Conversations, Not Just Words

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

One of my favourite thinkers in the areas of  innovation, strategy and change leadership  is Harvard business professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter .

A blog she wrote has relevance to the Social Sciences Change Academy and to the University more widely. It’s entitled Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values  and in it she first confirms what we all know – that the ‘values’ words contained in vision and mission statements and in strategic planning documents across many organisations are eerily similar and are usually somewhat generic (eg. respect,  trust, equality, etc. – in fact, some of the same words we have used in describing what we say we care about within the Social Sciences Change Academy).

What can we possibly take from sets of words that could be used to describe any organisation? I agree with the view of Rosabeth Moss Kanter; the value comes not from the words themselves but from the conversations and dialogue that they have the power to initiate.

I was in a meeting very recently where we discussed ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ as two words that underline what we want to achieve at U of Kent in supporting the student experience. To me, these words describe the values of what the group is working to achieve. As Professor Moss Kantor states “Values are aspirational, signaling long-term intentions that guide thinking about the future.” But how do we make time for these conversations that make values real over time? Aren’t we all just too busy getting the work done? Here are just a couple of options:

One way is to intentionally combine different sets of individuals across a range of roles and functions in project work so that a larger group can contribute to work to be done – individuals who are perhaps beyond the range of what sometimes may seem to be ‘the usual suspects.’ Be sure to include discussion on the values underpinning the work from the outset.

Another way is to find out what others are up to. This then can help us make values connections across seemingly disparate areas. An easy way to do this is through social media. One of the biggest benefits I find from twitter, for instance, is that it gives me quick access to a range of what is going on within and outside U of Kent.

In 10-15 minutes, I can read the latest newsletter from the School of Anthropology and Conservation (@SACA_Kent), catch up on Kent Union Sabbatical Officer Kenny Budd’s most recent blog (@kbuddinyourface) and see at a glance what the THE (@timeshighered) has to say about the latest HE league tables. I can often then have more productive conversations because I know a little to start with about a wider range of activities than I would otherwise have time to explore; how else would I know that a big long term priority for @KentUnion is an improved facility – for, you guessed it, conversation, meetings, and network development.

What can we all do? Get a conversation going about values. Having coffee or lunch with someone we don’t normally interact with is a simple way to start. What are they working on? What is important to them? How might this intersect with the work we are doing? Values then start to become both real and shared.

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