Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Values Count

In our August 30, 2010 Experiencing Decisions post we highlighted a Wall Street Journal article with some interesting insights into how teaching values must have a strong “experiential” component.  In the real world experiential means that day-to-day decision making is a contact sport, where values collide with business priorities.  In that article reference was made to another paper from the MIT Sloan Management Review, “How to Make Values Count in Everyday Decisions.”*  This work provides a useful and practical resource for follow up reading and implementation.

The Sloan paper authors come right to the point, stating “...a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values.” [p.75].  And “decision making is a trade-off between values….[for example] choosing customer safety over short-term financial performance”, referring to the decision by Johnson & Johnson to pull Tylenol off store shelves in 1982.  This is an important perspective but not necessarily one that is very often part of the dialogue about nuclear safety culture.

“The typical approach of many companies is to drill employees on values statements and codes of conduct, but by themselves such sets of principles do not easily permeate everyday decisions.  Recent research suggests that they usually have a more symbolic than instrumental effect.” [p.76]

The authors suggest the use of “decision maps” which is a device to create a picture of the decision process including choices, consequences, outcomes and values.  Note that a distinction is drawn between short term results of a decision (consequences) and longer term impacts (outcomes).  Identifying the longer term consequences of a decision requires thinking through the dynamics of the whole business “system” over multiple time periods.  Think of a pinball machine, perhaps even a pinball machine where you can’t see inside.

One of the problems cited in the paper is that values articulated at the top of the organization can be subverted by the everyday decisions made by staff members, in effect creating a default alternative value structure.  As a practical matter it is the sum of actual decisions that defines the value structure more than the abstract and idealized statements of values.

What is one to do?  Are decision maps the answer?  We’ll leave that to our readers to decide after reading this paper and examining the example provided.  What we can endorse is the authors’ prescription in the last section of the article.  It is based on a belief that leaders should be teachers, and teaching means explaining how decisions are made and how they reflect the values espoused by the leaders.  Basically, decisions need to be explained, used in training and communicated widely within the organization.  We like the idea of identifying a number of recent decisions and examining how the decisions were made, particularly how choices, consequences, and outcomes were linked to values and how values were balanced and traded-off.  This might not always be comfortable but the willingness to use such a process may say more about an organization’s values than any other action.

* “How to Make Values Count in Everyday Decisions”, J.E. Urbany, T.J. Reynolds and J.M. Phillips, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2008, pp. 75-80.

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