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Competing Values Framework

The discipline to let go of control

  • 14 February 2013
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Most organizations are still ruled by top-down control. This used to work well in the 20th Century. People had clearly defined jobs in a well-structured hierarchy. If you worked hard, you could expect to climb up the ladder and one day, take your boss’ seat. The CEO on top could see change coming from far away and adjusted strategy and structure in time to survive. The pace of change was slower and the impact of change somehow smaller. It wasn’t everything connected with everything leading to unpredictable outcomes 24/7 at high speed. It somehow looked like a more linear world - even though it wasn’t!

It aligns with the bottom of Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework: valuing stability. Satisfying the need to measure and control, to design and plan, to check and regulate and judge: this is “right” and that is “wrong”. In this mindset there are experts who  know best, such as the CEO or the engineer. Planning means predictability, reliability, efficiency, uniformity. Complexity and uncertainty need to be reduced. Things that don’t fit the mould may be labeled as mistakes. This mind set has great value.

Many people recognize the value of certainty and we all make up stories in our minds that make life manageable: seeing the things that we expect to see, planning to achieve this goal, labeling things as “good” or “bad” in relation to this goal, creating what we expect. When we live and work like this, we are not open to the full capacity of reality. We filter the information that fits our story. We are attached to outcomes. We are results oriented. We are biased and judgmental. We are attached to the status quo, stability and control. Attached to our roles or identities. This is our comfort zone. Our story. Our workplace culture. The way it is.

Flexible - but still controlling

Yet, it is not the whole story. Welcome to reality and the 21st Century with quantum fields - or at least - modern technology, if you prefer to keep things material.

The upper part of the Competing Values Framework cares for flexibility and seems a better fit for the modern workplace. It acknowledges that things can change any minute, it keeps up the pace and focuses more on connections, people and ideas: working flexibly together, co-creating new ideas and experimenting, learning and changing. In this more flexible mindset there may be more tolerance for the fact that reality is complex and things are never 100% under control.

Ever so often you need to adjust your plans, due to non-linearity and the emergence of unpredicted properties in the system, the possibility of “mistakes” (labeled as feedback or interesting information) and new insights. That’s life. In this mindset structures are more fluid, people depend on each other to make things work and they need to assess the situation regularly to see if adaptations are necessary.

But though they are more flexible and may be more open and perceptive, less depending on fixed planning, rules, categories and experts, they don’t completely surrender to the universe or the powers outside of them. Even flexible people may still want to live the stories in their heads and are attached to the desired outcomes. “I am a great and flexible entrepreneur. My goal is to grow this company and make all my employees happy. I’ll be a success once I’ve earned my first million dollars and all my coworkers love me.”

Do you Change or are you Changed?

This is still the results-oriented “Western” way of looking at reality. In this view we are a big cause of what happens in our lives and organizations. We produce outcomes. We like to mould reality as if it were dough. We’re flexible but we strive for some control over outcomes. We prefer an internal locus of control; work hard.

TaoIts opposite, simply stated, is the “Eastern” way that accepts reality the way it is. This is “Tao”: observe nature and see that change is inherent in everything. Be at peace with what happens. In this view we are part of reality and we “are changed” with it. We are part of the dough that is being kneaded. We are mindful and present to notice this process of change. We try to co-create with nature, observing signals of what it is that wants to become manifest in this continuous creation of reality. We trust the process that leads to certain outcomes. We prefer a more external locus of control; work smart.

This struck me again, when I was working with a group to create a more open workplace culture and we practiced the difference between perceiving and judging. We practiced to see what was real, palpable and an observation of a fact - as opposed to what was our interpretation, a projection, an expectation, a prejudice, a label we glued to someone else’s behavior.

“I noticed you were late this morning” is an observation. “You have a lousy work ethic” is an interpretation.
We can only discern the difference if we let go of the voices in our head, our stories. (“He is always late - it is him again - last year he also missed this project’s deadline!).

We could only perceive what was happing right in front of us when we calmed down. When we became present and mindful in the moment and forgot those stories. Only then could we open up to see, hear, feel (taste, smell) what the other person meant.

“He is late because he stopped at the printer’s to pick up the new package design.”
We could perceive only when we let go of meanings, labels, judgments and expectations that we formed before. We needed to be truly present to receive the message without immediately interpreting it into something that fit the categories of our stories.

The richness! Reality doesn’t cease to surprise you. Reality is even more complex than you could ever imagine. It is so much more than your own view of it.

I like these small, mindful re-discoveries. I enjoyed it again. The wonder! Be calm and try to see what this moment is presenting you with, then respond mindfully.

Next, see where the process takes you - sometimes in another direction than you thought.
Letting go of attachment to outcomes (“We should always give perfect feedback to late-comers!”) frees your mind, takes fear of failure and pressure away and helps you open up.

If I give myself permission to practice progress instead of perfection, I get so much more done in a much more effortless way. This group reached true consensus on how to use feedback and what to pay attention to (coming late or contributing to the new package designs).

These are the Competing Values at work: valuing results or valuing the regulations? Emphasizing faults and finding details that are wrong? Or appreciating the general process to achieve these results together and focus on the rough lines that point in the right direction? The choice is yours. Reality will adjust itself to whatever your view is...

Co-Create with Change, not against it

To change and to create the workplace and life we want, “all” we need is the discipline to let go of control and truly trust the process. You’re building the bridge while you walk on it. You can’t design Organization Development or plan Culture Change. It is a process. It is evolution. It is a journey. Stay open and sense what is truly happening. I am a pupil myself in this discipline... and I like the surprising insights I find at the moments that I really open up and I start to trust and to see...