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The Problem with Planned Change

Stephen Billing, August 5, 2009

Planned change models (so-called "n-step models" of which Kotter’s 8 step model is the most well known) assume that change can be controlled. By carrying out the steps the desired change will be manifested in the organisation. Because change is seen as predictable, the key lies in detailed planning.

Alvesson and Sveningsson in their book "Changing Organizational Culture" say that while this logic might explain the popularity of these approaches, these planned change models reveal little about how change emerges from interactions between those involved in the organisation. These models pay little attention to how people interpret the change efforts, nor how they relate to these based on their interests, backgrounds, jobs and how they will be affected by the change. (more…)


Not on Board the Vision Bandwagon

Stephen Billing, July 22, 2009

CEO of Air New Zealand, Rob Fyfe, is not a fan of vision, mission and values. Welcome to the club! 

In the April edition of North and South magazine, Rob Fyfe, the CEO of Air New Zealand, is interviewed. Towards the end of the portrait of a man highly regarded by his peers who certainly has an excellent track record to date, he comments on vision and values.

"One of the first things I did as CEO was outlaw things like ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ and ‘values,’ because I don’t see those concepts as really connecting with people at the front line. A vision is a personal thing; you can’t have it imposed on you, or articulated to you by someone else." Hear hear.

The interview goes on to say that instead, Fyfe asked a single question: "Who are we?"

I’m loving this. Let’s not get caught up in abstractions like vision and values and the associated semantics. Instead, let’s notice and reflect on what’s going on around us right now ("Who are we?").


Five Reasons Why It Makes No Sense to Establish Corporate Values

Stephen Billing, July 8, 2009

Corporate values redux.

I was talking to a new reader of the blog the other day who said that she didn’t agree with some of what I’ve written  about values. She saw people’s individual values as being important.

I realised that my opinions about shared values may have been interpreted to mean that I don’t think personal values are important. Quite the contrary.

I think that personal values are very important and are experienced as a kind of voluntary compulsion of what it feels right to do. They provide an uplifting experience that feels good and right to us. This is a very important aspect of being human.

On the other hand, I do not think it is important to work out what values an organisation should have and to write them on a wall chart, and then to try and get people to "align" themselves to those values.

1. The values that are written down are generalised abstractions. GH Mead called them "cult values" to remind us of their generalised nature, and that when they are applied directly regardless of the circumstances, this amounts to a cult.

2. Values are always in conflict and are negotiated in particular situations. For example, should the CSR answer the telephone within 3 rings or attend to the customer standing in front of them? This conflict is never resolved once and for all, because the next time the phone is ringing and there is a customer in front of them, the CSR has to negotiate the conflict all over again.

3. If everyone has the same values, then you have a homogenous organisation in which the agents are very similar. By analogy from complexity theory, when similar agents interact, the patterns of interaction that emerge have significantly less novelty, innovation and change than when the agents are dissimilar.

4. Organisations are not people and cannot have values. Organisations are habitual patterns of relating, always with the potential for novelty to arise from any particular interaction.

5. People cannot design their values in advance, but they can discover or become aware of their values through reflecting on problematic or difficult situations, and working out what has been important to them in negotiating that particular situation. So it makes no sense to try and design the organisation’s values and commit them to wall posters and other artefacts.


Three Things To Do Instead of Trying to Instil Shared Values

Stephen Billing, June 6, 2009

Three things that leaders can do that are more useful than trying to instil shared values.

While it might seem logical common sense for managers to attempt to instil a set of shared values across the organisation, in fact the practice of articulating shared values dates back only to the early 80s and Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s book In Search of Excellence, according to Chris Rodgers’ excellent post on the topic of shared values and complex social processes.

Your declaration of the organisation’s shared values is no more than a call to arms, providing input into the ongoing patterns of interactions that are taking place across your organisation.

I hesitate to tell leaders what to do in a list that looks like a prescription because each organisation and each leader is unique and there are so many situational factors that are never duplicated in any other organisation. So, taking my heart in my mouth, I offer three useful things you as a leader can do instead of spending time and money on attempting to instil shared values.

1. Talk about and communicate your personal experience of tough decisions you have had to make – i.e. when you have had to make choices between conflicting options.  As you know, stories are powerful, and this shows people that everyone is making these calls on a daily basis and provides guidance that is far more powerful than any statement of shared values could be.

2. Values are given meaning in particular situations through the process of conversation, so participate in conversation rather than calls to arms. In other words, actively engage in conversation with your team and their direct reports. This particularly applies when you do road shows. Get your people to design road shows that promote conversations with each other and with your management team. Don’t let it be you giving a one way talk and then taking questions from the floor. Include as well opportunities for people to interact with each other, especially with people they don’t normally work with.

