Why values are valuable

I wrote this for my colleagues, who liked it and suggested I share it here.

Companies are born, not made

When we began Brilliant Noise we started with a bright shining vision. So bright that you couldn’t look at it directly for very long. When you did you caught a sense of the shape and where it was in the firmament, but what exactly it was going to be wasn’t clear.

Visions are like that. The good ones, anyway.

Companies aren’t designed things. Even companies that appear most well-designed, are far more complex, nuanced and fluid than they appear in business school case studies.

They aren’t designed, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t planned. There’s a metric zettaton of planning that goes in companies of all sizes — and some of it actually has an effect, actually becomes part of the reality of that business.

Think of IBM’s network-mapping in the early ’00s. Network-mapping back then was a way of looking behind the plan, the designed ideal of a company that was the organogram, and seeing how it really worked. Who talked to who, not who was meant to talk to who in the official process. Looking at emails, or conversations, or who people spoke to the most, unexpected insights emerged. People who looked like bit players in the organogram turned out to be pivotal. Some with grand titles and paper fiefdoms turned out to be isolated and be far less influential than expected.

Let’s stick with networks for a moment. In Connected, the best primer on network theory I’ve read, Christakis and Fowler outline five rules of human social networks. They start simply — people in your network influence you — and build to their mind-bending fifth rule — “Networks have a mind of their own”.

Social networks looked at from a distance are super-organisms — they act and behave without any single one of their individual members being in charge. Think of corporations as the social networks that they are, and you realise that organisations are organisms. It is more useful to think of companies like this than as individuals, the useful but incomplete metaphor made famous in the book and movie, The Corporation. The Corporation’s argument was that as the law treated these organisations as individuals we can think of them like that and that they are psychopaths. A corporation can’t be a psychopath because it isn’t a human being, it is a creature made of human beings. Whether that is more or less terrifying is a subject for another time.

So these creatures called companies aren’t designed. They are born, they form and emerge as the sum of the behaviours and decisions and world-view of the people they comprise. That’s not to say they are an aggregate of the whole personalities of all of the people in them. People are different when they are at work — they put on different masks, enact different personas, based on how they perceive people expect them to behave, by copying the actions and values and ways of working around them (see Herd, by Mark Earls).

Which is why values are so important. Why principles matter so much. If they are real, used by people in the organisation all the time, values give a sense of what kind of company will emerge. When they fade or slip into the background (“don’t be evil?”) the company changes, a new kind of super-organism emerges.

Values and value

Let’s look at this from another angle. The word “value”. It has a few meanings — but the first two are most important in creating a company’s values:

value |ˈvaljuː| noun 1 [ mass noun ] the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: your support is of great value…. 2 (values) principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life: they internalize their parents’ rules and values.

In the first sense — worth — Brilliant Noise exists to create value. For its clients, its people and its shareholders. We do this — according to our business plan — in three ways:

1. Who we work with — The client relationships we build, the individuals there we work with, their customers. Our people and our partners.

2. How we work — Our ways of working, how we use our knowledge, our tools, our standards of quality.

3. Our reputation — What others say about us, what they know of our work and our opinion.

Not all those kinds of value are measurable. The output, though, is revenue, the life-blood of the company, flowing through our company and back out into people’s pay packets, into investment pots for innovation, training, systems, tools, cultural activities and growth.

The second definition is what we mean when we talk about the company’s values. Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life: they internalize their parents’ rules and values.

Potentially confusingly, of course, we also have a set of Brilliant Noise principles, covering ways of working. The best way to think about these is that they are about how we do things. Our values are different because they are what we want to be. This verb — to be — is the heart of what our values are. They aren’t a list of things to do so much as a list of things to be.

Our values

So: Values. Brilliant Noise’s values.

Our values were drawn up early in the company’s development. When there were only three or four of us. We invested precious time and energy that could have gone into selling things or doing work for clients into developing a set of values to sit with our vision and strategy as the foundation of the company.

Why did we do that?

We did it because we wanted to build a company for the long-term and a company that would grow fast and be home to an enduring culture that made an attractive place for talented people to work and develop their careers.

The time getting them right was spent with the same rationale as investing in the best people, technology, advisors and brand that we could. It was better to get these things right at the outset than trying to reverse engineer them once the company had already grown.

Thinking back to that idea of the superorganism, it’s no wonder that it is very hard to get people to accept a set of values created later on in the history of the company. They are foreign objects, ideas that are easy for the host body of people to reject or ignore.

There will already be a way of doing things, already be values at work — they might not be written down, but they will be there in the way that people speak, the way they work together, the decisions they make, the priorities they set. The values might be inspiring or quite ugly — but they are there and they are lived and implicitly understood by everyone working there and everyone who joins within a few days or weeks of joining. The outcome of these values is what sociologists call norms.

At Brilliant Noise, we set our values out to be things that we believe to be important. Things we feel personally are important, and the things that would make a company successful if they were held to be true, if they were lived and understood clearly.

• Ambition. Our energy. Wanting our company, our clients, ourselves to be the best they can be.

• Wellness. We balance ambition by being mindful of our own and our colleagues’ wellness.

• Curiosity. We always want to know more. We are more interested than critical of things that don’t fit.

• Discipline. We do what we say we will.

• Community. We live in and are part of communities — we are generous with time, support and ideas.

• Do & make. Prototypes are better than proposals.

• Humility. Success and ideas aren’t down to us alone. There are always people doing work that can inspire us.

• Flow. We value deep thinking and operating at peak performance. Getting to flow-state is something we value, support and protect.

All of these values are the things we need to be if we are to create value — in who we work with, how we do it and our reputation…

Ambition means we care enough to create amazing things; wellness that we are able to do it without getting ill all the time; we discover new ideas and value faster because we do & make; we’re curious enough to keep learning and improving things; have enough discipline to make things work well; are part of a community — or communities — that will nourish and support us because we put more back than we take out; that we can succeed with humility and avoid the short-sightedness and ugliness of arrogance; and that we can work in flow — that state where we are just uncomfortable enough to excel but not so much that we suffer real anxiety.

These are foundations of Brilliant Noise, of the Brilliant Way, as we call it. These are the things we want to guide the growth of our company — the evolution of its culture.

So we will make great big posters of them. Because we’re proud of them and want to remember them. We’ll talk about them every week — we have a discussion at every Monday meeting about one of our values — because we want to know where we live up to them and where we don’t. We’ll print them out and bring them to meetings, we’ll invoke them when we are trying to explain why we think a decision is right — or wrong — or needs more consideration.

We’ll tweak, and challenge and question them too. Because they matter — because values are how we create value.