms then check out Kiping's Just So Stories, memorable short stories packing with meaning. A fair number of organisations need to find a place for the cat who walks by himself and to whom all places are alike!
  • Short sayings, often paradoxical in nature. One of the most famous comes from Matthew 22:21 Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. How many times does a presenter (and I am not exception) provide a quote from Lincoln, Seneca or the like.
  • Archetypal stories and characters represent complex learning and cultural statements in most societies. Anthropologies use the archetypes present in traditional stories to understand the culture of the society from which they have emerged; and they do emerge over time they are not created. One of the most used methods I ever created was archetype extraction, something we teach on the accreditation courses and which is more fully described here. The method also provides something more substantial than persona for software design by the way.

Now all of those represent more sophisticated and sustainable approaches than a set of words on a poster. Properly created they emerge from the natural narrative landscape of the organisation. I've also just realised that we have never formalised all the methods for this, and further that SenseMaker® could be used to discover and test the sustainable forms for an organisation and monitor their use over time. I need to write that up, but if anyone is interested let me know.

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