Making Values More Valuable
Exposing the trade-offs at the heart of your cultural values
As workplace culture nerds, we often get asked to help teams with crafting their values. The first step in this process is to ask people what values (implicit or otherwise) they think they’ve been using up to that point. In most cases we are struck by a particular pattern that emerges…
When people say ‘these are our values’, they often mean ‘this set of values describes the identity we aspire to’.
In everyday life, identity and values are so closely intertwined that it seems trivially correct that a set of company values should describe ‘who we are’ above all else. This is a mistake.
When you develop products, you have a product strategy. When you’re hiring people, you have a recruiting strategy. When you develop a set of company values, you’re actually building a behavioral strategy.
A great ‘value’ is one that helps you to make a choice in a situation where that choice is difficult somehow. It is a mini-strategy all by itself.
So while it may be appealing to say “we are kind” or “we are inclusive”, such phrases will never rise beyond the level of a bumper sticker unless they describe which way you plan to lean when there are real tradeoffs to be made.
Tradeoffs - Mark 1
The next step in building a set of group values is to frame the tradeoffs that are important. We might, for example, say that “we always give people the benefit of the doubt”. This phrase will mean different things to different people but let’s say we mean “if someone seems to have done something wrong, our bias will be to assume that they had good intent”.
This principle is useful in everyday life because it allows for the reality of being human. How do we translate this into a company value - one that’s useful in professional relationships? Whatever we choose needs to explicitly state a tradeoff. How about “we assume good intent, even when mistakes are costly”?
That now says that, if you think someone on your team made a mistake, it’s OK to show them grace and understanding even when the mistake costs time / money. This is a little better as a value because a whole range of situations can be viewed through that tradeoff’s lens.
However, there’s still a problem here. At many companies, if we offered that value for consideration, most people would react with “well yeah - obviously”. The value has a tradeoff in its language but that tradeoff feels like a no-brainer. We can do better.
Tradeoffs - Mark 2
Powerful values are ones that speak to a difficult balance - a tradeoff between two things that we genuinely value but sometimes are forced to choose between. Consider something like “we favor speed over inclusion”. Depending on what it means, such a value could be pretty divisive. After all, we want to go fast but at the cost of inclusion? Really?
Whether this particular value is right for your group depends on a common understanding of its terms (‘speed’ and ‘inclusion’), as well as playing out scenarios to understand its meaning in depth. The key takeaway here is that it’s a genuinely difficult tradeoff, depending on its meaning.
Inclusion is really important for moral as well as practical competitive reasons. Speed is critical for the viability of a business. Should we maximize inclusion by calling for a vote on every decision we take? Should we maximize speed by using more autocratic decision making?
When a group starts to worry about the implications of the tradeoff between two positive things, we know we’re getting close to a useful value statement.
Phrasing Is Key
For all of the above reasons, we typically recommend that values are framed using the construction popularized by the agile manifesto…
We favor X (even) over Y
By adopting this formula, a team can make sure it’s trying to encode the most important tradeoffs in its values (and other strategies). For example, we might favor…
candor over diplomacy
singular accountability over group responsibility
experiments over detailed plans
a reliable service over new product features
Give It A Try
If you’d like to try deriving a set of values / principles using this approach, gather the relevant team together and then…
Use a check-in (described here for example) to get people’s brains pointed in the right direction. Start with something fun to make sure the concept is well understood. E.g. “when it comes to desserts, I prefer X even over Y”.
Have a 5-10 minute open discussion to draw out examples of challenging decisions from the last 6-12 months.
Use a solo brainstorming process to generate ideas for X-over-Y statements that would, in retrospect, have helped with some of the decisions discussed in .
Affinity-map the ideas to create a whole-group, de-duplicated list.
Whoever ultimately owns this list of values / principles needs to decide how to go from the list from  to a final, adopted list of no more than 5 things. This can be as simple as making a decision on the group's behalf, or employing dot-voting to establish the group’s preferences, or using a consent process to check for landmines.
Then have the group try to live the values / principles to the best of its ability for 1-3 months and reconvene for a retrospective to reflect on what has helped and what could be improved.
Whilst we are known for our multi-faceted manager training and our bitesize workshops, perhaps you weren’t aware that we offer this type of consulting. Now you know, how can we support your goals?