For or against?

Looking at your enterprise vision – or any kind of future intent – is it defined in terms of being for something? Or against something?

That distinction can sometimes seem subtle – yet it’s very important indeed…

On the surface, it always seems a lot easier to be ‘against’ something. Many NGOs define themselves this way; quite a few businesses will do so, too. Whatever it is that we’re against, it already exists – otherwise we wouldn’t be against it, would we? (In some cases what we’ll say we’re against is the risk of whatever-it-is occurring – in other words, it ‘exists’ only in imaginary form – but as we’ll see, this comes down to much the same in the end.) We want it to stop existing, or not exist: that’s the whole point. It’s real, definite, and wrong – because since we’re against it, it must be wrong. Which means in turn that, by definition, we must be right, we’re ‘in the right’. That’s a good feeling to have: certainty, righteousness, righting the wrongs of the world. Which creates a lot of emotion, a lot of drive. The kind of energy we definitely need in an enterprise-vision and the like.

But

It’s all too easy for it to be subtly dishonest: we point the finger at others, blame others, show them up as ‘the bad guys’ – which means that, conveniently, there’s no attention placed on us, on how we also support that whatever-it-is that we say we’re ‘against’. (In fact, as Jung warns in his concept of the ‘Shadow‘, we may actually be the worst offenders here, using ‘Other-blame’ as a mechanism to avoid facing our own actions. For examples of this, look at the behaviour espoused or demanded by almost any ‘activist’-group that says it’s ‘against’ something, and compare that with the actual behaviour of that group in action…) Which also means that the only aspects of that which we’re ‘against’ is the parts that others do – not the parts that we do. After all, by definition, we’re ‘the good guys’, we couldn’t be doing anything wrong, could we?

Oops…

If we define ourselves as ‘against’ something, we then need that something to continue to exist, in order to be against it – otherwise we would have no apparent reason to exist. The more we succeed in being against it, the more we’ll find ourselves needing to re-create it, in order to still have something be against. Which, over time, leads us into the inevitable vapidity of the Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution“.

Oops…

In short, defining ourselves as ‘against’ something will feel strong, powerful, ‘good’; but it may well be subtly dishonest, and unfortunately it’s all but guaranteed to make things worse.

Not such a good idea, then…

Defining ourselves as ‘for’ something is usually a lot harder. For a start, it probably doesn’t exist as yet – in fact our aim would usually be to create it, to bring it into existence. But because it doesn’t exist, it’s not tangible, it’s often a bit amorphous, a bit blurry, uncertain. Because it doesn’t exist, we first have to imagine the possibility of its existence: and by definition, that can be a somewhat conceptual, abstract exercise. Which means that to make the intent emotive – which it needs to be – we first have to imagine the whatever-it-is, and then convert that imagination into emotion: which can be quite hard to do.

Tricky… definitely. But if we can do it, we can create something new, something valued, something we’re for – all literally ‘real-ised’ from nothing. It didn’t exist; yet when we succeed, it now does exist. That’s pretty impressive, when you stop to think about it.

So defining ourselves as ‘against’ something always seems the easier way: but it doesn’t work. Whereas being ‘for’ something may seem a whole lot harder, but it does work.

So whenever we define a vision or the the like, we need always to do so in terms of ‘for’, not ‘against’.

No doubt, though, that it is easier to start from a ‘being-against’. So to make it work, we need to convert – or invert – that initial ‘against’-definition into a ‘for’-type format.

For this, let’s use the example of workplace-bullying.

It’s easy to be against bullying in the workplace: very easy to see it as ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘wicked’, and all the rest. Very emotive, obviously.

Yet it’s also all too easy to point to ‘Them’, ‘the bullies’ – and fail to notice how we ourselves do exactly the same… And being ‘against’ bullying typically means that the more successful we are in ‘naming and shaming’ the bullies (which, by the way, is itself a form of bullying…), the more we’ll need to keep hunting harder to find even the slightest scrap of bullying-type behaviour in others. Which leads, in time, to that style of bullying so typical of any form of ‘political correctness’; and from there, all too easily, to the workplace-equivalent of the Inquisition. Being ‘against’ slowly pushes us towards where we preserve – in fact become – the ‘problem’ to which we purport to be ‘the solution’. And yes, that really is what happens, time after time after time.

So to make it work, we need to turn it round: for, not against.

For this example of workplace-bullying, one place to start is not so much the undesirable behaviour, as the consequences of that behaviour. This is described well, for example, by Bob Sutton in his book The No-Asshole Rule: “After encountering the person, people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves”. If we’re against workplace-bullying, we would be against these consequences too, because they’re symptoms of the occurrence of bullying in the workplace.

