Vogans, values & verisimilitude 1/2

July 6, 2010

201007062251.jpg To continue with my theme of yesterday by looking specifically at the near obsessional need of many organisations to write their values down in the mistaken impression that this will somehow or another make a strategic difference. OK it is, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams mostly harmless, but the utility matches in intensity the empathy levels of a Vogon Constructor Fleet. Come to think of it, the lets clear the decks and start again from scratch approach of many a major consultancy firm is pretty similar to that of the Vogans and I suppose we can only be grateful they don’t write poetry.

Returning to my theme. One of the key distinctions in anthropology is between a rule based and an ideation based culture.  (Keesing & Strathern 1968) I used the distinction as a way of describing the horizontal dimension in an early version of the Cynefin framework. It’s a critical distinction, so I’ll quote from my original article:

Rule based

The socio-cultural system or the pattern of residence and resource exploitation that can be observed directly, documented and measured in a a fairly straightforward manner. The tools and other artifacts that we use to create communities, the virtual environment we create and the way we create, distribute and utilise assets within the community. These are teaching cultures that are aware of the knowledge that needs to be transferred to the next generation and which create training programmes. They are characterised by their certainty or explicit knowability.

Ideation based

Cultures in this sense comprise systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways that humans lived. Culture, so defined, refers to what humans learn, not what they do and make. Such cultures are tacit in nature: networked, tribal and fluid. They are learning cultures because they deal with ambiguity and uncertainty originating in the environment or self generated for innovative purposes

Now I hope its pretty self-evident from the above that formalising your values involves a rule based approach, focused on the explicit and also the idea that those in position of power will communicate or teach those values to their members. You can see the attraction of this as it appears to reduce uncertainty. You can also see why a fair chunk of the organisational story telling movement find it easy to match their skills with organisational needs here. They are after all telling, its a top down approach.

There are three immediate practical issues with taking the explicit fork in the road

  1. Anything explicit can and will be gamed. By writing down those values you are simply making explicit the language of power. The politically astute will now start to parrot that language in their proposals more or less regardless of the actual content. The find and replace function in Powerpoint and Word will go into overdrive. The slides and documents will give the organisational values some verisimilitude, but it will be an appearance of being true, it is not necessarily the truth.
  2. You have created a hostage to fortune; if something goes wrong with your customers, or your Executives fail to walk the talk (as they will, inevitably) then the artifacts become a lightning rod to focus criticism and the worst forms of cynicism and disillusionment.
  3. There are only so many platitudes that can be strung together; just take a look at the value and mission statements of major organisations and do a semantic clustering exercise. The key words and phrases occur constantly. What is the value is saying more or less the same things as everyone else in your sector?

The real point I am making here is that values are created by action, by embracing uncertainty, by living change by interacting with reality. True values are the way we do things around here, something we all understand but we find difficult to articulate. It is tacit (in the true sense of that word not the trivialisation of popular uses of the SECI model) in nature.

At its heart an ideation culture will trump a rule based culture all the time. Not only that if you create a set of values top down that are inauthentic to current reality all you will do is to ensure that the water cooler culture dominates. However well meaning your intent it will trigger the anti-stories that are all too common after several decades of hearing yet another set of idealistic statements about how things are really going to be different this time.

So how do we manage (and we do have to manage) the ideation culture of an organisation? Well, that is for tomorrow (or later today on Perth time which is where I am currently located).

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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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