We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Does it weigh the same as a duck?

Not long ago, a colleague put an interesting question to me. He was working with an organisation, which shall remain nameless, that wanted to know how strong its values system was. Was there a way of measuring the values system to determine its impact on the organisation? All I could think of in response was: does it weigh the same a duck?

Now, for anyone who is not familiar with the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a word of explanation is in order.

A group of peasants are trying to determine whether someone is a witch. As it was common to burn witches, they assumed witches must be made of wood. Wood, they knew, floats in water. Next, to determine if she was made of wood, they resolved to weigh her in a pair of scales next to something else that floats in water, namely, a duck. If she weighed the same as a duck then she would be made of wood and, therefore, a witch (for more details, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp_l5ntikaU).

I thought of this in connection with the question posed to my colleague because it seemed to me that this too was a classic case of starting with the wrong question. Whatever logical destination you might want to reach, you can’t get there from here.

The peasants started with two false assumptions: (1) that because witches burn, they are made of wood, and (2) that anything that floats on water has the same weight as any other thing that floats. Attempting to measure a system of values starts from two similar false assumptions: (1) that all values systems have identifiable components and raw materials that can be analysed, and (2) because of this, values systems can be compared and measured against each other on a scale.

But values systems are unique. I don’t mean the things that companies publish in their ‘values statements’, which very often have nothing to do with the actually values of the organisation; I mean those real values that people genuinely hold. These values aren’t created, they emerge. People come together in a forum and share ideas and thoughts on what they believe in, what is right and what is wrong, who they will follow and who not, what they want to achieve and what they reject. Values are what comes out at the other end of this evolutionary process. They are the systems of belief that we all have and that guide our actions in work and in life.

Instead of measuring values systems, we should start by seeking to understand values in a philosophical way, unpacking them and understanding why and how they came to be shared. Understanding on that level holds the key to all sorts of other things: reputation, brand-building, quality, customer relationships, employee relationships, and on and on.

If you want to understand an organisation, find out what it believes in. And if you absolutely must attempt to measure values; well, I guess I can’t stop you. So, write down the organisation’s values on a piece of paper (which is of course made from wood) and put it onto a scale. If the paper weighs the same as a duck, then you’re good to go.
 

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