Stop wasting time defining your organisation’s values!

Many (if not most) executive teams spend at least some time defining the values of their organisation. This usually involves some external consultant reinforcing the importance of this activity and how important this activity is for organisational culture. But is it really important, or is it just another useless smoke & mirrors exercise that plagues our modern day organisations?

Value statements usually travel in packs of five or six so probably another manifestation of Miller’s Law (7 ± 2). There are many problems with these and I will raise some issues here although I am sure there are more.

Whilst we might share the same values we can have very different views when it comes to the behaviours that we think represent these values.

With five or six on the list, some will not make the cut. What about the ones not made explicit, are they less important somehow? And why does the top team get to define these for everyone else?

An organisation I know well has Safety, Pride, Accountability, Collaboration, and Excellence as its values, although referred to as behaviours. Together they neatly spell SPACE so I’m sure the exec team and the consultants were really proud of creating that mnemonic.

When values are made explicitly and the organisation does not live up to them they quickly become a running joke. You try to collaborate with colleagues online but all web collaboration tools are blocked by the Internet filter. Forget sharing a large file using Dropbox or something similar, and getting access to a shared folder is a nightmare – but hey we value collaboration! It takes 20 plus weeks to get a person recruited to a role – but we are all about excellence.

Making values explicit is according to Dave Snowden rather silly and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Anthropology would agree that values are lost once published. They become part of the power language and often misused. [after I published this on LinkedIn I found this link to an old blog of Dave’s about this very topic]. Dave makes the point that values are best shared through parables where values are not made explicit,you have to infer what the lesson is yourself.

This view is supported by Systems Leadership Theory (SLT) which I have referred to in the past on this blog, suggests that culture is in fact created through peoples’ shared view of the behaviours that reflect positive or negative manifestations of a value.

Instead of talking about specific values SLT talks about the six universal core values which again funnily enough fits Miller’s Law. These six emerged from work done across the world and across cultures to narrow down what actually matters to people.

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If you were to use values to try to shape behaviour in your organisation you have to make sure that they are more than just platitudes. Do the systems and symbols in the organisation actually reinforce the values or work against them, do people in leadership positions actively live them and understand the role they play in behaving accordingly?

The universal core values can be a helpful lens to consider how other people might interpret your actions. How will they make sense of what is going on, where would they place this behaviour on the values continua?

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So what about the idea that values is a waste of time if all I was going to do was to come up with some new ones? I’m worried that the addiction to value statements is hard to drop cold turkey so the universal core values could be an interim step to recovery.

Of course if we have the courage to go all the way we could take a leaf from the nonviolent communication playbook and just focus our efforts on one thing:

Attending to folks’ needs.

This is the “anti-matter principle” by Bob Marshall @flowchainsensei, a principle that is making me think long and hard on many of my assumptions around organisations and work.

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Bye bye Elliott Jaques, it’s been fun but it’s time to part ways!

What type of organisation do you see before you if I tell you that there is no top down strategy, no pre-defined roles, no budgets, no performance targets, full transparency and sharing of information (incl. financials), self-organising teams, fully decentralised decision-making, and where change management is a superfluous concept? Does a vision of some hippie commune, Kibbutz style co-operative emerge or perhaps a not-for profit charity type organisation?

What if I then say that it is not only a single organisation but a suite of very successful organisations ranging in size from around 100 employees to 10s of thousands of employees, across industries and in both the not for profit and for profit sector?

Perhaps you are asking yourself how you could run a large organisation without the foundations; a clear strategy, clear roles and accountabilities, levels of authority, defined performance targets cascaded down the organisation to measure how well strategy is executed, a well-developed project management framework with its associated budgets and Gantt charts, annual performance reviews and all the other practices we’ve been conditioned to believe are essential.

In his book “Reinventing Organizations”, Frederic Laloux has researched organisations that operate from level of consciousness that represent a significant shift. He categorises the practices of organisations using a spectrum of colours to represent the level of consciousness that shapes the organisational mindset.

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Plotting the successive stages of human and organisational consciousness on a timeline, the results tell a clear story; evolution seems to be accelerating, and accelerating ever faster. We have according to Laloux never been in time where so many people operated from some many different levels of consciousness at the same time. The same is true for organisations, Red, Amber, Orange, and Green Organisations are found working side by side in the same cultures and cities.

