Organizational evolution: Are values really accessible in design?

In expanding roles as social designers and process facilitators, can we help communities and organizations change an enduring and robust values system?  If we are outside of the social system being intervened, can we really help change values, or is this an inside job?

I’ve been part of an online argument about this question. Systems thinkers have said (forever) that we need to identify and clarify the values of organizational participants to make progress on long-term problems. Essentially the argument is that institutional evolution must be guided by a clear articulation of the values base, or the status quo will overtake the envisioned innovations.

Another position is that values clarity and desirable changes are worked out in the progress toward resolution of wicked problems. In a group situation with diverse perspectives, people learn each other’s positions in the authentic responses to concerns. Values are inferred from authentic responses to  action, and then can be surfaced and negotiated at the time of their disclosure. In the “teachable moment,” people can then learn why they matter, rather than than as conveyed in the abstract by engaging in normative inquiry at the initiation of dialogue.

While I agree in principle that we ought to be taking on the organizational values base directly, if it were productive. In pragmatic terms this is nearly impossible to do well. If an organization or group’s values are already codified and explicit, members will find it nearly impossible to distanciate themselves sufficiently from the ensconced position. (If they were able to, I might even question the authenticity and personal standing of values ownership. Even while values are living knowledge, they are enduring if real.)

Values are a type of tacit knowledge, and indirect means of e-valuation, such as teasing them out in context, will be more fruitful. Formulating a new, improved values base does not by itself enable changes consistent with one’s values. And the risk is that, by making the tacit explicit, we may believe the declaration sufficient to the task of change.

The values base can be defined as the set of beliefs and preferences for valuing social and organizational concerns.  I now find that introducing values directly and explicitly (in most forms of dialogue) forces people to claim positions that merely result in “terminal values” such as truth and beauty. Nothing wrong with this inherently, but it can be an unproductive exercise – terminal values are non-negotiable and essentially unhelpful starting points for an organizational learning. We all agree on these to some extent, and more importantly, we also fool ourselves into believing we have common ground when people can merely hide behind “big values” to shield real differences.

Searching for a Method for Values Dialogue

There are pragmatic, functional problems with introducing values into dialogue. When starting from an assumed values position, our decisions and planning are biased by the pretense that we can authentically guide those values into their full.  At best, our engagement with them either takes people into the particular and personal (which then only reflect the values of selected participants) or into a specific values base for a given problem and its outcome. They are not, as we say, scalable or generalizable.

The universality of values eludes us, even in authentic dialogue, because we are making claims about irreducible, mutually-cycling beliefs. Authors ranging from Maslow to Varela to Nonaka claim that all these values we described as “terminal” are essentially equivalent, values of Being (B-values), and are irreducible as the same fundamental value at root. They are just expressed uniquely by a person’s experience as beauty instead of truth. If that’s true, we’ll always be faced with a big mutual cycle of truth, justice, beauty, and the American Way. Finally, when we focus on espoused values rather than actions, we fail to get insight into the values base people are really operating from, their values-in-use.

In the 1960’s, Hasan Ozbekhan developed a planning philosophy called normative planning. One of his essential guidelines was to explicitly identify the values base that guided planning decisions – and while he never exactly said how to do this, later thinkers have defined methodologies that fit this approach (e.g., values define intention guides evolution.) A corporate values base guides evolution of a corporate society. A caring values system guides a conscious evolution of human moral capacity and a love of all living beings.  We are split as a society because, while many of us believe we personally hold a caring values system, we support and work for corporate values systems that affect all of our decisions and thinking. In North America, our complacency about the multiple wars and ongoing global dominance of a $1T annual war budget convinces me that this split is well institutionalized. Embracing humane, caring values would have started a radically new direction that seems almost impossible in today’s vituperative political climate. The dialogue following the Tucson terror attack would have been quite different.

Aleco Christakis recalls his approach to this design concern with John Warfield in the development of Interactive Management in the early 1970’s.

In work that John and I did together in the early 1970s, some of which I think is published in a Battelle monograph of John titled Assault on Complexity, we concluded that value explication in IM work is counterproductive, because the participants discover that all values interact in a cyclical manner.  By focusing on defining the Problematique of a situation, we avoid this cognitive trap and still surface value dissonances by engaging stakeholders in identifying their perception of the problem situation in their lifeworld.

What we need are ways to enable the retrieval of guiding values at points where the interpretations they entail can really make a difference. We might embed a normative design language into processes where participants can make authentic choices between design alternatives based on significant values, without having to claim them as normative positions.

This is done in Appreciative Inquiry, for example, wherein positive, strength-based value judgments are baked into the process. Yet what would an open process make possible that is refuted by the positive bias of AI?  What would give us power to examine the hidden values systems that enable complacency and timidity in the face of multiple social crises?

How can we involve this inquiry into the SDD process so that we can pause during the values conflicts that inevitably arise in the structuring phase and elicit a valuing pattern relevant to the problematique itself?

More on SDD

The Global Problematique

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