On values, meaningfulness, and change – parallels with Bateson and Mead

Punchline first:

In the methods & frameworks world, I believe there is only one fight worth fighting, and it is not between frameworks. It is between those who would fit people and organisations to frameworks (branded or otherwise), and those who find that idea intolerable.

From a book I am taking the time to savour, here is acclaimed anthropologist and systems thinker Gregory Bateson, on the work of his former wife Dr Margaret Mead, another acclaimed anthropologist:

[If] we go on defining ends as separate from means and apply the social sciences as crudely instrumental means, using the recipes of science to manipulate people, we shall arrive at a totalitarian rather than a democratic system of life. The solution she offers is that we look for the “direction” and “values” implicit in the means, rather than looking ahead to a blueprinted goal and thinking of this goal as justifying or not justifying manipulated means. We have to find the value of a planned act implicit in and simultaneous with the act itself, not separate from it in the sense that the act would derive its value or from reference to a future end or goal.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)

This passage resonated strongly with me. Translating from the social space to organisations, how, as leaders, do we make it easy for people to find meaning in work whilst still respecting their choice in the matter? And if it’s the job of leadership to take people to new places, can we make the process of change more meaningful, again without dictating what form that meaning should take for each individual concerned?

My biggest contribution in the frameworks space was a values model for the Kanban Method (2013). It explained why and how Kanban was meaningful to me, and it turned out to be helpful to other people too – to the extent that it become adopted as part of the method’s formal definition.

But I didn’t stop there. I was on a journey, and it wasn’t long after the publication of Kanban from the Inside (2014), that I found myself detaching myself from Kanban community. There was no big disagreement behind this move, and to be clear, I remain proud of that model and my first book. It was simply that there was a job to be done, and I felt that it would be easier done outside.

Bateson goes on:

This then is the type of discipline which has enabled Dr Mead to point out that a discrepancy – a basic and fundamental discrepancy – exists between “social engineering”, manipulating people in order to achieve a planned blueprint society, and the ideals of democracy, the “supreme worth and moral responsibility of the individual human person.” The two conflicting motifs have long been implicit in our culture, science has had instrumental leanings since before the Industrial Revolution, and emphasis on upon individual worth and responsibility is even older. The threat of conflict between the two motifs has only come recently, with increasing consciousness of, and emphasis upon, the democratic motif and simultaneous spread of the instrumental motif. … Are we to reserve the techniques and the right to manipulate people as the privilege of a few planning, goal-oriented, and power-hungry individuals, to whom the instrumentality of science makes a natural appeal? Now that we have the techniques, are we, in cold blood, going to treat people as things? Or what are we going to do with these techniques?

Again, parallels. In the methods & frameworks world, I believe there is only one fight worth fighting, and it is not between the frameworks. It is between those who would fit people and organisations to frameworks (branded or otherwise), and those who find that idea intolerable.

I am on that second side. My fight is against those so convinced of their rightness that they’re sure that the ends justify the manipulative or coercive means, or they lack the imagination, curiosity, or courage to consider that there might be alternative approaches to change. And there really are alternatives. Let no one tell you that change-by-imposition – legitimised the change management industry despite its repeated failures – is the only model. That wasn’t true even 20 years ago – Agilists take note – and it definitely isn’t true now.

That fight is what has energised me in the 8 years since my first book and I expect it to continue to sustain me for the rest of my career. It has taken me from method to values and then to outcomes, meaningfulness, wholeheartedness, leadership, and strategy. They’re integrated into a participatory approach to change and transformation, one that is more than capable of reconciling sophisticated thoughts on organisation design with utmost respect not only for the person but for the organisation that people create together.

It’s hard enough being a leader in a transforming organisation without your approach to change making things worse. If that could be you, check out the Agendashift Academy’s Leading with Outcomes self-paced training programme. And if your organisation is entering into a relationship with a process framework, make sure that the relationship is healthy one*.

*That’s my recent article on InfoQ: Adaptability by Agreement: Valuing Outcomes over Imposed Solutions. It’s the most complete written treatment yet of Agendashift’s three strategies model. Watch out for videos too, in particular from last week’s Lean Agile London (#LALDN22).

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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