3.  The monocultural fantasy of shared values obscures the reality that values are fragmented across the organisation. So talk with diverse groups across your organisation and notice what is going on in the interactions you have with them and that they have with each other. The practice of noticing what is going on sounds rather mundane but is sadly underdeveloped in most of us. This is because we have been taught to be thinking always about the future – vision, mission, values, planning are all about the future, not about the present. As a result we become conditioned to think about the future and we miss much of what is going on around us. When you see things going on that don’t make sense to you in terms of what you are trying to do with your organsiation, instead of talking in a future oriented way to distract people from their negative experience in the present, show interest in what is going on in the diverse groups that make up your organisation. Listen to what they say about their experience. Use it to inform your own thinking.




Shared Values Over Several Generations

Stephen Billing, June 4, 2009

OK, I’m convinced. Shared values have a lot of problems that are not widely acknowledged. What can we learn from past efforts to determine shared values?

In the previous three posts I have argued that there are three fatal flaws, or significant dangers inherent in attempting to determine shared values for your organisation.

1. Organisations are not sentient beings and can’t actually have values – in much the same way that they cannot be said to learn either. 2. Shared values are a step towards an organisation becoming a cult as inclusion and exclusion from the group becomes based on adherence or direct application of the values, regardless of the circumstances. This is the definition of a cult. 3. Values are often in conflict and this is not acknowledged in values projects.

The advocates of shared values are not thinking of these fatal flaws, or if they are, they are certainly not making you aware of them!

By now, many organisations have already been through values exercises of one kind or another, and many have also been through attempts to strengthen those values after the initial attempt was not as successful as hoped. Many organisations are now trying to find even more powerful ways to embed these shared values. In other words, we are now into at least our third generation of attempts to think about values.

The lessons of the first generation of values projects included such innovations as the requirement for involvement from the staff rather than decree by senior managers. So there was a round in the second generation of values projects of high levels of involvement of staff in coming up with a set of values in support of the organisation’s vision and mission. Often these were framed and put in the reception area. As time the artefacts used became more sophisticated, such as posters with inspirational pictures, slogans, pens and desk pads.

In the second generation we are finding that the requirement for shared values has become a given, while the need for ostentatious displays and "programmes" has reduced, with the incorporation of the corporate values into organisational paraphenalia such as induction programmes, position descriptions and executive briefings. In other words, executive teams  are taking it for granted that there is a need to determine the organisation’s shared values and then integrate them into the organisation’s management practices. Often these initiatives have been driven by HR.

You can probably recognise that your organisation has done all these things in relation to the corporate values. No doubt you feel there is still more to be done, or perhaps you are wondering what to do next.

I have tried to show that the quest for shared values is doomed to fruitlessness. There is no fruit to be plucked from these corporate values exercises – they amount to trying to square a circle. Which is impossible. So what do you do instead?

I have some thoughts in the next post.


The Third of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Conflict

Stephen Billing, June 2, 2009

In the first post of this series (here) I said that the first fatal flaw of shared values was anthropomorphism. I argued that shared values means attributing the human characteristics values to organisations, which are things that are not human. The second fatal flaw of shared values is the danger of inclusion and exclusion from the group based on adherence or direct application of the values, regardless of the circumstances. This is the definition of a cult.

The third fatal flaw of shared values is that it ignores the inherent conflict in values as they are negotiated in specific circumstances. 

George Herbert Mead called these collective values cult values to remind us of the dangers of directly applying these values.

Even at the same time as a sense of value and contribution is provided by these cult values, the values have to particularised, that is to say their meaning has to be negotiated in particular individual, unique situations that occur every day in our corporate settings.

Take the value of "respect" as an example. Respect is commonly seen as a corporate value in many organisations. Does respect mean speaking up in opposition to your manager when you don’t agree in a team meeting, or does respect mean biting your tongue and raising your concern individually with you manager after the meeting? Or does respect mean not raising your concern at all? You can see that there are quite a few situational factors to be taken into account here in coming to understand the meaning of respect. In fact, the corporate value of respect does not have much meaning until it is considered in specific situations. The background and upbringing (culture) of the people concerned might make respect mean not disagreeing with important other people.  A political protocol might mean taking the person aside and discussing it with them privately afterward. A therapeutic approach would be to name and confront the issue immediately, at the time. So you can see that these quite valid parts of people’s identity mean that they will treat this value differently, according to their background, the situation itself, their professional training and skills, power relationships and what they care about.

Perhaps you also have a value called "Integrity." This value will inevitably be in conflict at times with the value of "Respect." The value of integrity may urge you to speak up in the team meeting while the value of respect may mean keeping quiet, depending on the factors outlined above.

