On the diversity of values

On the inclusive and exclusive nature of values

7 min readFeb 24, 2020

In my previous post on HS2 (High Speed Rail) to China, I discussed the necessity for using multiple methods when managing any large complicated system that contains evolving components. Taking from Elizabeth Shove’s work on social practice theory, I examined how within a single meaning (such as “project management”) you can have different competencies (agile, lean and six sigma) each of which are individually suited to a different material instance (genesis, product, commodity) of a single “thing” which has a common meaning (e.g. compute, teleportation, risk management).

In other words “project management” (a meaning) for a “thing” (a meaning) can result in the use of very different competencies depending upon how evolved that thing is. I’ve summarised this in figure 1.

Figure 1 — Meaning, Instances and Competencies

Hence when it comes to “project management” then you should always break down a system into components, map it over evolution and apply multiple methods to it — see figure 2.

Figure 2 — Multiple methods applied to HS2

Now, that’s straightforward enough but I often get a pushback from people that this stuff doesn’t matter if you get the culture right. If I’m feeling evil, I often resort with “define culture” and watch the hands go waving.

Culture is an incredibly tough subject especially when it comes to defining it. As A.L. Kroeber said :-

Despite a century of efforts to define culture adequately, there is no agreement among anthropologists regarding its nature.

The problem with defining culture is that words are part of culture. To quote the marvellous Margaret Mead : “Language is a discipline of cultural behaviour”.

So why is that a problem? Well, no model can be complete and true within itself and if words are part of culture then you can never fully describe culture with words alone. For this reason I use a very imperfect map to describe the concept of culture itself — see figure 3.

Figure 3 — a generic map of culture.

Now, I’m not going to go through this map in detail — I simply want to highlight two parts. First, is that values are part of the map (in fact we have a pipeline of values) and the second item to note is that the axis is slightly different. Let me deal with each of these in turn.

When mapping a space, the axis on the bottom represents the different stages of evolution of capital. There are many forms of capital (activities, practices, knowledge, data etc) and each evolves through a common pattern. Labelling this stage I, stage II, stage III, stage IV would be fairly meaningless. So, I add labels with more meaning (see figure 4) and I normally stick to the activities labels. This doesn’t mean I have to. When mapping values and culture I tend to use the labels highlighted in purple.

Figure 4 — Labels used for capital

Does this mean I can map values? Well, we can certainly trace the evolution of values throughout history and how our beliefs have evolved to become slowly embedded over time in our legal systems or constitutions (written or otherwise) of the collectives that we belong to —see figure 5. I need to be clear here, values are the things we believe in, as distinct from principles and our norms of operating.

Figure 5 — Evolution of values in a collective.

Some of those values are universal (i.e. they seem to belong to every collective) such as a “belief in “ Family, Loyalty, Reciprocity, Bravery, Respect, Fairness and Property (see the work of Oliver S.Curry). However, other values tend to belong to specific collectives (or maybe shared through many). In addition to this, our values are evolving and new values appear, especially as we climb up the value chain i.e. you can’t evolve a value of universal basic income until you have fairly well established values of reciprocity, fairness and abolition of slavery. So, when we talk about values we tend to describe this as a pipeline of values rather than as a singular thing.

So what has this got to do with social practice theory and our first example? Well, some of those values have exclusive extremes i.e. you can either “believe” in fairness or not — you can’t believe in both fairness and unfairness at the same time without invoking some other constraint. Other values have more inclusive extremes i.e. you can believe in both opposites at the same time.

An example of this would be a belief in “people over process” to which the opposite would be “process over people”. You can believe in both because each can be relevant to different material instances of some thing. For example, in figure 6, the belief of “people over process” is a perfectly reasonable value to hold when dealing with the genesis of the novel and new but the opposite belief of “process over people” is equally reasonable when dealing with industrialised components. The extremes of these inclusive values have a context in which they are appropriate.

Figure 6 — Inclusive values

Hence we have some values which are universal, some which have exclusive extremes and some which have more context specific and inclusive extremes. Furthermore these values are evolving and are just one small part of culture (hence the blue square in figure 3 above is one of many components that make “culture”).

Why do I mention this? Well, the idea that you can create the right “culture” is an executive laden fantasy. Even if you could magically create the perfect set of values (which you can’t), it wouldn’t work because the landscape changes (i.e. technology evolves) and that change of context impacts the values you need. Furthermore, to make it worse, our landscape normally contains many evolving components at different stages of evolution which necessitates a diversity of beliefs because of those inclusive values i.e. you need both extremes of “people over process” and “process over people” in order to function effectively.

High levels of diversity is a critical issue for biologists mostly for reasons of adaptability and resilience, but for those of you unfamiliar with C.S Holling’s work then I’ve summarised it roughly in figure 7.

Figure 7 — Summary of C.S Holling’s work on Engineering and Ecological resilience.

However, let me spell this out for all those non biologists out there.

You cannot effectively manage any space that is both complicated and complex without a diversity of values in your organisation. Any attempt to eradicate diversity completely will reduce the ability of the organisation to adapt to changes and survive. Diversity is not a nice to have, it’s essential for survival. A single space (meaning) containing different characteristics (instances) is not suited to a single set of values (competencies).

I use the terms complicated and complex above in reference to the Cynefin framework (Dave Snowden) — a mix of “known unknowns” and an environment which has many interacting components requiring expert knowledge and “unknown unknowns” where your very actions change the environment in unpredictable ways i.e. complicated and complex are not the same but they can exist in the same space in any large system. In other words, any corporation or organisation has a bit of both.

So, when you come and tell me that “this stuff doesn’t matter if you get the culture right” then please don’t automatically expect me to discuss this with you. It’s not because I don’t fancy the challenge or debate or that I’m not willing to listen to your story about how this once worked for you at one point in time but instead there is only so much hand waving vagueness that I can tolerate on any given day. Don’t assume that culture is one thing nor that values are static nor that what works in one environment will work work in all. Context changes.




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.