How to Design Your Company Values
We recently ran an exercise to explore and define our values at BuffaloGrid. In part one, I unveiled our new values and explained why they matter. Here, in part two, I want to share the process we used to define our values.
Revisit your mission and vision
First, we revisited our mission and our vision, a healthy exercise to check our direction of travel before we starting to define and codify our values. We did this as a leadership team and with the help of an external guide (we used someone close to the business but impartial, to help structure the process, something I would highly recommend). It took a day, and after a few later revisions and a sense check with our board and investors, we were set.
Gather the team
The following day, we gathered the whole company, off-site, provided coffee and started work on our values. Getting everyone together like this is easier when the team is small and can all fit around a big table. For a larger company, I imagine a more complex, multi-session process would need to happen. But the idea should be the same — gather input from every team and every level of the company.
Set your working agreements
We first established our working agreements, which was a simple list, generated by everyone, of how the attitude we expected everyone to have towards the exercise.
Assess the values of other companies
We then reviewed the values of a number of other companies and discussed what we liked and what we didn’t like. This was was not about copying the values of other successful companies. It was to help provide examples of values, understand how they reflected in the company’s work and to help us critique these values. We discussed whether we thought the companies were living up to their values. We looked at whether we thought some of the values were sincere or perhaps disingenuous. And we looked a lot at the format of the value itself, how that value was communicated and how helpful we believed it would be for that company’s employees.
Establish what you want in a value
This process helped us get to a list of what we wanted our values to do and the shape they should take. We decided our values should act as meta-principles that govern our work. They should help us make decisions. They should be easy to remember, unique and not cold to the touch. We didn’t want a value, like every other company, that was simply “collaboration”. We saw that as a given. Instead, we wanted a series of distinct, overarching principles, that could be applied to all areas of our work, that helped direct us internally, and reflected our view of the world.
Share and understand everyone’s unique story at the company
We then each told our own story about BuffaloGrid. We each talked about what our mission meant to us. We shared stories from our time at BuffaloGrid that have stuck with us. Some people shared their experience of working with our users, others talked about what they loved about the business and our mission. Some people talked about the challenging times at the company and some people, newer to the company, shared their motivations for recently joining our team.
Generate ideas and group into themes
With these stories fresh in everyone’s mind we then, in groups, began writing down ideas, for what we believed our values were and what they should be. These ideas were shared, grouped into themes and then discussed, and challenged, at length by everyone. Yes — we built an Affinity Diagram, a classic group ideation exercise.
Perform a quick first draft of your values
As the final activity of the day, we collaboratively started capturing some of these now thematically grouped values into short, draft values. At the end, we had some rough draft values to follow-up on.
Capture everything, go to the pub
We added these to all our dozen or so flip charts, our hundreds of post-it notes and our many photographs of whiteboard scribblings. We then all went to the pub.
Write, re-write and gather feedback in short cycles
Over the next two weeks, one person, with regular review by a small group of great writers within the company, crafted these draft values into something that final. This part of the process was about working out how to communicate a complex idea with a simple, memorable and perhaps even provocative phrase. It took a lot of writing and re-writing and required a series of fast critiquing sessions. It was an exercise in copywriting, wordsmithing and editing, and it can’t be done by committee.
Share the values and get final buy-in
As the values were finalised, they were then shared with the whole company to check everyone still felt like they were an honest reflection of our collective values. These feedback sessions tapped into the spirit of in the original values session. There were healthy, robust debates, and they left everyone feeling energised.
The start of a journey
This process is not something we designed ourselves, and I have intentionally skipped a lot of the details. It was a framework designed primarily by our external guide, who played a critical role in the process, but with a lot of input from our leadership team. The key to a good process is to keep it simple and well structured. We wanted to create a forum for our ideas and then a process to review, refine and eventually distil those ideas down into our values. We know the process worked because everyone agreed that the output feels like an honest reflection of what we truly value.
The values I shared in part one of this blog post reflect where BuffaloGrid is now as a business. The team, founders and our stakeholders are all on board. But we’re far from finished. The process of defining a company’s values should be an ongoing and iterative one. In fact we’ve agreed to revisit these values again in three months time. We’ll learn from what works and what needs more attention.