In his article ‘Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World’ published in the Harvard Business Review in Oct 2015, Eric J. McNulty paints a frightening picture of a world turned topsy-turvy. Where unpredictability, uncertainty and ambiguity and increased conflict are the norm.

We perhaps don’t need McNulty to point out what those of us who work in the development sector face every day; yet he predicts that not only is VUCA prevalent it is a fact that cannot be re-solved; we have to learn to accept it and work with it and not just in the development work we do. Everyone is affected by VUCA and to survive we need to adapt new ways of leading our teams.

VUCA is an acronym developed by the U.S. military after the collapse of the Soviet Union to describe a multipolar world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Volatility reflects the speed and turbulence of change. Uncertainty means that outcomes, even from familiar actions, are less predictable. Complexity indicates the vastness of interdependencies in globally connected economies and societies. And ambiguity conveys the multitude of options and potential outcomes resulting from them. (McNulty, 2015)

One of the key strategies for dealing with VUCA, according to McNulty is to ‘Create an island of certainty amid VUCA turbulence.’ [..] be clear about your decision-making criteria, and be consistent in applying them. [..] be rock solid about your values — they should endure, drive decision making and action, and be enthusiastically and energetically celebrated to give them high visibility amid the hurly-burly of daily work. (McNulty, 2015). This makes a lot of sense and also throws a life-line out to those needing to make tough decisions in situations they have not faced before and without the comfort of consultation with their own boss, who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away, even in a different time zone.

According to Patrick M. Lencioni in HBR, 2002, many of the companies that he came across as an international consultant touted their values for public consumption, developing cool sounding values was a fad that most companies got drawn into by a feeling that this was something they should do or worse to be politically correct (Lencioni, 2002). In those days few companies were courageously and rigorously sticking by their values, a classic example of hollow values could be found in Enron’s 2000 Annual Report which stated Core values of: Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence.

Lencioni goes on to explain that ‘values inflict pain. They make some employees feel like outcasts. They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance. If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement. (Lencioni, 2002). If a value cannot prevent a wrong action then it has no power. Having values with no power is like having a formula one race car but no fuel and no driver. My experience of values in action is that they take courage. Following rules by comparison is easy because we don’t have to make a values judgment, taking decisions is rarely straightforward and the values judgment concerned is rarely simple.

So what do values in action look like? In 2010 Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about ‘Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values’ where she listed ten ingredients that she felt needed to be present in an organization for them to get maximum value from their values. These included:

  1. Values are a priority for leaders, invoked often in their messages and on the agenda for management discussions.
  2. The entire work force can enter the conversation; employees are invited to discuss or interpret values and principles in conjunction with their peers, who help ensure alignment.
  3. Principles are codified, made explicit, transmitted in writing in many media, and reviewed regularly to make sure people understand and remember them.
  4. Statements about values and principles invoke a higher purpose, a purpose beyond current tasks that indicates service to society. This purpose can become part of the company’s brand and a source of competitive differentiation.
  5. The words become a basis for on-going dialogue that guides debate when there is controversy or initial disagreement. Decisions are supported by reference to particular values or principles.
  6. Principles guide choices, in terms of business opportunities to pursue or reject, or in terms of investments with a longer time horizon that might seem uneconomic today.
  7. As they become internalized by employees, values and principles can substitute for more impersonal or coercive rules. They can serve as a control system against violations, excesses, or veering off course.
  8. Actions reflecting values and principles — especially difficult choices — become the basis for iconic stories that are easy to remember and retell, reinforcing to employees and the world what the company stands for.
  9. Values are aspirational, signaling long-term intentions that guide thinking about the future.
  10. Principles, purpose, and values are discussed with suppliers, distributors, and other business partners, to promote consistent high standards everywhere.

(Moss Kanter, 2010)

As a management consultant working with a wide-range of organisations, many operating in extremely hostile environments, we work with values to bring a sense of stability in an uncertain context and to support decision-making at local level. Bringing managers from the National Office into remote locations may be hazardous. Units operating in the field and in remote or inaccessible locations due to natural hazards or insecurity need greater empowerment for decision-making. They need the trust and confidence of central management that they will take ‘good’ decisions without need for micro-management. What is ‘good’ and what is ‘right’ is often very subjective and situational.

In 2013 By Robert L. Dilenschneider published an article ‘5 Core Values for the Workplace’ in which he identifies the values of Integrity, Accountability, Diligence, Perseverance and Discipline as important values for successful organisations. He explains that ‘There are many fine values, such as courtesy, confidence, ingenuity, thrift, and so on. The trouble is that the list of values grows easily and can cause many employees to lose their focus. They fail to prioritize. A “short list” of values is far more useful in putting the workplace back on track. (Dilenschneider, 2013).

In MDFs newly launched Values-Based Leadership Course, we examine the Values of your organization, both explicit and implicit and start to ask questions around how they are serving the organization. We work with Moss Kanter’s list of 10 ingredients for getting value out of your values and unpack the values to understand how they might be more operationalized and put to real use within your organization. We ask questions such as ‘in what way will this value support decision-making?’ and ‘What is the consequence of ignoring this value?’ and ‘How would we know?’ This 4-day workshop will be held in Colombo 31st october to 3rd November and is open to Business Leaders and strategists, Heads of HR Departments and Project leaders looking at how to make delegation of Decision-making more effective in their organisation.

For further information or inquiries, please contact us at mdfasia@mdf.nl