Visions, Values and Principles, part 1

…and Mission Statements, Goals and all the rest.  Is it just corporate gobbledegook, or does any of it have real relevance to how we do business day to day? 

This debut post revisits a topic I grappled with as an already-seasoned manager in the aftermath of yet another course on how to manage.  And if that last sentence seems to betray a little weariness, that was certainly what I felt going into the course.  However, the course introduced me to a chap called Ken Blanchard, and that was a revolutionary step for me as a manager.  It set me off on a whole new way of thinking about how I manage people (and projects).

The first thing I looked at, though, was the relationship between visions, values and principles.  The bits on visions and principles might be a little too specific to one employer, but values…

It’s confusing, isn’t it? We have values and leadership principles, a vision and a plan. We have responsibilities to our customers, our shareholders, our employees and even to ourselves. Our families should go on that list too.

With so many responsibilities, how do we prioritise our actions? When there are conflicts, how do we resolve them? And if we reduce it to a formula, how do we keep the human element in our decision-making? We are not automata, after all, and a solution that pretends we are is no solution.

In any enterprise of a certain longevity, we find a culture.  We also possess a legacy of tools and practices that have been introduced during our history, always with the intention of doing the right thing. Let’s examine that baggage, and attempt to identify whether each item is still useful, and how it relates to the others. On the way, let’s look at the literature of management, and the science behind it, to justify the presence of each particular tool in the toolkit, of each practice in the field manual of our enterprise. The questions we always need to answer are:

  • What are we doing right, that we need to keep?
  • What are we doing wrong, that we need to jettison?
  • What is missing, that we need to add?
  • What are the pitfalls, that we need to avoid?

Let’s start with values. Values are the moral compass, that lets us know whether a particular activity is right or wrong. In the “What, How, Why?” worldview values are a How, which informs the Why. Choose the wrong set of values, and our enterprise becomes another Enron, or even another Mafia. Are our enterprise’s values both good and sufficient? How do our values stack up against others in the marketplace?  How do those values stack up against your own personal values?  Would you run your family using the same values?  How would you feel if your mother had run her family using those values (and you were on the receiving end)?

The values of an enterprise declare a contract of behaviour.  This contract should apply internally, in the dealings of one employee with another, and also externally, in the dealings of company representatives with third parties (customers, suppliers, etc).  If it is a contract, then there are accompanying rights and responsibilities.  Are these stated?  Or do the values stand alone without explanation, clarification, or exemplification: built on the hope that everybody miraculously understands the same thing.

Are they symmetrical, offering and expecting the same behaviour?  Or is there an asymmetry implied, so that there is a hierarchy of benefit?  Suppose you had a value of Courtesy.  Unqualified, does that simply mean that your peons are supposed to treat your bosses with courtesy, or are the peons entitled to courtesy too?

Ken Blanchard suggests that values are permanent. Once we have them, why would we subtract from them? Our plan, our mission and our vision may all change – indeed, if we succeed and accomplish what we have set out to do, we must find a fresh challenge. Equally, if the world changes, or at least if our marketplace changes, then we need to check that our plan is still sensible or achievable.

Are our values sufficient? Blanchard cites the WD40 company as one that puts its values at the core of its activities and its decision-making. You can find the WD40 values at http://www.wd40company.com/about/values/ . WD40 has had its values in place for many years, and if the values have evolved and survived through the ups and downs of the economy, they ought to cover most circumstances.

Note how, in an imperfect world, WD40 has prioritised its values – it is possible that in order to satisfy one value, we have to compromise another.  In a “free” society, one would hope that such conflicts are rare.  However, we may have to do business with countries that are not free.  Do our values permit us to do business with anyone?  Are we comfortable with that?  If our own country became less free, would our values still look the same?

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