Exploring value

Off the beaten path — Part V

Understanding Value

In this section, I’m going to explore a bit more into the question of value within our map of culture in order for later sections to shed some light onto the question of what should I do now? As with mapping in general, there are no right answers, there is simply a way of discussing the environment to find a better path.

To begin with, I’m going to re-examine that concept of pipelines when it came to values. In figure 1, I provided a very basic map of values and how they were connected from public holiday to workers’ rights to abolition of slavery to the concepts of equality in front of the law.

Figure 1 — A Map of Values

None of these values appeared fully formed but instead they evolved over time. In the 1750s, a group of notable laissez faire economists that were arguing for deregulation of markets, for example Vincent de Gournay, often cited the slave trade as an example of a well functioning economic market. As Blake Smith noted :-

“the birth of modern capitalism depended not only on the labour of enslaved people and the profits of the slave trade, but also on the example of slavery as a deregulated global enterprise”

Today, whilst the trade still unfortunately exists, the general population would consider the “abolition of slavery” as an accepted value. The idea itself has evolved from concept to accepted. In figure 1 above, I’ve highlighted in bold several of these values because when we examine a collective of some form — an organisation, a family, a nation state — then we are usually concerned with their most visible values. We rarely see the components which underpin them especially when they are broadly accepted, taken as a norm and partially lost to history.

In figure 2 (see below), I’ve provided these highlighted values in the form of a pipeline (point 1). When using a pipeline, I often use the notation of a square rather than a circle (which represents a discrete form of capital). It is enough to know that the squares are a mix of many evolving components. Values in one such example.

Any collective will have a set of evolving and visible values that will distinguish it from other collectives i.e what makes one company or one political organisation different from another are the values that it holds. When examining culture for any social group, we need to note that members of that group can belong to many collectives i.e. an international company has members that hopefully subscribe to the values of the company but also to many others collectives i.e. the nation state they reside within. Those values may be different and in some cases can be in conflict.

Figure 2 — Success, Competition and Values

For example, direct conflict and confrontation over issues are frowned upon within China as more value is placed upon respect, honouring the person and collective action rather than individualism. The US on the other hand assigns greater value to notions of individualism and of confrontation on matters where individuals decide on what is the “Truth”. In Norman Grubb’s book “Modern Viking” and the story of Christian Leadership in the US, the values of confrontation, shocks to the system and “men who won’t take no for an answer” are strongly espoused in that particular sect of Christian philosophy which are almost a direct antithesis to the ideas of Confucianism.

The first points to note are that there are many values, those values will differ between collectives, some values are more evolved than others and there can be conflict between values between different collectives. As described above, values are also not static but they evolve. The question should be — how do they evolve? As with mapping other forms of capital, evolution requires competition between different forms.

That competition comes from the collectives themselves. The success of any collective is determined by how well its values diffuse. A company that promotes the use of green energy to reduce global climate impact will not succeed if another collective persuades everyone else that reducing global climate impact is not a value they should aspire to. For this reason, all collectives are in competition with each other to spread their values in the wider society (figure 2 above, point 2).

It is the competition to diffuse different forms of a value driven by the actions of their respective collectives that drives the evolution of that value. Like a virus, ideas and values not only diffuse in society but evolve through multiple iterations. Competition is a necessity for evolution of those values. Without collectives such as the Knights of Labour (workers’ rights) or the “Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade” then these values would neither have diffused nor evolved to become accepted in the wider society. Without this evolution, there would have been no “higher order” values created through componentisation effects and hence no modern concepts such as paid holidays which many of us now take for granted or in some nations have become embedded in law.

Within any large social system such as an international company, we can therefore expect to see a diversity of competing values from many collectives including but not limited to the company and the nation states that members belong to. One of the issues with attempting to creating a single culture within a company is it conflicts with the very diverse nature of competing values that arise from the different collectives its members belong to. Furthermore, this diversity of values whilst creating conflict within any single collective is also a necessity for such a system of values to evolve and adapt to the outside world. A single monoculture is not only nearly impossible to achieve but highly undesirable from an evolutionary viewpoint. Such an organisation would require very strict and narrowly defined values that allow for little to no diversity within its collective and hence it will be fragile to outside changes. Those that design for a greater freedom in interpretation of values and allow for diversity will tend to be more adaptive and resilient.

These concepts are simply a reflection of C.S Holling’s work on engineering and ecological resilience as shown in figure 3. The most resilient biological systems require a high level of diversity in the ecosystem (ecological resilience) combined with a broad tolerance in associated structures (engineering resilience). For example, it would be possible to engineer a robust nation with structures designed to cope with known impacts e.g. poor crop harvest (grain stores), economic shocks (banking system) but it would lack the diversity required to adapt to a shock outside those known boundaries e.g. a popular democratic movement in a feudal system.

Figure 3— Holling’s, Engineering vs Ecological Resilience.

