Inconvenient Values

Why is it so hard to articulate and document shared team values?

They’re not really values unless you apply them when it’s inconvenient.

— Kim Goodwin

When we talk about “values” it is usually shorthand for three different questions that the team need to answer:

I’ve helped a number of startup teams try to articulate and document their shared values. It’s always a humbling, invigorating and heart breaking exercise.

Humbling, because we quickly realise how difficult it is to succinctly describe what always starts out feeling self-evident.

Invigorating, because stepping away from the grind of business-as-usual to consider the “why” is usually an excellent way to remind ourselves that the pain is worth the gain.

But perhaps most importantly heart breaking, because we realise how much of what we inevitably begin with when we start putting it down in words is mostly meaningless…

Disrupt. Empower. Enable.
Beautiful. Easy to use. Loved.
Impactful. Purposeful. Positive.
Customer centric. Design led. Fact-based.
Leadership. Collaboration. Innovation.
Integrity. Accountability. Diversity.
Simple. Powerful. World class.

Here are three questions that can help filter the signal from the noise…

1. Who believes the opposite?

First, flip the value around and see if it still makes sense.

If we think it’s unique to build a product that is beautiful and easy to use, we should ask who is intentionally building something ugly and unnecessarily complicated?

If we say that our customers come first, we need to point to teams who genuinely don’t care and put them last.

If we say our policy is “don’t be a dick” (and think that explains it all in as much detail as is required) it’s useful to consider the team who are intentionally dicks and what advantages that might give them.

If we can’t find anybody who believes the opposite then we likely haven’t identified a useful value or a competitive advantage. We’ve just uncovered the table stakes.

The opposite of a useful value is often itself a useful value. Explicitly stating the opposite value often makes what we’re trying to articulate clearer and easier for others to understand.

Think about algebra. If we have the same value in the numerator and denominator then they cancel each other out.

XY / Y = X

It’s not enough to believe in Y. Everybody believes in Y. We need to find the X. That is, the differentiator that sets us apart, makes us memorable and remarkable.

2. Is this a hope or a method?

Next, ask if what we’re describing is a destination or a route

Everybody thinks senseless meetings waste everybody’s time. Very few teams find a way to work together that eliminates the need for them.

Everybody says they want to hire a team of people smarter than them. Not many can articulate the specific reasons why great people will be tempted to join their specific team or have the recruitment process that will attract anything other than a bunch of people who look and behave a lot like the existing team does

To usefully articulate what we want to be, we need to go beyond describing the result we’d like (the destination). We need to own the process we’ll use (the route).

Ultimately our values are not what we write down, they are what we do everyday. The way we act trumps the words we say every time - e.g. our diet is not something we’re “on”, it’s what we consistently put in our mouths.2 Philosophy isn’t something we read, it’s the way we live.

For example, at Timely we put a lot of effort into documenting our values, but we treated the result as a first draft. For about a year we used them only at employee inductions. Paying attention to the responses and feedback we got from people who had just joined the team refined them into the values that were eventually used by the whole company.

3. What does this cost?

Finally, we need to find and accept the downside. Document the “however…”

They’re only really our values if we stick with them despite the costs.3

We often worry more about appearing not to have problems than about achieving outcomes, and so don’t recognise when our own mistakes or weaknesses cause the problems we have. Our defining characteristics are usually also our biggest vulnerability.4 Understanding those weaknesses is much more useful than listing our strengths.

Maybe we’re relentlessly positive. Everything is awesome. And as a result we’re probably unlikely to hear negative or potentially constructive feedback because nobody ever wants to be the first one to call the emperor naked.

Maybe we’re loyal. And as a result we hold a grudge, and can be slow to forgive or forget people who have treated us poorly or to acknowledge where past friendships have deteriorated to the point where they would be most usefully abandoned.

Maybe we’re fact-based. And as a result sometimes over analyse and get bogged down in difficult decisions, rather than relying on instinct to make good fast choices when needed.

Again, if we can’t quickly identify the downside then we probably haven’t found a particularly useful differentiator - because if there is only upside then why wouldn’t everybody do the same thing?

If we can articulate what our values will cost us, and accept that we are prepared to bear that cost, then we’ve probably found something that is really important and uncommon.

Asking these three questions makes the whole process of articulating our values much more difficult but ultimately produces better results.

That’s worth it, right?

  1. I love the formulation suggested by Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation:

    Your mission statement should be nine words or less: verb, target, outcome.

  2. How to Start a Cultural Revolution, Ben Horowitz at StartupGrind, YouTube, 2016. ↩︎

  3. Kim Goodwin, Twitter, April 2019. ↩︎

  4. Is Your Greatest Strength also Your Biggest Weakness?, The Colourful Principal (via Internet Archive), 16th November 2013. ↩︎

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