What happens when values turn bad

Last year I was running a comms workshop with a client.   At one point we started discussing messages and the importance of aligning comms to key strategic themes, values etc (like you do).   Remembering that this particular organisation had ‘innovation’ as one of its global values I put forward the suggestion that they might like to consider ways to bring this value alive through their comms.    Oh dear, it was like I’d killed a kitten.   All went silent.  Eyes looked down.   Feet shuffled nervously.   “Have I said something wrong?” I ventured.   “You just said a dirty word” someone replied.  “We’re tired of hearing about innovation.  It’s all we’ve had drilled into us for the last year.  We’re all sick of it.”   “But it’s one of your corporate values” I said, digging the hole even deeper.   “Yes, but it’s all talk.   All we hear about is how important innovation is but there’s nothing to back it up.   We just aren’t innovative.”   You see, the value had become meaningless.   Worse, it had become a negative rather than a positive influencer.  In this organisation, ‘innovation’ was now a word to be avoided (banned, even) instead of exploited and celebrated.    It was really sad hearing people be so dismissive and cynical about a word that should (in theory) be a core part of their working ethos.   That’s the point of values, right?   But what this tale reinforces is that values can bite back if you don’t look after them, nurture them and personify them.   Having values that you don’t live by – in a tangible way – is like breaking trade descriptions.    I don’t have a stated set of values in my business, but if I did, innovation would be one of them.  I believe in innovation – I seek it out, I strive to apply it in what I do and I like to celebrate it in others.   I’d like to think that I ‘live the value’ in that sense.   Unfortunately, so many organisations pick values that they think look good on their website and on posters, but which they don’t really understand.   They don’t understand that a ‘value without action’ is like a chocolate teapot.   Pointless.   Innovation is a very popular value, but when you speak to people whose organisation preaches the importance of innovation and ask what  happens on the ground to make it real, they are often stuck for an answer.   It sounds great for a company to say it’s innovative, but does it invest in creative capability?  Does it have the structure and processes to manage innovation?  Does it have a culture that encourages and nurtures ideas?  Does it have the collaborative networks to allow innovation to flourish?  Does it have leaders who understand what innovation is and what it requires?   Does it have good communicators?   Does it even know what it’s innovating for?   If you can’t answer these questions, don’t have it as a value.   My experience last year was a profound and insightful lesson in what happens when you preach one thing and do another.  Or do nothing.   Having values that your people don’t believe in is far worse that not having values at all.    Value statements may be all the rage … but if you don’t make them meaningful, rage is what you’ll get.

One thought on “What happens when values turn bad

  1. Pingback: The Seven C’s of innovation | Creative Communicator

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