Companies have become aware of the fact that core values – integrity, trust, fairness – can function as attractors that drive beneficial behaviours in the workplace. What they are not getting is that core values just can´t be prescribed, top down or in any other direction.
While many companies large and small have come to the laudable conclusion to focus their organizational development efforts on values rather than behaviours, most go about this strategy in a wrong way. When values are defined upfront without letting them emerge through a process and paying attention to which values are currently operative, people tend to game the system and display what HR and HQ want to hear. Dave Snowden puts it this way: “As soon as you write your values down, you´ve lost them”.
Even if you work with more sophisticated approaches that try and distinguish between actual and desired values in the organisation, the methods used to survey those values most often distort the results. Questionnaires and 360s are gamed easily and you know where to put your x-es in your sleep. Experts are biased with unconscious hypothesis while surveying and indexing the data.
Apart from inviting staff members at every organisational level to find workarounds and game the organisational system (infamous example: VW emissions), announcing a change initiative and defining the marching order and direction is having yet another detrimental effect that is largely underestimated. Once a desired future state – or a value – is defined and plans are made that define and prescribe how to get there, present time weak signals, resistances or value streams that are not in line with the goal are not detected and neglected. Their information content is lost. It could be anything from a warning, a wisdom, a diversification, a potential innovation or a completely different emergent field for the company.
In organizational development, the key is to work with what is actually happening; not what should be happening. What are people really telling each other, their friends, peers and partners about their work? What if you could tap into that vast intelligence and get authentic, real time, immediate and relevant data that you could milk for existing problems, challenges as well as emergent trends and solutions?
Dave Snowden suggests a few things that need to be happening.
- We make it easy for people to tell little stories that are indicating what is really happening in the company. The stories can be about a a certain attitude towards change or safety, they can indicate problems, challenges, or trends. The stories tell about the way things are done in the company.
- A software, SenseMaker, can capture the stories and search for trends and challenges and the actual tendency for the company to engage a certain topic (like change, leadership, safety, collaboration, etc.). Snowden calls this mapping out the current dispositional state of the organisation.
- Then the whole organization, or a department, can be nudged into the direction of the next possible generative steps. A guiding question is: “What can we do tomorrow that gets us more stories like these, and less stories like those”
I find this approach extremely relevant and elegant. The first is working with what is and with people as they are now. The basic assumption is that people know their jobs, and they know what is happening, both good and bad. This is mining the organisational gold. In its simplicity, this must also be a huge disappointment for most change agents and developmental experts. No big change initiative, no mindset change for employees, no bringing staff members up to a higher level of consciousness for them to do their job better. They can all stay as they are. And yet, we can work story by story and work with the systemic structures. Values can be exposed through the stories in the process – the actual, lived values. They are part of the current dispositional state of the system and the emergent one. We can work with what is doable, accessible, sense making and generative, now. This is extremely powerful.
In our opinion, this approach has an immense potential that goes far beyond organizational development. It can be applicable to working in a much different way with communities, governance, climate change, refugees, environmental issues, projects, leadership development and evaluation. Stay tuned. We will report back from our first experiences with Snowden`s SenseMaker software soon.
Here is a recent fun talk by Dave Snowden where he talks about this topic in more detail and depth. Listen up, since he tends to talk in zip-files of meaning you will need to unpack.