Purpose as virtue: three elements

December 12, 2012

I promised to pick up from my philosophical musings of yesterday with a more practical working out of the use of virtue as a means to create a sense of purpose or direction within a complex system.  It is worth remembering that the need here is to deal with the present; with the decisions that we make which close off options for the future.  Picking up on the point that we are dealing with dispositional systems not causal ones we need to be careful not to see these pathways as linear in nature.  There will always be a degree of fluidity about choice under conditions of complexity.

In a complex system decisions are made in the moment as much as they are made strategically.  Decisions by an agent or cluster within a network can have greater impact than a decision from the top.  Just as in small group command a corporal can make a decision in the field that impacts on world politics, so a member of your staff can trigger a catastrophic failure in customer relationships.  Any system of purpose must be fractal if decision making is near real time,  strategic intent needs common understanding and direction.  

So anything here must be capable of being used and  understood at all levels within the organisation; anything we do will need sufficient ambiguity to handle changing circumstances, while having enough purpose to provide direction.  I'll try and indicate how this is achieved, but it should be clear form the description.  I will in the main contrast them with their systems thinking equivalents.  To be clear, this is not an either/or, but a both/and but the three main changes are:

  • Move from values to parables
    Values as explicit statements can be easily interpreted to match expediency.  In contrast a good parable carries with it clear purpose and judgement, while maintaining sufficient ambiguity that the listener and the teller alike fill in the gaps with common understanding.  Failing to comply with a value stating that we should help other people in conditions of need can be explained away as necessary in the circumstances.  However faced with the parable of the Good Samaritan, that and other weasel excuses are already covered off by the story.
  • Fewer, stricter rules, complimented by heuristics
    The US  Marines creating a set of simple heuristics to cover circumstances where the plan was failing to unfold.  They were Capture the high ground, stay in touch, keep moving.  I adapted a minor variation of that for an IBM Sales team many moons ago.  Rules are over constrained, heuristics are easy to remember and adaptable while providing a general sense of direction and more importantly can be validated after the event.  One variation on this is to have tighter rules (for ordered domains) with a rule about breaking rules linked to heuristics that apply when that is the case.
  • Create habits around key interactions, reinforced with ritual
    As any parent knows habitual behaviour is both good and bad, but very very difficult to change once its established.  Ritual in humans triggers the brain to see the world through different filters.  Interesting ritual can be used to change bad habits.  In a programme for the New Zealand Department of Education I brought in two Australia Rugby Jerseys and announced that anyone making any assumption about the solution to a problem before we had completed the situational assessment would have to wear one of these.  The only way to escape what (to any Kiwi is a contamination) was to catch someone else making the same mistake.   Small things can produce big changes.

Now those three are the main elements, but I've just touched the surface of their potential and have not yet talked about a process to make the shift.  I'll start to pick up on those tomorrow.


The picture  that opens this post is by Dave Wommack  “The Virtuous Man is not Alone” – Zen Calligraphy

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