A new approach to corporate culture – scrap the values statements

Published by Tony Quinlan on

This time last week I was in Brussels, talking about internal communications – and made the point I always do about the problem with corporate values. They don’t work. There’s no context, they’re generally meaningless (who’s ever going to argue with them) and they’re too easy to twist around.

This week, Dave picks up on the topic coincidentally – and offers more structure to my comments last week. Stories – parables even – and archetypes is a better route. (It’s a topic I’m picking up at the moment with some colleagues working on a global culture change project – instead of going for the standard approach of “The Future is Blue and Round, so let’s give everyone paint brushes, pots of paint and sandpaper and measure their progress towards Blue and Round” they’re going with “Let’s look for where there are some brilliant success stories, share them and have people work out how to come up with ways to create stories like that where they are. Blue and Round is our general intention, but along the way we may find out that Indigo has more going for it and that Ovoid is more flexible.”)

[That metaphor needs work. Lots of it.]

Pithy comments from Dave’s postas he sowed, some fell by the wayside are here:

Aside from the fact that I have yet to see a set of organisational values that were not a set of well meaning platitudes, all you are really doing is teaching the politically manipulative the language of power.

…it doesn’t follow that I don’t think we shouldn’t articulate values, but we need to do so in a way that carries with it necessary ambiguity so that the statements can adapt to context, and also so that their form allows for verification of actions, not just linguistic form.

The point here is that a story carries context with it, as well as the ability to create resonance. Critically it allows for ethical validation; saying that action X was consistent with a mission statement is easy, matching it against a story is far more difficult.

So what form could this take? Lets summarise a few:

  • Parables are the basic method in the New Testament to convey complex ethical principles
  • Fables are a long standing type of parable, but using animal proxies.
  • Archetypal stories and characters represent complex learning and cultural statements in most societies. Anthropologies use the archetypes present in traditional stories to understand the culture of the society from which they have emerged; and they do emerge over time they are not created. One of the most used methods I ever created was archetype extraction, something we teach on the accreditation courses and which is more fully described here. The method also provides something more substantial than persona for software design by the way.