Why are there no straight lines in nature?
I want to continue with the theme of values. What are values? If we can answer that we begin to understand why values can be lost so easily and how we can create and retain values and influence corporate risk. I like to start with the question – ‘Why are there are no straight lines in nature?’
I have come to like this simple provocative question. In contemplating the answer it forced me to think about interaction, communication, how things rub up against each other. That kind of thinking took me to the heart of what values are. The point is that we know the shortest distance between two locations is a straight line. The shortest distance offers the least opportunity for interaction. Nature survives because it is messy.
I have come to see that values work in the same way. We interact with individuals and organisations, gather data on how they behave, act, and tackle incidents. We arrange our observations and at some point a pattern emerges which we can give a name: ‘truthfulness’; ‘honesty’; ‘concern for others’ or ‘selfishness’, ‘dishonesty’; ‘greed’.
This is not a linear process but the result of self-organisation. This dynamic holds for all values. We recognise values as values when they endure rather than just display themselves in a single act.
Let me put it another way. If I stand in front of you and say nothing, do nothing and don’t move an inch, what pattern can you see? Apart from the fact you may think I am lifeless, you observe nothing. (That’s the straight line.)
With that thought I began to see how catastrophe is built into the system. Emergent properties like values are dynamic patterns: To observe a dynamic pattern you have to have something making the pattern: it must move, behave, speak, and interact which suggests it is alive. So, to create emergent properties you have to be able to observe a dynamic involving lots and lots of diverse actions, behaviours and communication carried out by living beings.
So our values are created by what we do. Values aren’t a state of being; they emerge from acts of doing.
Although they seem intangible, values are based on some of the most tangible things we observe in the world: events, human actions, behaviour, and communications. I like to think about it this way. All the ‘evidence’ on which our brains make their decisions about values can be filmed. If we film enough behaviour, we’ll observe the pattern of a value emerging.
Some progressive organisations rightly see the risk of a collapse in values as an issue of governance. But how do you evaluate and influence that risk. I will return to this in a later post.
If you believe values represent a static state, please think again. Values are refreshed and created by the actions of everyone going about their daily work and communicating by all the means available.
Please remember you cannot ignore values even if you want to. They will emerge and affect your organisation whether you like it or not. It’s happening right now. Organisational leaders have a particular role in creating the right conditions for values to emerge. Their actions, decisions and communications have a major influence on the pattern which emerges.
My next post will look at how defining moments will define leadership; or if you prefer ‘the emergent leader.’
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