08 August 2010

On Values, Vision, Tactility, and Mission in Contemporary Organizations

I had the good fortune to meet Ellen Hayakawa recently, and share a brief conversation (as well as a couple of blues dances). Ellen’s work is complementary to mine—she focuses on spirituality in a corporate setting, and “exploring the relationship between spirituality in the workplace and sustainability.” The conversation we shared enabled me to reflect on the relationship among tactility, vision, and values, and how several distinct ideas often become conflated, and therefore, confused in many people’s minds.

In the conversation, Ellen mentioned using a ground of personal and collective spirituality to enable an appropriate focus on “mission, vision, and values.” I had several comments in response—predictable comments for those who know me. First, I observed that the order of these aspects of individual and collective guidance were in the wrong order, exactly backwards as far as I was concerned. For me, values must come first, then an appropriate sensory metaphor (more on this in a moment), and finally the so-called mission, objectives, goals, tasks, and direct action towards accomplishment. Second, as I discovered in my research, vision as the dominant sensory metaphor for organizations, has pretty much run its course through the Gutenberg-inspired epoch that ended with modernity. In a world that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate (UCaPP), tactility is a far more appropriate – not to mention useful and socially cognizant – sensory metaphor.

Ellen argued her defence of both the order and sensory metaphor admirably. In doing so, she helped me to sort out some of the connections between the individual and the collective, and the relationship between one’s own sense of place and purpose in the world and that emergent sense characteristic of UCaPP organizations, namely the “place of organization,” or organization-ba.

The idea that mission is central to an organization comes from the modernist conception of what I call the “primary-purposeful organization.” Essentially, this means that an organization’s purpose – its mission – is primary above any other consideration. That purpose is imposed on everyone who joins the organization so that all are contributing to accomplishing the mission, goals, and objectives towards a common end. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But, what becomes quite fascinating to me is that, in a primary-purposeful organization, vision often seems to be an adjunct that is almost reverse-engineered to justify the mission. I have seen too many organizations engage in so-called visioning sessions that are actually attempts to align a conception of vision – often merely a future projection of goals and outcomes – to back-justify the mission at hand. And that mission is inevitably and directly tied to some sort of fungible Economic (tradable exchange of value, whether money is involved or not) connection with well-identified constituencies. So, as Ellen indeed describes it, the order of “mission, vision, values” is the way it’s done in most organizations. Understand the primary purpose – mission – reverse-engineer a consistent future for the organization’s direction – vision – and then ensure that the espoused values align with both. In a sense, this order hearkens to Argyris and Schön’s single-loop learning in which what is espoused becomes well-aligned with what is actually done, all in the name of consistency (yet another hangover from the Enlightenment). That Ellen can help organizations inject a spiritual sensibility and sense of wellbeing, enabling its members to connect with their own spiritual centres, is unquestionably admirable and worthwhile, because doing so in an instrumentalist, primary-purposeful ground is such a tough road to hoe.

Ellen’s insistence on the importance of vision is not the usual argument that I hear from other, more-conventional and traditionally socialized OD consultants (like, “you can’t know where you’re going unless you have vision”). Rather, Ellen directly connects one’s individual vision with one’s personal values and therefore, sense of direction in the world. Here is where I think traditional vocabulary becomes both limited and limiting. Values, as one of my friends likes to remind me, are those aspects, characteristics, behaviours, and attributes that one wants to promote, preserve, and protect. They indeed speak to how one locates oneself in the world, and creates connections that reflect the ba-aspects of connecting, binding, or valence relationships. As one understands one’s own values, and collectively and collaboratively joins with others of like-mind to promote, preserve, and protect those aspects, the process of organizational emergence begins to occur (even within extant primary-purposeful organizations) in a way that is intrinsically consistent with values, and indeed, the potential of human spirit and spirituality as Ellen so elegantly puts it.

From collective values, the nascent valence-conceived organization can then begin to understand what effects it aspires to create in the world. These effects – distinctly different from outcomes, goals, and mission – can be expressed among the five valence relationships (Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological), and represent the organization’s tactility, answering the question, whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today. For someone coming from a ground of spirituality in the workplace, this idea of touch and enabling effects in one’s wider social, emotional, material, and spiritual environment provides far better guidance for actually doing things than beginning with striving to accomplish an arbitrary goal somewhere in the future. Consistent with pervasive proximity in a UCaPP world, tactility is immediate and sustains; vision can be (and often is) illusory, transitory, and always in the distance (think, “mirage”).

If you, like Ellen, construct your organization based on mission, vision, and values, then welcome to the world of modernity. I’m sure you would do really well in the 20th century, and create great opportunities, and a strong sense of doing what is right for spiritual sustenance. However, if you truly want your organization to be consistent with the world as it is today – firmly located in the UCaPP world of the 21st century – it may be time to reorder your fundamental organizational priorities and retire that old chestnut of vision as the dominant, guiding sensory metaphor—an artefact, after all, of post-Enlightenment thinking. In other words, it may be time to consider transforming your vision of organization itself into one that is valence-conceived, and therefore organic, alive, and vital.

In my practice, transforming organizations and leadership today begins with articulating individual and collective values. The process of transformation proceeds by translating those values into mutual tactility, thereby enabling the organization to create its place – organization-ba – among the various diverse constituencies it touches. From this place of fundamental guidance, the organization can then determine what it must accomplish – its goals and objectives – to enact the effects that manifest its values. Not only does this process enable a far healthier organization, it sets up the organization for its own sustainability, and as a contributor to collaboratively sustaining our world.

Values. Tactility. Accomplish. Sounds like appropriate and useful guidance to me.

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