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Facing down old values and myths to move forward

The culture that got us the current system and holds it in place can "eat a vision for breakfast", writes Jess Berentson-Shaw in the second part of her two-part series on vision making. We need to grapple with those entrenched values and narratives before any vision for a post-Covid future can be realised.

In any crisis a window to a different reality gets thrown open, as the experiences we have, positive and negative, reveal what works and what doesn't in our society when the proverbial hits the fan. Taking stock of our lives and the ways we have organised and built our work, business, government, economy, communities is a natural human response to a crisis.

Re-imagining those systems is the opportunity that such stock-taking gives us. But will all these re-imaginings, these visions, create a melody to sing us into a new future or just a cacophony in which the status quo remains the loudest voice?

Effective vision making is a skill, art and science. Last week I discussed the role of vision making in transformation, and how people’s mental models and narratives work to hold systems in place.

This week I’m going deeper into the values that drive vision making and the very processes that vision makers use to create new visions.

Values are everywhere and invisible

Transformation is more than about imagining the different world we want and laying out a set of policy and practice fixes to get there. It's about the culture that got us the current system and holds it in place. Culture, as they say, eats strategy (or a vision) for breakfast.

What I mean here by culture are the mental models, values (what matters most to us) and the stories and narratives that inform our beliefs and actions and work to hold our systems in place or reset them. The invisible and the transformative.

Grapple with mental models, values and the core stories and myths about our world and a vision has a much greater chance of being realised. It's not easier, or quicker but it is a more realistic and robust approach.

Making values explicit

Vision making is not neutral. It can be non-partisan, but never neutral.

Visions are filled with values, ideas about what matters most, who matters most, how the world should work, who should be supported, what outcomes should change and how. Values cannot be relegated to a component part, or one arm of a vision (often an afterthought), because they already define the very direction and structure of a vision. So the first and most pragmatic thing to do is ensure the values are explicit in the foundation of a vision.

Research is clear that people unconsciously bring values first to every piece of information they read and every decision they make. You will therefore only improve the accessibility, believability and transparency of your vision if you are clear on the values driving it. Making values explicit is a very effective strategy to help avoid knee jerk and partisan driven opposition (though not disagreement in general!).

When we prioritise power, wealth, public image, even achievement (when it is about individual recognition) we will keep the status quo because these are the values prioritised in our current systems.

Are the values transformational as well as the vision?

For people really interested in transformation of systems the expressed values need to be ones that will actually drive transformation.

This may not be obvious to people who are inexperienced in the articulation, embedding and measurement of values in their work (which is many of us).

There are values that won't drive transformation, and values that will. When we prioritise creativity and self direction, care for the environment, we will drive changes from what we have now. When we prioritise power, wealth, public image, even achievement (when it is about individual recognition) will keep the status quo because these are the values prioritised in our current systems.

It is not that other values are not there, they just always get relegated last.

Likewise conformity, or anything around protectionism and doing what is best for me and my but not you and yours will have people holding on to status quo.

Look to te Tiriti o Waitangi

Aotearoa New Zealand a unique place in the world. We have te Tiriti o Waitangi - a founding agreement between Māori and Tauiwi (non Māori) based in values:  rangatiratanga, kāwanatanga, manaakitanga for example.

The opportunity and invitation is there (has been for over 160 years) for Tangata te Tiriti (people of the treaty) and Tangata Whenua to come together and create a vision for our country that reflects our unique and shared values. And then to walk that path together. I have seen some visions that include Manaakitanga.  Enacting a vision of a society or economy based on manaakitanga - upholding the mana of every person and every living thing - would mean massive transformation to the way we do things, not a few tweaks with a bit of carbon pricing.

Serious and honest conversations about the values that matter are needed to really drive transformation. When a transformative vision is not led by transformative values it is not believable (or achievable).

Tokona te Raki, a Maori futures collective, did a fantastic job of their post-Covid values driven vision.

Making sure your actions uphold those values

The values we declare in visions and those we then use to drive our decision-making can be quite different.

What we most aspire to and how we act can be misaligned for any number of reasons, including whether the context we live and work in allows us to live in line with our values. These gaps between expressed values and observable actions are a significant problem in building trust and credibility.  Trust and credibility is critical in people believing in a vision and acting on it.

It takes clarity, discipline, useful tools and clear metrics to ensure that people in organisations act in line with transformative values to achieve a vision. The first place to start in acting in line with transformative values is in the visioning process itself.

Rejecting the status quo in your visioning process

For many vision makers the problems that we care about are similar: climate change, lack of innovation in our businesses or our governments to solve big problems in the world, wealth, income and health inequality, good people and communities excluded from our economy.

Particular ways of thinking about the world, assumptions about how it should work,who should make the decisions, who’s ways of knowing matter most, have helped create and maintain these problems.

These ways of thinking are often invisible to people who don't live the results of our big problems everyday. But to fix the downstream problems, we need to go upstream and embed new values, ways of thinking, knowing and explaining. And to do that we need people with these new ways of thinking to also be creating our visions. But are they being included? Or are these invisible but influential ways of thinking that have caused the problems in the first place embedded in the visioning process?

Consider for example a visioning process that is held by a group of already powerful and connected people, in the evening, in a boardroom somewhere, funded by other well connected groups or people. Who is not there? Explicitly excluded are those who don't have connections with the power holders and influencers, those who are looking after children, those who are not physically able, those who don't have the money or resources to attend. Implicitly excluded are those who are not schooled and practiced in the ways and the beliefs and practices of white, educated maleness: the status quo. Without different people leading visions, existing worldviews, ways of knowing and acting, continue to inform the visions we create. That is the way to a used future.

People might say “they were invited to the table, but they didn't come, what else can we do?”

How does this transformation happen? Surprisingly, with incredibly practical things like payment for people's time, making the processes accessible to people no matter what their physical situation, paying for childcare, reflecting on the time of day you have meetings ...

A believable and achievable transformative vision means transforming your own values, culture thinking, and actions. It means not just inviting many different people to your visioning table, but rebuilding that table with them. Without acting to transform both the visible and invisible aspects of the status quo, vision makers will be creating a used future.

What can you practically do to transform your visioning making system?

How does this transformation happen? Surprisingly with incredibly practical things like payment for people's time, making the processes accessible to people no matter what their physical situation, paying for childcare, reflecting on the time in the day you have meetings, setting targets for the demographics of the groups, redefining who has the credentials or skills to be involved, who gets to lead.

Take risks, be innovative, embrace partnerships, feel uncomfortable. That is what transformation is about- no caterpillar emerged from a cocoon as a butterfly without some “discomfort”.

I have been watching the Aotearoa Town Hall series,  a wide ranging visioning process that is grappling with inclusivity and partnership building. It's a work in progress and worth a watch.

What if you don't know any people who are impacted? Well then probably it's time to get some help with your organisational policies and practices, your relationships and your way of working. Les Mills set a great example of how recently. Perfection is not required, just a willingness to say this matters and we are going to take steps to be held accountable to that.

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