In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ i explored a new model of Organisational design, based upon the notion that the context of Organisations has evolved (the Social Age), the nature of engagement has shifted (to intersection of formal and social), and the mechanisms of effect and adaptation have evolved (social co-creation, discretionary investment, social sensing and sense making, the narrative organisation etc). A theme in this work was ‘interconnectivity’, the social wiring around the formal structure (which connects this work to Social Leadership).
Today i am considering some more traditional aspects of the Organisation: ‘mission’, ‘culture’, and ‘values’. I have explored culture and values in great detail before, but taken less of a focus on mission. The writing today is some light and early thinking about these aspects, based upon one (but not necessarily the only, or correct) illustration of mission (running forwards as a backbone) with ‘culture’ and ‘values’ feeding into it. I’ve also included some confounding or influencing elements: ‘Safety’, ‘Control’, ‘Emergence’, ‘Power’.
Organisations are intended (generally) to be purposeful: either to do a known thing, to discover a new thing, or at the very least to hold enough structure to be distinguishable from the background noise. In service of that, we have invented or adopted a vocabulary that may give a greater illusion of efficiency and control than is truly the case.
A mainstay of collective entities is to have a mission: a defined and then shared purpose. These will range from the wildly aspirational, through the almost entirely abstract, to the narrowly defined or even mundane and ordinary. I realise as i write this (with some embarrassment) that even my own Organisation has a ‘mission’ (to ‘help Organisations get fit for the Social Age’). This one at least is suitably vague, whilst conveying a sense of certainty…
It seems pretty sensible to have a mission, albeit with a humility to recognise that it may need to be evolutionary, or that it may itself become constraining if context changes.
From here, we tend to read ‘left to right’ and define culture and values. If we know our mission, we may be curious as to what type of culture, and which specific values, will ‘get us there’. Again, all well and good, so long as we do not fall into an engineering mindset. Neither ‘culture’, nor ‘values’ are any more ‘real’ than the mission, so we end up stacking up systems of belief. These are not deterministic of outcome, although they may be enablers of it.
It is probably this constructed logic that gives us the greatest risk: the idea there is a certain comfort in thinking that we can follow a process, that we define and build out the detail, and hence we reach out destination, but life is rarely that simple, at least in the complex world of social interaction and productivity.
I think one thing to focus on is the difference between ‘values’ and ‘culture’ as being owned, or given, as opposed to them being discovered, co-created, and lived. A common mistake is that a small group of (typically senior) people make a journey to discover ‘values’, and then treat these values as treasure to be distributed to everyone else. Whilst in fact, the treasure is not the outcome, but rather the journey itself.
We would often be better off abandoning the tidy and polite published ‘values’, in favour of hearing individual values and exploring the diversity of language, understanding, and thought.
We know for sure that published values do not determine behaviour – and yet we are often afraid of addressing this.
Partly this may be because visible and published narratives around mission, values, and culture, reinforce the underlying legacy structures of power, safety, and control, but negate the potential for emergence.
Values and culture are inherently intangible: we can only ever report on observed or narrated features – what people think and feel. They are not ‘real’ except in the ways we report on them. But we treat them as if we are, and hence they become almost so. Culture operates as a social constraint (albeit often a good one): it limits or determines the language and behaviour we use. And hence limits our ability to express thought, uncertainty, or dissent. Culture (as published and inhabited) will inevitably have a relationship to existing power (although not necessarily enforcing it – it may oppose it).
Systems of power tend to be multi layered, but inhabited, codified (formally or socially) and nested within. So power structures seek to persist, and hence constrain cultural structures to do so too.
As stated earlier: Organisations are entities of purpose. And to be purposeful we like or need to feel we can exert influence on the system: the framework of mission, values and culture is a reasonable attempt to do that, provided we do not somehow imagine it to be real.
In real life, people do not tend to stop and think ‘what do my values say’, nor do they consciously consider culture, except typically to consider what is ‘safe’ to say or do. Many of these things are measured in retrospective judgement more so than in proactive cognition. We look at a situation and judge it.
The illustration of a central theme of ‘mission’, acted upon by values and culture, or cutting through culture, is probably a misnomer. More likely is that all three aspects act upon each other: mission sets parameters, defines an opportunity space, values show stated intent, and culture illustrates lived experience. In this sense, the most real of the three is culture, which is no surprise, because culture is what we ‘do’.