Values and principles

In the corporate world, we need to balance what we can engineer with a diversity of thought to cope with outside shocks which also means accepting some competition around values. A good example of this form of thinking can be seen in Amazon’s Leadership Principles. Whilst making clear statement on “customer obsession” and in some respects engineering a particular attitude, one set of values can be described as “be self-critical and work to disconfirm beliefs by seeking diverse perspectives”. This value is a reflection on the need for a diversity in opinion. Obviously, the question should be — is that value itself challenged? Does it cause us to question other values such as “customer obsession”?

Looking more closely, Amazon’s principles set up a state of competitive duality — be self-critical and work to disconfirm beliefs by seeking diverse perspectives whilst at the same time valuing leaders that are right a lot. It’s a constant struggle to be right but also to challenge yourself and disconfirm your own beliefs in order to be more right.

However, these principles are highly individualistic in approach i.e. disconfirm your beliefs rather than seek a collective view. Furthermore, many of the principles listed by Amazon are in fact universally useful and part of doctrine — think big, understand the details, focus on the user needs, a bias towards the new. At this point, we need to clarify some differences between values and principles.

Values are the things and qualities we consider important as described by belief. We hold them as truths within the collective. They are not uniformly shared with others and those values will evolve over time.

Principles are the rules by which we operate by as described by action. They may reflect our current values or past values or some value that has become a long accepted norm in the collective and even forgotten about.

In some cases, people describe how “focus on the user need” is a value their company holds. However, to “focus on the user need” is not a belief but an action. Furthermore, it turns out to be a universally useful principle for all companies. Hence, it’s a rule we should all operate by in order to be effective which is why it is included in my doctrine — the list of universally useful principles. Often, what people describe as company values are a mix of values and universally useful principles.

A value that a collective might hold could be “the quality of courage” or “a belief in God” whereas its principles might be a “focus on the user need”, “challenge assumptions” and “use appropriate methods”. These principles can be shared with many collectives, even those with which a collective directly competes. The values between them however will be different. What is remarkable about the collective should not be its use of universally useful principles but its values.

However, despite this, we know from extensive interviews that such universally useful principles are not widely used and hence it is understandable that many talk about rules such as “challenging assumptions” and “focusing on user needs” as some earth shattering belief that divides them amongst others. The only truly remarkable thing is that others do not follow such basic principles but then collectives are in competition and it’s fine to be hopeless at the basics as long as everyone else is.

When it comes to examining any company, we need to carefully remove out the doctrine (ie. universally useful principles) from the statement of values. This itself is a valuable exercise as examination of a company’s use of the universal principles gives an indication of how adaptable and competitive it is compared to others. In figures 4 & 5, I’ve provided an examination of two companies on doctrine using a red (warning), amber (weak) and green (good) notation. One of the companies is a tech giant and one is a banking giant.

Figure 4 — A Tech Giant

Figure 5 — A Banking Giant

On the basis of universally useful principles then the tech giant simply outclasses the banking giant. However, these collectives (in this case both global companies) might not ever compete. If they did, in the same industry, assuming they have roughly the same values then the tech giant should have all the advantage of adaptability and efficiency to overpower the banking giant whose only effective line of defence would be regulation. Doctrine provides us with a moderately useful way of examining competitive effectiveness of two collectives.

Once doctrine is removed from any statement of values then what is left are any visible values plus a mix of more local principles i.e. ones which might not be universally useful or have not been identified as such. In the case of Amazon, once doctrine is broken out of the Leadership Principles then you are left with a core set of values that are highly individualistic, probably reflecting its US nation origin. Excluding the doctrine, then these values can be summarised as :-

  • leaders are right a lot.
  • leaders speak candidly and do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion.

By comparison, Facebook has a similar mix of doctrine (i.e. universally useful principles such as focus on outcome, think big, a bias towards outcome, a bias towards action) combined with one pronounced value of build social value. Whilst action orientated, the question we have to ask is “social value” for whom? Who defines it? There is a belief in the statements for creating social value but what that is has not been defined other than Facebook should be the one to build it as opposed to say some other collective such as a Nation State. This value almost certainly puts Facebook in direct competition with Nation States themselves and given Facebook’s history of psychological experimentation on users, use of the service by others to interfere within national politics, its effort to create a global currency and more recently announcements of creating its own court like system to regulate free speech online then it would not be surprising if Governments start to view Facebook as a competitive threat to themselves.

By contrast, Alibaba also has a similar mix of universally useful principles such as a focus on the user needs but within this mix is a set of different values that are highly collective in nature, probably reflecting its Chinese origin. These values include :-

  • relying on one another
  • our employees to view themselves as owners of the business
  • Work is for now, but life is forever.

This is not to say that one set of values is more right than another, nor that my interpretation is free from bias nor that a collective approach (given our social nature) is inherently more effective than an individualistic approach. It is simply to note that a difference in values exists.

