Company values aren’t bullshit

We have a regular quarterly event at Pusher that we call QP. I made the theme of the most recent one “The Pusher Way”. As we’ve just crossed the 50-person mark, it seemed like a good time to take stock of the way that we do things.

This was driven by a growing concern that we might lose the one thing that makes our company special: its culture. As we grow, the concentration of people who truly understand our approach gets smaller and smaller. To address this issue, we placed company values at the centre of our focus.

I’d like to share the parts of it that I believe made it a successful exercise. I spent a lot of time refining the approach we’d take, partly to counter any perception that we were engaging in a silly corporate ritual. At the end of one of the sessions someone wrote that their biggest lesson was that “company values aren’t bullshit”, so I consider the work mostly worthwhile.

There were three steps that contributed to the success:

  1. Communicating why a company needs values
  2. Deciding on the specific values
  3. Making the values real

Communicating why a company needs values

As hinted at above, the idea of a company having values strikes some people as being rather meaningless. But there’s lots of evidence that given the proper treatment, they can become the core of a company’s success (I really like how it is described in Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage). I therefore took great care to communicate:

  1. Why we needed to understand our company’s values at this particular point in time
  2. What I understand company values to mean (and why it might be different from other places)
  3. Stress that values are a tool for helping decision-making occur at a tactical level

For us, the reason for addressing our values was to preserve them in a period of rapid growth. Understanding what they are, means recognising what we want to keep and protect. It’s not that we didn’t have company values, it was just that they were implicit in the shared memory of a few people.

Secondly, I feel it is really important for leaders to explain what their definition of a widely used phrase is. Ideas get lost and distorted the more widely used they are (the current trend of mistrusting “Agile” is related).

To me, values are a way of promoting autonomy. They do this by giving people a common way of making decisions in the best interests of the company. We can’t tell everyone how to act, but we can try to tell them how to decide things on the company’s behalf.

The culture of our company also springs out of our values. Without the values, the company wouldn’t be the same enjoyable and challenging place to work.

Deciding on the values

As well as communicating why values are needed for a growing company. I also believe it’s necessary to have a clear and transparent process for explaining how the values are chosen.

Choosing the right company values is very difficult. Especially if you want to avoid the trap of sounding like every other company. Getting them wrong leads to hollow values that don’t ring true. Botched efforts to choose values strengthens the myth that they are bullshit, regardless of how well-meant it is.

The primary purpose is to clarify and codify values that already exist. For the most part, you’re not looking to create new values from scratch. I sought to bring together values from a number of sources, with a strong emphasis on the first two:

  • My own personal values as a founder
  • Successful behaviours that had emerged from the team
  • Values “borrowed” from companies we admire
  • Values that we need to emphasise for our specific stage (e.g. exploration vs execution)

Seven values came out of this process. Seven is high enough to provide nuance about Pusher’s unique approach, but is small enough to be easy to remember. These were presented as draft values — we were free to change them if we needed to.

Although the values derive partly from the team, it is important not to decide the final list via consensus. I analysed them myself, and presented the ones that made the most sense. One of my founder friends told me that they’d done exactly that in a failed attempt to establish their own values.

The goal is not to make everyone happy, or to include every single trait of every person. Editing is necessary to get to the essence of things.

For reference, Pusher’s V2 values are:

  • Be Generous
  • Dream big, start small
  • Embrace difference
  • Optimise for learning
  • Be adaptable
  • No bullshit

Note that there are six in this list, because we squished two of them together to highlight the tension between them. This was an important part of the process, and a benefit from working closely with our teams to understand them.

Making the values real

The final step for us was to make the values real for people. I didn’t want to simply present my ideas about them and then put something on the wall.

The values become real when we relate them to the work we do; show how they helped us make decisions; and when we are honest with ourselves about our failure to live them.

We explored these topics in group sessions. These consisted of asking questions such as:

  • What have we done recently that embodies value X?
  • What are things we do in the next quarter to live value X better?
  • What confuses you about value X?

We helped surface individual viewpoints by using some time for people to come to their own conclusions before sharing with everyone else. Seeing new interpretations of the values from everyone was very important. It even led to revising the original list.

The challenge now is to make the values part of our working life. We have to live up to the expectation that they will significantly help us to operate better. We’ll incorporate them into rituals such as retrospectives, 15Fives, and our weekly all-hands meetings.

I’d love to hear of other people’s experiences doing similar exercises. I can also supply more details that I had to cut out of this post. You can chat to me via Twitter, I’m @maxthelion.

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