This kind of conflict will always be present in organisational situations and is always being negotiated by its members. The "shared values" perspective glosses over this conflict amongst values and the requirement to functionalise or particularise cult values in individual situations. Functionalising or particularising cult values means determining what they mean in this particular situation and deciding how to act accordingly. It is fundamentally an ethical question and this is often overlooked in corporate values programmes.

The other thing often overlooked in corporate values programmes is the conflict amongst values that is inherent in any consideration of values. Completing paperwork for customer A, attending to customer B at the counter or answering customer C’s ringing telephone enquiry are the kind of day to day situation in which your people are particularising certain values, usually in a taken-for-granted way. If staff have to leave something undone (e.g. ringing phone, face to face customer, follow up paperwork from previous customer) they are weighing up many factors that are in conflict:

  • What happened last time I faced a similar situation?
  • What will my supervisor get least upset about?
  • What will they get most upset about?
  • What can I explain in an acceptable way?
  • What would my peers, parents or other important people do if they were in this situation?

Values are always in conflict as decisions have to be made about how to navigate the specifics of the situation and conflicting values. Having negotiated a situation once amongst competing values does not resolve the situation forever. In fact, the next situation also has to be negotiated as no two situations are ever exactly alike. The value of not keeping patients waiting more than four hours, for example, will always be in conflict with the value of treating the most seriously injured patients first when a nurse or doctor is deciding whether to treat someone with a broken ankle who has been waiting 3:59 hours, or someone who has just come in with gunshot wounds to the head. And the next time there is a patient who has been waiting nearly four hours and a seriously wounded person has just arrived, the conflict will have to be negotiated all over again.

The conflict between competing values is never resolved once and for all, it is always transcended as action in a particular moment, and then the tension or conflict is back in the next moment.


The Second of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Cultism

Stephen Billing, May 31, 2009

In the previous post (here) I said that the first fatal flaw of shared values was anthropomorphism. I argued that shared values means attributing human characteristics to things that are not human. Shared values means attributing the human characteristic of having a sense of purpose and values to something that is not human, i.e. an organisation.

The second fatal flaw is that shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. While this is a strong claim, let me explain.

Values projects focus on these values as things of meaning in themselves, in their own right. In other words, such values as respect, flexibility or openness are considered as having meaning and importance in their own right, regardless of the situation.
This means that they are presented as if they were context-free, without considering the context of individual specific circumstances.

This is important because cults are maintained by the leader presenting a picture of the future as an ideal state, in which all barriers and obstacles are removed. The actions of the members are driven by the values of the cult, and the application of the cult values is much more important than consideration of the intricacies of the individual situation to which those values are being applied. For example, perhaps the name of the leader must always be praised and never criticised. Most of us would recognise the cultishness of such a value. All values are cult values in this sense, and hence wars are fought over the values of some religions. The cult value of "thou shalt not kill" is overridden, in these cases, by "if you are not for our god, you are an enemy of god" or similar.

While these examples might sound extreme, they are nevertheless relevant to values in today’s organisations.

If these values are seen as overriding universal norms for those in the organisation, then continuing membership of the organisation is dependent on direct application of these values. In other words, if these values are universal norms, then you cannot remain a member of the group if you do not conform to the values. This is the normal definition of a cult – an idealised group that has values to which individuals must conform. If you criticise the leader (or if you resist certain sexual advances) you are expelled from the group.

If an individual should question the values then they will be ostracised as being selfish and they will be excluded from the group. This is very painful for all involved.

George Herbert Mead called these values cult values to remind us of the dangers of the collective idealism of these values.
In other words, shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. But this is not acknowledged in the glossy corporate literature.

The focus on the shared values diverts people’s attention from the ethics of their daily actions. In fact the enlarged personality experienced by people often justifies the terrible actions people take, such as polluting the local environment, Enron-style false accounting or what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil in Eichmann’s bureaucratic approach to implementing genocide.

This is the case, by the way, whether the values seem inherently good, or not. For example, the golden rule, “do unto other as you would have them do unto you" is an extremely valuable, useful and wise maxim. But what about if the other person does not want to be treated the way you do?

Then you are into conflict. Which is the third fatal flaw. Covered in the next post.


The First of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Anthropomorphism

Stephen Billing, May 29, 2009


OK, here’s the guts on corporate values. I draw on George Herbert Mead’s Mind, Self and Society and Ralph Stacey’s Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (p397) in explaining why I am so critical of corporate "shared values." These three flaws are showstoppers.

The first fatal flaw of shared values is anthropomorphism, the second is that values are cult values and third is that values are always in conflict.

This post addresses the problem of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism means attributing the characteristics of a person to an object or animal.

We treat the organisation as if it were a person when we say it has values. Organisations are not people, they do not have consciousness and they do not have values.