So we now turn it round: what does a workplace look like if bullying isn’t happening? – because that’s actually what we’re ‘for’. So, for example, we might look at key themes of intrinsic-motivation, as described in Daniel Pink’s Drive: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Or we might look at the ‘equality’ column in the gender-pronouns version or gender-neutral version of the extended-Duluth framework, for a broader range of desired behaviours and outcomes: this shows us emotive themes such as safety, trust, respect.

We can now apply to this to the three-part structure for enterprise-vision:

  • a descriptor for the content or focus for this enterprise – the ‘things’ or themes that concern everyone in the shared-enterprise
  • some kind of action on that content or focus – what is to be done to or with or in relation to those themes or ‘things’
  • an emotive qualifier that validates and bridges between content and action – why this matters, why is this of importance and value

If we put all of that together, we’ll end up with something like “we are for creating workplaces where everyone feels safe, supported, valued and productive in their work”.

To achieve those outcomes, yes, we’ll have to address workplace-bullying and the like: but to do so we keep the focus on the desirable outcomes, and behaviours that create those outcomes (the ‘for’), rather than the undesirable behaviours that work against those outcomes (the ‘against’). And by saying that these desirable outcomes apply to everyone, we’ve also avoided the ‘Other-blame’ trap – which makes it easier to engage everyone in creating those outcomes.

[Avoiding ‘Other-blame’ is especially important in this case, by the way, because one of the most common causes why people indulge in bullying behaviour is because they themselves have been bullied by someone else.]

So, the one-line summary:

always frame an enterprise-vision, or any other statement of intent, in terms of what you’re for – not what you’re ‘against’.

Hope you find this useful, anyway.

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8 comments on “For or against?
  1. “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution” I believe the same is true for people. It’s the typical trap of “I’ve done Oracle/IBM/MSFT for 20 years and by God it IS the solution to everything. Therefore I’m against ever using Oracle/IBM/MSFT and will define everything by what it isn’t”

    One thing to formulate our strategies, roadmaps and architectures as being what we’re for instead of what we’re against. Quite another to change the mindsets of the folks who are intrinsically against change.

    -c
    @chrisonea / @chrisonit

    • Tom G says:

      Chris – about all I can say to this is “Yup… 🙁 ” – boy have we all been there…

      On “to change the mindsets of the folks who are intrinsically against change”, main point is probably to make it safe to change – or perhaps, very subtly, to make it safer to change than to not-change… 🙂

      There’s a Sidewise post of mine that you may find interesting on this: ‘On innovation, foundations, scaffolding and Portakabins‘. Something to discuss further, anyway, because it’s perhaps the fundamental challenge for anyone working on any kind of change.

  2. Joe G says:

    Le sigh, wrote a rather long response, forgot to type in email address, and lost it all. I’ll have to summarize.

    Good post Tom. I think from an Enterprise perspective this is fairly obvious, and that’s a credit to what I’ve learned from you and others in the past.

    What I found really interesting is this post in context of your recent expansion of interest. From a humanity perspective, what are we ‘for’ versus ‘against’. The very nature of Law dictates a nature of defining ourselves by what we’re against.

    What is the difference between being for equality and being against discriminiation? The difference is subtly there, but likely has a grand effect on how we would address the issue.

    • Tom G says:

      Joe – My commiserations re lost long response… 🙁 – dunno if it helps, but I’ve done it myself so often that I now always select-All / Copy before posting, in case it does get lost… (One particularly infuriating example is the moderated-blogs on the Microsoft site: we actually have to post each response twice, because it always ignores it the first time… – I think they call it ‘Security’… :wry-grin: )

      “The very nature of Law dictates a nature of defining ourselves by what we’re against” – does it? I can see how Law can be interpreted that way, but is that actually its nature? I’m not sure…

      Difference between ‘for equality’ versus ‘against discrimination’ – very good point. Legislating against discrimination is notoriously problematic: it can sort-of force behaviour-change at the surface level but drives resistance underground where it’s even harder to address and resolve. Causal Layered Analysis is a really useful tool to apply in that kind of context; likewise Nigel Green’s VPEC-T – particularly the Values and Trust dimensions.

  3. Bruce says:

    Interesting and probably fruitful idea, but would love to see some concrete examples of pro- and con-flavored enterprise visions/architectures.

  4. What a great post Tom. This is the kind of post that makes absolute sense, it really spoke to me.

    • Tom G says:

      Anthony – many thanks! (And for my next trick: how to put those insights into practical use? – because that’s when we find just how hard those teeth will bite… 🙁 🙂 )

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