Got a complex problem? A complex value-system might be the solution.

Real life is a mess. The problems that plague humanity are big, complex, hairy, and full of unknowns. 

You know what I’m talking about, but let me give you an example from my research. I studied a health authority that administered medical care within a region. A group of physicians and administrators wanted to develop an evidence-based program that helped seniors make lifestyle choices to improve their health and prevent frailty.

Sounds like a great idea, right? This group started approaching VPs to obtain the resources they needed to develop the program. Several VPs challenged them, however. Why?

Hospitals, they argued, were overflowing. Would diverting resources to develop a new program compromise the already strained capacity of the health authority?

Moreover, the role of the medical system is to save lives. When it makes a mistake, people die. Was a health authority, therefore, the appropriate place to try innovative new programs that might fail?

The VPs further argued the job of health authorities was to care for sick people–was it their job to prevent illness, too? Were they resourced to accomplish that? Taxpayers and funders wanted to see value for the dollar. How do you show value for programs that prevent illness? How do you measure what you prevented from happening? 

Big. Hairy. Messy. Complex. We have yet to get to where we figure out what lifestyle changes improve seniors’ health and then how to convince seniors to adopt those changes across different cultures, abilities, and health levels. 
All these issues created points of resistance to the program, and the team struggled to get it off the ground. 

Our problems are complex. So complicated, in fact, they defy the ability of any single person to fully understand them, let alone solve them.  

Luckily, we’re not alone. 

What do values have to do with complex problems?

Values describe the ends that are worth achieving and define the means we are willing to use to reach them. Like everything else in life, values are complex. Here’s a taste of that complexity. 

Why do we have so many values guiding human activity? I think it is because society needs a complex system of values to manage complex problems. 

Let’s look at my previous example of care workers striving to improve seniors’ health. They wanted to improve health (value = public interest) by developing a new program (value = innovation). They believed this would decrease seniors’ usage of medical facilities (value = sustainability). 

Would drawing resources away to develop this new program compromise our ability to deal with overcrowded hospitals (values = sustainability; robustness)? Is a healthcare facility, where lives are on the line, the right place to test out new ideas (values = public interest; accountability)? Is it the job of health authorities to treat illness, prevent illness, or both (value = accountability)? 

A single individual may lack the mental and emotional bandwidth to see all these aspects of the problem. In a large social system, however, there will be enough people focusing on different values that, together, we cover all the bases. 

Those people motivated by values of robustness and accountability, for example, will act to prevent those people who pursue innovation from depleting resources to a level that compromises the system’s ability to manage overcrowded hospitals.

By blending all our different values, our social system contains within itself the capacity to face off against the most complex problems the universe throws at us. Unless, of course, we fail to manage our differences effectively. Managing differences, alas, is a challenge because sometimes values are incompatible.   

Researchers in the field have identified several tactics we use to resolve such value conflicts. I will cover these in future posts. For now, the critical take-home message is this. It takes a diversity of values for an organization to flourish. The values you pursue are essential. So are the values held by people with whom you disagree. When you refuse to understand the values driving people you disagree with, the social system loses some of its capacity to tackle the complex problems it faces. 

Take time to understand the values driving those with whom you disagree. Ask, “What do you care if …?” questions. For example, “What do you care if a bunch of your staff spend time researching how to prevent frailty?” Their answer will hint at their values. By understanding what is important to them, you are better able to advance your cause.

Our stories are powerful

They are how we understand and change our world. If you have stories of where you have seen groups succeed or fail to overcome value conflicts, please share them in the comments.

If you find this topic interesting, let me know by clicking “like” and share with your friends. Is there a topic you would like me to discuss? Let me know in the comments. Finally, click “Follow” if you want to receive notifications whenever I post something new.

Oh, would you like to know the secret these healthcare workers found to maintain health and prevent frailty in seniors? Eat your veggies and exercise. Lame, I know–I was hoping for a cookie-based remedy–but there you have it.

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