Mead pointed out that humans have a tendency to individualise a collective and treat it as if it had its own overriding motives or values.

So we tend to talk about our organisations as though they are objects or things. Further, we tend to think of them as though they were human things. Then we attribute to our organisations human characteristics such as a sense of purpose and values.

Shared values projects attempt to identify these overriding motives or values of the organisation. As I have alluded to above, there is no such thing as a set of overriding values of the organisation – they do not actually exist. The humans involved in the organisation might each have their own overriding values or motives, but the organisation itself does not.

Values are attractive because they give a feeling of an enlarged personality in which individuals participate and from which they derive their value as persons. No doubt there is also the appeal to managers that they might be able to use these overriding values in service of their own managerial objectives and goals.

However, organisations are not individual humans, they are collectives made up of patterns of human interaction that constitute individual and collective identities. While organisations have a legal identity they are not actually sentient beings and they cannot hold values in the way an individual human being can.

So, it is a logical non-sense to say that organisations can have shared values. If that is not enough reason to be critical of the idea of shared values, there is another one coming up in the next post – the cult aspects of shared values.


Corporate Values Exercises are Pointless – But What Actually Are Values Anyway?

Stephen Billing, May 27, 2009

 What is my problem with shared values? It is not just the futility of corporate values exercises, it is to do with the nature of values themselves.

In the debate about shared values on this site, David Gurteen and John Tropea have both tweeted about this to the "twitterverse" which has led quite a few people to comment here.

To summarise, I have said that it is a waste of time for organisations to try and define shared values. Many of the comments have agreed, for the reason that most shared values exercises are pretty pathetic. But most of those commenting still think that you can’t do without shared values because they are what bring the organisation together, otherwise those in the organisation would have nothing in common. Some have suggested going the way of having shared objectives or shared goals instead of shared values. What are your thoughts about this?

In my previous post I pointed to Karl Weick’s critique of the word "shared," saying that it is a problem word that seems to be suggesting a process of sharing, but actually describes an outcome – that of shared values. 

However, my critique of shared values is not really so much related to problems with the word "shared," nor problems relating to the processes used in organisations when they come up with the shared values that are written on the posters.

The problem I have with shared values stems from the imaginative, intense nature of human values.

Writing values on a poster assumes that the values of a group of people can be prescribed rationally by working them out. Either the coalition of the powerful or the involvement of a wider group of people are thought to lead to the rational prescription of the values of the organisation.

However, it makes no sense to come up with a set of rationally conceived values. By definition, values are not rational.

Values come from a deep sense of what it is right to do. They have an attractive, uplifting, unrestrictive sense of the ideal. There is something compelling about the values that we hold, and yet it is entirely voluntary that we commit to these values. Value commitments arise from key intense experiences that we have and give life meaning and purpose. So there is a sense of voluntary compulsion about the values that we hold. You cannot decree a sense of purpose in life.

Values are the highest expression of our free will, and are intensely personal. They are an intense idealisation of an imaginative turn on how life would be if there were no restrictions. Efforts to work out a group or organisation’s values cut right across the imaginative and experiential nature of values. This is why I say that you cannot work out the organisation’s values through a rational process in a workshop. 


Shared Values: The Hidden Problem with “Sharing” Values

Stephen Billing, May 25, 2009

In which it is pointed out that the term "shared" refers to an outcome rather than a process of developing shared values. It is a danger word that appears to clarify, but instead hides, a process.

A recent comment in this site’s debate about shared values (here, see comment number 13 by Thabo) sent me back to Karl Weick’s book Sensemaking in Organizations. While Weick is relatively silent on the subject of values, he does suggest an intriguing problem with the term "shared."

Weick is talking about collective sensemaking and says that it is not the same as shared values. He points out that shared can mean either to divide and distribute something, or to hold something in common. Two quite different meanings.

He also points out that shared values can result from processes of domination (think "ethnic cleansing") as well as processes of codetermination, so although it appears to be a clear term, it is actually ambiguous.

Weick goes on to describe sharing as a nettlesome "achievement" verb that seems to describe a process but in fact describes an outcome. Further, it merely describes the very outcome that it purports to be attempting to explain.

The word "shared" presumes, but does not name the actions that take place that result in these "shared values" (Sandelands & Drazin, 1989 subscription only, unfortunately). Using the term shared values makes it seem like some process of sharing goes on but does not give much clue as to what this process is.  The term shared values seems to refer to some kind of activity but it does not. It refers instead to consequences that unspecified processes might have.

With the process by which these values come to be shared so cloudy (e.g. the corporate values could be derived from a collaborative process or from a dominating process), it is no wonder so many of the comments in the debate are critical of some of the corporate exercises through which these shared values are derived.