Shoring it up until Christmas

July 16, 2010

I only met Rosabeth Moss Kanter once when we both spoke at a conference in Boston many years ago, along with Larry Prusak. Well Larry and I spoke, she performed a rap and to this day I don’t know if I was impressed, amused or embarrassed by the experience. Thanks to @nimmypal I came across this post on values which continues my confusion. Now I took an approach to organisational values earlier this month which started with a minor tirade and was followed up with two posts on the subject of Vogans, values & verisimilitude here and here. The critical points were really that ideation cultures (the way we do things around here) are more resilient that rule based one (everything is written down); linked to that I argued that its what people do that counts not what they say they want to do. I even quoted St James in one of the verses that divides catholics from protestants: Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone.

My real concern here is the focus on communication, principally by leaders. We have seen some mitigation of this with story telling approaches, but they rarely challenge the top down nature. I’ll look at the use of narrative in tomorrow’s post, for the moment back to Rosabeth.

She starts well, pointing out that mission statements and values mostly soundalike and the words really give no guide to action. However after that things get a little confusing as she runs through a list of ten essentials for Getting Value from Values. I’ll reproduce them here with some commentary and then conclude. I should point out that I am picking on this particular post rather than its author, I like her work but she is a product of her context and one of the better writers in that genre, its that context which I am criticising not the person per se.

Rosabeth Comments
1 Values are a priority for leaders, invoked often in their messages and on the agenda for management discussions It’s pretty clear after the economic mess and consequential social disturbances of the last few years that we could do with some human values in industry and government alike. What the values are and how they are formulated could render this a useful statement, possibly an essential statement or even more likely an irrelevance.
2 The entire work force can enter the conversation; employees are invited to discuss or interpret values and principles in conjunction with their peers, who help ensure alignment For a start it’s not always obvious or necessary that everyone should engage in this, for many people they want to do a job to gain other objectives. They may not want the engagement that is so often advocated. It is also the case that for this to work for those who want the conversation there has to be the possibility of change as a result of that conversation. However this is not the case here, they discuss & interpret and are subject to alignment; I don’t see words like modify or adapt or vary.
3 Principles are codified, made explicit, transmitted in writing in many media, and reviewed regularly to make sure people understand and remember them. I refer readers to my previous posts. What you are doing here is simply tell people the language of conformity, and testing them on their ability to use that language. The assumption here is that an explicit set of terms will translate into action simply through review and written transmission. I’m not sure where to start on this but its at best trivial nonsense.
4 Statements about values and principles invoke a higher purpose, a purpose beyond current tasks that indicates service to society. This purpose can become part of the company’s brand and a source of competitive differentiation. Now I would really love this to be the case. Commercial organisations such as banks, oil companies etc. focused on service to society, competitively differentiated not by a focus on personal gain, profit etc. but by social good.   
I had never realised that all that was needed was for a set of clearly articulated platitudes to be written down, communicated and discussed.
5 The words become a basis for on-going dialogue that guides debate when there is controversy or initial disagreement. Decisions are supported by reference to particular values or principles. This is a critical point, when you meet a difficult situation where there is no obvious way forward, then falling back to principles is one way to manage things. I despise Margaret Thatcher, but one thing I will say is that she had a set of principles that she would fall back on when needed. In contrast with a populist approach which had no where to go when focus groups failed to give clear guidance.
However I think we have a problem with values designed on abstract principles rather than concrete reality. Context is as ever king, if your organisation works within the framework and constraints of a market economy then your freedom to define such principles is severely constrained, especially if legislation fails to provide a level playing field for your competitors.
6 Principles guide choices, in terms of business opportunities to pursue or reject, or in terms of investments with a longer time horizon that might seem uneconomic today. Fully agree with that, great idea. Now tell me what is going to change in society as a whole to allow such longer term thinking to survive?
7 As they become internalized by employees, values and principles can substitute for more impersonal or coercive rules. They can serve as a control system against violations, excesses, or veering off course. Agree with that one as well, well sort of. I think that habits, rituals and heuristics are far more successful in achieving this goal; especially when they are drawn from established practice rather than idealised practice.
Come to think of it, for this to have any chance of success then they have to be emergent, they have to evolve from the present, they can not simply be imposed.
8 Actions reflecting values and principles — especially difficult choices — become the basis for iconic stories that are easy to remember and retell, reinforcing to employees and the world what the company stands for. A relief, I fully and completely endorse this one and its critical, more on that tomorrow.
9 Values are aspirational, signaling long-term intentions that guide thinking about the future. And therein lies a problem. How many organisations these days in government or industry are allowed to handle long term intentions?
10 Principles, purpose, and values are discussed with suppliers, distributors, and other business partners, to promote consistent high standards everywhere. See several of the above comments

I realised as I was going through those responses that a major part of my problem was the inconsistencies. In practice what we have here is a set of statements that of themselves sound good; they are motherhood and apple pie. They ignore the economic context in which firms operate. They ignore the reality of HR policies that treat staff as disposable assets, modifying pension schemes to punish long term service or loyalty. They ignore the reality of power politics in any organisation, and that includes the power to determine acceptable language.

Above all they are inconsistent. The post opens by telling us that words don’t really tell anyone what to do in any specific sense and then goes on to argue for more words and more messages and more communication. It has become a real problem with too many management authors who lack coherent theory, instead relying on their own observations and inductive approaches. In the end they say nothing that you can really disagree with, but it lacks consistency, it lacks bite, it lacks the ability to move to real action.

Many years ago in the Spike Milligan show there was a running gag in one episode. Everytime an impossible situation arose, Spike would pop up with the builder’s line of don’t worry I’ll shore it up until Christmas. Far too much management “theory” is shoring up executives by making them feel good without changing their real actions. We need to move on from this, its perverted and perverting.

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