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  • Dean Williamson

How can I use values to change an organisation?

"Living" values can change an organisation. Many organisations have a written vision and values, but in our experience few truly live their values down to their cleaner's bootlaces.

We see two main challenges in organisations living values:

  1. Values are an abstraction: For amber and orange organisations who lean on process and procedure to guide staff behaviours, it's very clear when they apply, and how: "I'm receiving a gift from a contractor, therefore I must use the gifts and donations policy/procedure, and do x, y, z." However, with values, it is an abstracted process to apply a value to a situation. In the example above, if one of your values is "trust", there are several intersecting ethical points where trust impacts on a decision to take a gift - trust between the organisation and staff member, trust between supplier and the organisation, trust between the two individuals involved. Negotiating these ethical challenges is how using values produces better/more nuanced outcomes, but the abstracted application of flexible principles is challenging.

  2. Values have to be used by everyone (especially leaders), otherwise they are broken: If you want people to change and do something more challenging than "following the rules", they have to see it replicated. How motivated do you think an employee will be to exercise "acceptance" when they have just seen someone's opinion completely not-accepted by a manager in a team meeting?

Green wall in old office
Sometimes values are real, sometimes they're not. It can be hard to tell which......

In our experience, "using" values seems to fall into two broad change categories - initiatives and daily practice:

  1. A values-initiatives approach generally means running projects or change initiatives which are landmark, lead or demonstration in nature - they are the vanguard of values change. An example of this approach is Woolworths attempting to embrace "sustainability" as a value, and therefore choosing to participate in Fraser's Living Building Challenge at Burwood Brickworks in Melbourne, or run a more sustainable children's promotional campaign.

  2. A values-daily practice approach goes wider and deeper as change, and uses values to guide everyday decision-making. This often requires significant time and attitudinal investment, and embeds new practices across the organisation. Staff of all levels are asked to embrace greater ambiguity, and apply abstract values to every-day instances to produce incrementally better outcomes. For example, a manager might have to apply "fairness" to a complex instance of staff conflict. This means moving from "this is our procedure" (every time) to "what does fairness look like in this instance"? (Which is context-dependent, and will likely change from instance-to-instance).

Arguably, the largest challenge is moving from values-initiatives to values-daily practice. The scope and depth of change required is so much bigger. It's tied up in leadership commitment and skills, as well as the organisational systems wrapped around managers, teams etc.

Whichever approach you want to take, embedding values is challenging. We suggest that beginning to use values starts with some visioning, gathering ideas, building consensus and prototyping both projects and behaviours. We also suggest that applying some well-targeted metrics to track progress is important for staying the change course.

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