Aligning Systems with Purpose and Values

The following materials are designed to be of support to individuals and teams aiming to engage with the work of creating and aligning the systems that anchor their work in five different areas: decision-making, resource flow, information flow, feedback loops, and conflict engagement.

If you are already familiar with this basic framework for aligning systems with purpose and values, feel free to skip beyond the next section and go straight to the resources section. Given the nature of the work and the commitment to learning and evolution that are built into the framework itself, the range of resources is likely to expand and shift over time. You are invited to visit this again in the future.

I. Basic Steps for the Process of Alignment

What does it mean, in practice, to build a group culture based on strong purpose and values? It means a specific, step-by-step pathway to align decisions, policies, practices, processes, and procedures with the purpose and values that define the group. This allows the group to become ever more effective at achieving its purpose in line with its values. Without such a process, purpose and even deeply held values are destined to become purely decorative: a poster on the wall instead of the living heart of the work.

1. Establish the foundations

Systems are concrete expressions of a group’s sense of itself: what it stands for, what it tries to do, and how it wants to function. The more clarity and shared ownership there is of purpose and values, the more engagement, focus, and effective use of resources are likely to emerge.

You start by engaging as many stakeholders as possible to name and clarify the following elements.

    • Vision: where we’re heading – what we want to see in the world over time.
    • Purpose: why we do what we do – what inspires us to get up in the morning and do the work.
    • Mission: what we do – the nuts and bolts of action, including strategy, goals, objectives, and action steps.
    • Values: how we do what we do – what we orient towards to operate with integrity in service to our purpose.
    • Theory of Change: why we believe in what we do – the rationale for the mission as a way of accomplishing the purpose.

2. Elucidate current systems

Humanly created systems are agreements about how we work together: the policies, processes, procedures, practices, etc. we use in each of five areas. The more explicit, the more consciously aligned with purpose and values, and the more voluntary they are, the more capacity, commitment, and collaboration are likely to exist within the group to get the work done, and the less likely the group is to unconsciously replicate patterns that exist within the dominant culture.

Before bridging the gaps with the group’s purpose and values, it’s essential to know what the actual existing systems are in five different areas. This entails an extensive process of engaging with all aspects of the work to identify and name all the existing policies, procedures, practices, agreements, and structures that make up each system.

Operational Systems: supporting the direct activity of getting things done

    • Decision Making: Who makes which decisions? Through what process? Who gives input? Who hears about which decisions?
    • Resource Flow: What resources exist? How are they generated? How are they distributed? What principles are used to decide the flow? Who makes the decisions?
    • Information Flow: What information is shared with whom? What mechanisms are used for sharing it?

Reflective/relationship systems: supporting reflection, learning, adaptation, and increasing capacity over time

    • Feedback Loops: Who gives feedback to whom? For what purpose? How? How often? What external feedback mechanisms will support learning about effectiveness in carrying out the mission?
    • Conflict Engagement: What support is available? What process is used for engaging with conflict? How can anyone initiate it? How is all that made known to people?

3. Find and close gaps

Once the systems have been identified, the next step is the hard work of finding where there is lack of alignment, and creating the necessary changes to achieve actual alignment between the core systems and the purpose and value.

This entails gradually and systematically prioritizing one system after another to modify so that it more adequately aligns with the purpose and values. When everyone can recognize the authenticity of the stated values and can immediately see and feel increased alignment with both purpose and values, the result is enthusiasm and commitment that are palpable and easily outweigh the initial investment in the alignment process.

Here are some questions you can use to assist you with the process:

  • Decision-making: Are all these agreements supporting the purpose and aligned with values, or do they implicitly reflect commitments that may not be aligned with how the group wants to operate? For example, a group may be committed to collaboration while implicitly using a familiar top-down decision-making approach; another group may be committed to effectiveness and be mired in endless processes of decision-making because of an agreement to reach consensus without having sufficiently thought through what that means, leading them to getting stuck in attempts to include everyone in all decisions.
  • Resource flow: Are resources generated and flowing in ways that support the purpose of the organization? What values does the organization or team reflect in the way it distributes resources – financial, human, and otherwise?
  • Information flow: Simply put, information is to an organization as blood is to a human body. Vision, purpose, and direction might flow outward from the center, while ideas, wishes, and feedback flow inward from everywhere. Is the way that information flows throughout the organization – particularly from those in leadership positions to others, and vice versa – aligned with its purpose and values?
  • Feedback loops: Are the choices about who gives feedback to whom, when, and for what specific purpose consistent with purpose and values, or is “feedback” actually a subtle mechanism for reward and punishment?
  • Conflict: In the absence of a conscious choice about how to engage with conflict, groups tend to revert to avoidance of conflict, along with punitive methods for handling it when it finally erupts, losing the opportunity to fine-tune systems and relationships and increase collaboration. Is there an established method for attending to conflict? Does the way conflicts are handled support learning and reinforce values?

II.Resources for Creating Collaborative Systems

If your group is committed to establishing collaborative systems, you don’t need to start from scratch. The following resources can provide you with some templates, ideas to explore, or experiences gleaned from other contexts.

1. Decision Making

2. Resource Flow

3. Information Flow

4. Feedback Loops

5. Conflict Engagement

6. Complete system design

  • For a complete example of a design of a set of collaborative systems intended for an international organization committed to living and sharing the practice of Nonviolent Communication, look at the New Future Plan for the Center for Nonviolent Communication. (Note: this design has yet to be implemented. For this reason, we wish there were an example of a design that has been implemented that is, at the same time, fully collaborative. Unfortunately, we are not aware of such an organization. Some of the features we are talking about here are prominent in some of the organizations that are described in the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.)
  • for a longer version of the approach presented here.
  • if you would like to explore the support of collaboration consultants who could coach you on how to engage in this process.