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The difference between the organisations that Frederic Laloux has researched for this book and most other organisations today is not only stark but also incredibly exciting – not only is there is a better way, but there is plenty of evidence of its positive impact on people and its longevity.

Now here is the catch – you will only see the potential and the power of these practices if your adult development stage aligns with this worldview. As humans, we develop in stages, just as a caterpillar through sudden transformations becomes a butterfly, or a tadpole a frog. A key aspect of human development stages is that there is nothing inherently better or worst being at any level – it makes no sense saying that an adult is better than a toddler. However, depending on the task a certain stage may be a better fit. I have referred to adult development in previous posts, click here for link.

For anyone familiar with the Cynefin framework it quickly becomes evident that the practices that these organisations share are well suited for operating in complex environments. There is an incredible shared sense of purpose, which guides decision making on a day-to-day basis. There are also just a few clear and simple rules or principles that guide what is acceptable behaviour. This allows for initiatives to emerge and if there is merit in them, people will naturally support them and give them their energy. Because decision-making is so inclusive and closely tied to the organisational purpose, change does not have to be “managed” in the way we think about it in traditional organisations.

Below are some of the practices that are common and represent what Laloux refers to as Teal Organisations. If you read these and think – how crazy, could never work, maybe it is time to reflect on your view of people – are you a Theory X or a Theory Y supporter?

Each level of consciousness has brought with it some breakthroughs compared with the previous level. For Teal organisations these are; Self-management, Wholeness, and Evolutionary Purpose.

The following is quoted directly from a summary of the book by Ulrich Gerndt from Change Factory.

Self-management: operate effectively, even at a large scale, with a system based on peer relationships, without the need for either hierarchy or consensus.

Wholeness: practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work, instead of with a narrow “professional” self / “masculine resolve” etc.

Evolutionary Purpose: organizations seen as having a life and a sense of direction of their own. Instead of trying to predict and control the future, members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.

Self Management Practices Wholeness Evolutionary Purpose
Self organizing teams Self-decorated warm spaces without status markers Organization seen as a living entity with its own evolutionary purpose
Coaches w/o P&L responsibility when needed Clear values translated into explicit ground rules, Strategy emerges organically from collective intelligence of self-managing employees
Almost no staff functions Ongoing values discussion Decision making by listening to organization‘s purpose (everyone, large group, meditations…)
Coordination and meetings ad hoc when needs arise Quiet room, meditation practices, team supervision, peer coaching Concept of competition irrelevant (embraced to pursue purpose)
Radically simplified project management, Storytelling practices to support self-disclosure and community building Growth and market share only important in as much they help achieve purpose
Minimum plans & budgets Absence of job titles and descriptions to allow selfhood to shape roles Profit as lagging indicator: will come naturally when doing the right thing
Fluid and granular roles Honest discussion about individual time commitments Inside out marketing: offer is defined by purpose
Decision making fully decentralized (advice process) Regular time devoted to address conflicts “Sense and respond“ planning/budgeting/controlling
Transparent real time information sharing incl. financials Specific meeting practices keep ego at check No or radically simplified budgets, no tracking of variance; no targets
Anybody can spend any amount of money provided advice process is respected Distributed initiatives taking “Change management“ no longer relevant as organization constantly adapts from within
Formal multi-step conflict resolution process Recruitment interviews by future colleagues, focus on fit with organization Suppliers chosen by fit with purpose
Focus on Team performance, peer-based process for individual appraisals Personal freedom for training, focus on culture-building Total transparency invites outsiders to make suggestions to better bring about purpose
Self-set salaries with peer calibration, no bonus, profit sharing Personal inquiry into one‘s learning journey and calling Conscious sensing of what mood would serve best
Caring support to turn dismissal into a learning opportunity

This book really shifted my thinking about organisations and leadership; maybe I read it at the right time in my life and/or at a juncture where my understanding of complexity was sufficient to enable this shift. Either way, it was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back with respect to my long-standing relationship with Elliott Jaques and structured hierarchy. The more I am learning about complexity the harder this relationship has become. Faced with evidence that disprove my current view – I now have to dismiss some of the concepts I have been working with and often promoted for a long time, or at least recognise their limitations in complex environments.