Whether we like it or not, a collective’s success depends upon it diffusing its values which in turn impacts the wider system. You might not wish for a future in which we “speak candidly and do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion” preferring instead a future of”relying on one another” but what the future holds depends upon the success of current day collectives and a lot of that depends upon the doctrine they use and hence how effective they are.

However, there’s one other aspect we need to consider here. It’s not just the collective, its values and how well it operates (doctrine) that matters. There is the act of diffusion itself and that requires enablement systems,

Enablement and Principles

Values themselves don’t just diffuse, someone has to share the ideas with others. There are two aspects to be considered here, firstly that collectives are in competition with each other and that competition does partially depend upon how effective the collective is and therefore its use of universally useful principles (point 1 in figure 6). For example, a poorly run collective is likely to struggle against a more effective collective. The second aspect, is the need for a mechanism to spread the collective’s values. The most effective collective imaginable (using all the universally useful principles) is hardly going to succeed if it has no mechanism of enabling others to discover its values. This discovery process requires systems of enablement (point 2 in figure 6).

Figure 6 — A pipeline of enablement Systems

Those systems cover a pipeline of constantly evolving techniques, including examples such as :-

  • Word of mouth where members inform others of their values.
  • An initiation ceremony where new members are indoctrinated to the collective.
  • An oath of loyalty in which new members agree to be bound by the collective’s values.
  • A democratic process where members share principles and values through some form of manifesto and others choose to support one or another.
  • A town hall where members discuss principles and values.
  • A weekly newsletter where a collective reinforces its values to members.
  • A vision statement or constitution for the collective where values are written down for members.
  • A mechanism of propaganda where information is provided to influence a recipient audience in order to promote the collective’s values.

Those enablement systems for diffusing our values are not independent of the principles we use. For example, we can’t run an effective town hall if we don’t have a common language, allow people to challenge what is being said, inspire others by providing a clear direction but also listen to what people are saying. In other words, just having a set of values for your company, deciding upon enablement systems of using a town hall and a providing a vision statement aren’t enough. I’ve highlighted four key principles in figure 7 that are worth paying attention to — “use a common language”, “challenge assumptions”, “think big” (as in inspire others) and “be humble”(i.e. be prepared to listen and accept challenge).

Figure 7 — Four key principles for enablement.


In this section I simply wanted to point out some basics from the map which we will use later to discuss the question — “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”. These basics include :-

  • Values are the things and qualities we consider important as described by belief. We hold them as truths within the collective. They are not uniformly shared with others and those values will evolve over time.
  • Values evolve through competition between collectives.
  • Different values exist between collectives.
  • Resilience of a collective depends not only upon its structures but diversity in values i.e. many pursue rigid sets of values which make adaption difficult.
  • Success of a collective is defined by its values diffusing in the wider society. The success of a collective is influenced by its use of doctrine (i.e. universally useful principles) and enablement systems i.e. being effective is not enough, it needs a mechanism by which its values can diffuse.
  • Principles are the rules by which we operate by as described by action. They may reflect our current values or past values or some value that has become a long accepted norm in the collective and even forgotten about.
  • The effectiveness of our enablement system are also influenced by our principles.
  • When collectives describes their values this is often a mix of universally useful principles (some of which might not be widely spread) along with actual values.
  • An individual may belong to many collectives.

Finally, I wish to note that all maps are wrong and imperfect representations of the space. However, the purpose of a map is it enables us to discuss the space by reference to the map rather than the story teller. So, if you disagree with this so far then tell me where the map is wrong. Otherwise, we need to explore our map a bit more.

Off the beaten track

Part I — What culture is right for you?
Part II — Exploring culture
Part III — Exploring Brexit
Part IV — From Values to Rituals
Part V — Exploring Value
Part VI — Embedded in memory

The book so far

Chapter 1 — On being lost
Chapter 2 — Finding a path
Chapter 3 — Exploring the map
Chapter 4 — Doctrine
Chapter 5 — The play and a decision to act
Chapter 6 — Getting started yourself
Chapter 7 — Finding a new purpose
Chapter 8 — Keeping the wolves at bay
Chapter 9 — Charting the future
Chapter 10 — I wasn’t expecting that!
Chapter 11 — A smorgasbord of the slightly useful
Chapter 12 — The scenario
Chapter 13 — Something wicked this way comes
Chapter 14 — To thine own self be true
Chapter 15 — On the practice of scenario planning
Chapter 16 — Super Looper
Chapter 17 — To infinity and beyond
Chapter 18 — Better for Less
Chapter 19 — On Playing Chess

There is also an online course on Mapping provided by the LEF

This post is provided as Creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by the original author, Simon Wardley, a researcher for theLeading Edge Forum.

Originally published at https://blog.gardeviance.org.

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I like ducks, they're fowl but not through choice. RT is not an endorsement but a sign that I find a particular subject worthy of challenge and discussion.

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