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

I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of startup teams as they work through the process of articulating and documenting their shared values.

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

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 I’ve found can help filter the signal from the noise…

Who believes the opposite?

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

If we believe that our differentiator is that we will create a product that is beautiful and easy to use, we should think about who we believe is intentionally building something ugly and unnecessarily complicated?

If we say that our customers come first, we need to point to those 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 identify 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.

(Interestingly, explicitly stating the opposite value often makes the thing that we’re actually 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.

What do we believe that most people don’t?

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 those great people will be tempted to join this 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. We need to own the process we’ll use.

Our revealed priorities expose our stated priorities. 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.1

Are we changing the world or changing ourselves?

What does this cost?

Finally, find the downside and acknowledge it. Document the “however…”

We often worry more about appearing not to have problems than about achieving our desired outcomes, and therefore avoid recognising that our own mistakes and/or weaknesses are causing the problems.

Our defining characteristics are usually also our biggest vulnerability.2 Understanding those weaknesses is much more likely to help us avoid our downfall 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 behaved poorly in the past 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 beliefs 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?

This idea, shared with me by Ryan Baker, is great advice for what to do next, after you’ve got a first draft of your values:

One thing I found worked well after the [Timely] values were drafted was to used them only at employee inductions for a year or so. We sharpened up our values a bunch based on the response and feedback we got from folks who just joined the team.

  1. See “Culture beyond platitudes” in this talk by Ben Horowitz:


  2. Source: The Colourful Principal ↩︎