I had an exchange with Jurgen Appelo a few months ago where we debated the idea of levels of work in manager – subordinate relationships. Jurgen has for a long time argued that management is too important to leave to the managers, I now feel that I have a much better idea of where he is coming from.

I still maintain that people have different levels of capability and that a successful outcome is to some extent dependent on a good match between complexity and capability. However, this does not have to be formalised through a hierarchy with defined role vested authority and accountability, personally earned authority seems to suffice. Collectively we are smarter than any individual is and not many complex tasks are completed in isolation from everyone else in the organisation.

The sad part of the research findings that underpins the book (although not surprising) is that Frederic was not able to point to any examples of organisations shifting and sustaining Teal practices without the following two conditions:

  1. “Top leadership: The founder or top leader (let’s call him the CEO for lack of a better term), must have integrated a worldview and psychological development consistent with the Teal development level. Several examples show that it is helpful, but not necessary, to have a critical mass of leaders operating at that stage. .

  2. Ownership: Owners of the organisation must also understand and embrace Evolutionary Teal worldviews. Board members that “don’t get it,” experiences shows, can temporarily give a Teal leader free rein when their methods deliver outstanding results. But when the organisation hits a rough patch or faces a critical choice, owners will want to get things under control in the only way they know that makes sense to them – through top-down, hierarchical command and control mechanisms”

Reinventing Organizations – Frederic Laloux

All the adult development theories I have come across suggest that only a relatively small percentage of the adult population is at a post-conventional or in a later developmental stage akin to that of Teal Organisations. Possibly even fewer in leadership positions where they could affect any change. Most operate from a conventional stage and hence we have so many of the achievement driven organisations we see and potentially work in today.

So perhaps given that last paragraph I should not totally give up on all of the ideas and concepts from RO and Systems Leadership Theory, some may have a place in making orange and green organisations better in some ways even if they will not guide us into Teal territory.

Hopefully the pace of development truly is accelerating, as that is a prerequisite for more Teal organisations to emerge that more people get to the later stages of adult development. Even now we can start to see the how younger generations prefer to operate, it is in a similar fashion to what Gary Hamel, in his book “What Matters Now”,  notes are common practice on the web:

  • No one can kill a good idea
  • Everyone can pitch in
  • Anyone can lead
  • No one can dictate
  • You get to choose your cause
  • You can easily build on top of what others have done
  • You don’t have to put up with bullies and tyrants
  • Agitators don’t get marginalized
  • Excellence usually wins (and mediocrity doesn’t)
  • Passion-killing policies get reversed
  • Great contributions get recognized and celebrated

Interestingly though the language in the title of the book is very much from an Orange Achievement lens rather than a Teal one. Perhaps children growing up in today’s hyper connected, peer sharing world will be naturally drawn to organisations where Teal practices are in place? For my own son’s sanity I really hope he does not have to suffer through the same level of corporate BS that his parents have (and are still dealing with).

For a summary of the book visit www.reinventingorganizations.com or for a video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcS04BI2sbk

robust performance conversations

Robust Performance Conversations

Without clarity of expectations, both in terms of roles and in terms of tasks you cannot with good conscience hold a person to account for their performance.

In addition, without a culture where blame is non-existent and a genuine desire of leaders to create great working relationships, I really question how effective our organisations will be. I predict the gap between actual performance and potential performance will continue to be very wide and just a distant dream for many.

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Developing your skills to have productive conversations is very important, not only in the workplace but for all relationships. In my last post I discussed the importance of social process skills.  So we know it is important but how do we build our capability to do it well?

Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent CommunicationTM (NVC) is a fantastic method for communicating without judging and meeting everyone’s needs. Now I am very much a Jackal trying to shift to a Giraffe so I am not the right person to write about how to apply this so here are two links to better material, Martha Lasley’s paper Difficult Conversations: Authentic Communication Leads to Greater Productivity and a video featuring Marshall Rosenberg introducing NVC – the analogy of Jackal and Giraffe will make sense if you watch the video, which I sincerely hope you invest some time in.

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Image courtesy of Sven Hartenstein

In my next post I will discuss “understanding the work” the middle element of the framework around which all other elements are centred.