Vogans, values & verisimilitude 2/2

July 7, 2010

201007070748.jpg Moving on from the yesterday’s Vogans to their traveling companions the Dentrassi; for those who are not aware these creatures are simply the best cooks in the Galaxy and pick up stray hitchhikers to annoy their Vogon hosts. I’ve brought them into the equation as a key metaphor for me is the difference between a chef and a recipe book user. A recipe book user follows a formula (industrial consultancy) while a chef understands the principles of taste and can thus create a wonderful meal from whatever you happen to have in your kitchen when s/he arrives. In working with organisational values we need a few chefs not a deployed team of recipe book users garnered off the bench of a large consultancy firm.

Yesterday I established a difference between rule and ideation based cultures, the former explicit, the latter tacit. I argued that making values explicit was flawed on practical grounds, but I could equally have argued that it is theoretically flawed. True values are evidenced in our actions, it is not enough to state that something is the case, or even to believe it, it must be enacted: Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:24)

A formal statement of values may appear to make a clear statement, but in reality it introduces the wrong sort of ambiguity, and the more platitudinous the statement the worst the problem. If for example you are foolish enough to say We put our customers first, then how will you deal with a member of staff whose pro-customer actions produce a massive loss? If Our staff are our greatest asset then how to you handle the inevitable layoffs when a recession hits? Hermeneutics are your enemy, not your friend and the inevitable consequence of taking an explicit approach.

So how do we manage an ideation based culture? Well the first and most critical lesson is that we have to manage in the here and now, not some idealistic future state. That means we have to start with mapping the current culture, discovering the dominant beliefs, the proto-myths and the evolutionary possibilities: which directions are possible, not which goal would we like to achieve. Now there are various ways to do this, and its one of the areas where Cognitive Edge has a solid body of methods and also one where SenseMaker® has a significant role to play. Four of the options include:

  • Mapping emergent archetypal characters as cultural signifiers. kreisel_large.jpg  I wrote this approach up in some detail here and the method is taught on Cognitive Edge accreditation courses. Basically a series of workshops allow the indirect creation of emergent values and archetypal characters (see the illustration for one example) who collectively provide a cultural representation. This method allows discussions to take place about what the archetypes represent, and how they might be changed, culminating in safe-fail interventions in an attempt to trigger change. Ideally type of intervention would seek to amplify a positive but weak archetype rather than to tackle a negative one directly.
    Archetypes are powerful in many ways. The one illustrated was also produced as a ninety second animation, shifting from slightly worried to spinning faster and faster until she literally disintegrates. That is stored as an emoticon and can be dropped into an instant messaging system to make a subtle point without causes offense. Allowing people to tell stories about the archetypes is one way to allow honest feedback as to what is working or not working without the need for individuals to admit the story is about themselves. Importantly it allows humour to enter into communication and discourse within and beyond the organisation.
    It’s all in the method, but a couple of critical points sould be highlighted. Firstly, the workshop participants should not be aware of what they are producing until they produce it, the extraction process is designed to take place in their peripheral vision. Secondly the process of creating the archetypes is not to feed the ego needs of the facilitator, resist the temptation to help people with suggestions, or demonstrate your greater knowledge of the process.
  • Focus on increasing connectivity between people from different silos in meaningful projects. Social Network Stimulation (SNS) is a powerful method here. It focuses on stimulating the self-assembly of heterogeneous teams to solve real world problems that the organisation faces and links success in solving those problems to a fairer distribution of patronage rewards. Within two years it is possible to get everyone within the organisation within three degrees of separation of everyone else in the organisation based on a trusted relationship. By building a trust network you enable a positive shift to a sustainable ideation culture based on working together to solve intractable problems; values through doing not pontificating.
  • SenseMaker® allows two approaches to mapping culture. Firstly by capturing the micro-narratives of the water cooler, the ultimate determinant of corporate culture it allows that culture to be mapped.Screen shot 2010-07-07 at 09.37.18.png Secondly it allows the presentation of iconic images or archetypal stories to the whole work force and allows them to signify the meaning they find in those stories. Both of these approaches (Collector and Auditor to give the modules their correct names) generate both quantitative and qualitative data in a single system. We have a set of signifiers based on a substantial literature search of anthropology that can be used in these projects, but existing organisational frameworks can be built in with little diffculty.
    The how of SenseMaker® as a research tool is described here for those interested. The picture shows one of the landscape representations that is possible when the capture is complete, and don’t think its expensive, the average SenseMaker® pilot project costs less than a couple of weeks time of a consultant from one of the major firms and produces a more long lasting effect! In this landscape the hollows represent a strong pre-existing value set. If its negative then trying to change it directly is impossible, instead you look for one of the proto-myths (the smaller hollows) which is heading in the right direction and amplify that so it takes energy away from the negative. The yellow dots represent outlier stories, weak signals of dissident views that could be positive or negative but which are now visible, draw attention and can be read.
    With this type of tool its possible not only to map the territory but get instant real time feedback on the various safe-fail interventions that are initiated to enable the organisation to evolve into a set of sustainable, but unstated values.
  • A side benefit of the above is that if you move to continuous capture you can save a fortune in professional fees on the annual staff survey. You have also created a mechanism by which failures in the system can be made visible very quickly to senior executives who can then take action to fix them. The cultural change that arises from an executive paying attention to particular examples of injustice or inauthenticity outweighs any declaration by that Executive of what they would like to happen; actions speak louder than words.

Note that the above methods allow a different type of conversation to take place. Instead of endless talking about how we can achieve a certain abstract value, we can talk about how to get fewer of these type of stories and more of those. Its a much easier conversation to have as the language of narrative is firm enough to avoid the ambiguity of hermeneutics; anyone can twist the meaning of a platitude to match their situation, but to challenge a body of micro-narratives supported by statistical objectivity is an all together more difficult task. Note (and this is important) that I am talking about naturally occurring self-interpreted micro-narrative, not the facilitated extraction of meaning through prompted narrative that is more common in organisational story telling.

More advanced, and experimental techniques such as metaphor based command and feedback languages hold equal potential, but I am not yet ready to post on those, although I am happy to talk to anyone who has a specific interest. Overall I hope I have established that it is possible to manage the ideation culture by understanding the now in order to evolve towards the then.

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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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