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Values or Beliefs?

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Most company values are just a bunch of undifferentiated nice things, nearly always some combination of these ten:

  1. Integrity.
  2. Honesty.
  3. Fairness.
  4. Accountability.
  5. Promise to Customers.
  6. Diversity and Inclusion.
  7. Learning.
  8. Teamwork.
  9. Passion.
  10. Quality.

The basic concept is that if we’re aligned on a set of values, then we can trust each other to make decisions that "fit" our culture and values. They will help us hire colleagues who are aligned to our values. Values will boost morale.

"It's not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are."

— Roy E. Disney

Which company wouldn’t say they want to focus on honesty, teamwork, or passion? Do the words guide employee behavior or decisions? Do these words specify exactly behaviors we expect, or how we want our or employees to act? Do they tell us what the company stands for, or believes in? Do they tell us how to "walk the tightrope" and make appropriate tradeoffs?

Good - Values Must be Verbs

Do you use your company's values consistently when making decisions? Do you even remember your company’s values?

In order to breathe context and life into our values and beliefs, we need to be able to use them as verbs. So, the first thing we need to do to make them actionable and real is to translate them into verbs.

"For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not “integrity,” it’s “always do the right thing.” It’s not “innovation,” it’s “look at the problem from a different angle.” Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea... we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation. We can hold each other accountable to measure them or even build incentives around them. Telling people to have integrity doesn’t guarantee that their decisions will always keep customers’ or clients’ best interests in mind; telling them to always do the right thing does."

— Simon Sinek, "Start with Why"

Examples

  • Instead of courage say: “We question actions inconsistent with our values.
  • Instead integrity say: “We only say things about fellow employees directly to them.
  • Instead of openness say: "We say what we think, even if it is uncomfortable."

These examples are starting to show what living our values looks like. However, we can do even better. We often naturally think of choices in terms of "yes or no". For example: "Do I want to go out for dinner tonight?" The real choice is "where do I want to go for dinner?" Decisions and actions are about making tradeoffs.

Better - Values Specify Tradeoffs

Our time and resources are finite - saying "yes" to one option is saying "no" to other possible options. It's very hard to make choices when it requires you to discriminate among many good options. It's even worse if your values make your employees feel they are impossible to live up to, or that they are trapped - that they must somehow be "fast", "cheap", and "perfect".

For values to be truly useful they must specify the tradeoffs we should make. Nearly every decision we are asked to make every single day involves deciding what is most important to us and where we must compromise. Deciding what college to attend, car to buy, company to work for, candidate to elect—ultimately comes down to "even/over" decisions. Making these hard choices ultimately yields one consistent result: stress.

What can we tell our employees about our values that helps them understand our culture make the right decisions (and remove stress)? The most well-known example is Facebook's motto:

"Move fast and break things."

It’s not just “move fast”. Who doesn’t want to move fast? Instead, it's "move fast and break things".

Why give explicit permission to break things? Engineers at large internet organizations who are responsible for operating an organization's web presence abhor change. In order to keep operational stability they view making changes to systems like most of us view juggling chain saws - fun to watch someone else do it, but when it goes wrong it goes dreadfully wrong.

This value communicates perfectly that Facebook valued speed even/over stability and quality. It was meant to tell the engineers it was OK if the systems had some instability if that meant speed of delivery was improved. That is a clear tradeoff that allows for autonomous decisions - exactly what we want.

Nordstrom is another great example. They state what they are about right in their mission statement:

"Our mission is to continue our dedication to providing a unique range of products, exceptional customer service, and great experiences.

If I created a value statement for Nordstrom it might be "We take care of our customers, even/over taking care of our ourselves." I used to exclusively shop at Nordstrom's because I had the sense that if I ever had any problems they would be resolved in my favor.

Finally, let's take one more example from Netflix:

"We’re a team, not a family; We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team."

A friend said "I'd never want to work for Netflix after reading that." Another friend said "that's awesome they are so honest and upfront". This is a signal that Netflix phrased their values well. A good values statement should polarize. It should attract the right people and repel people whose core values don't align.

Remember, if we tell our employees we value "quality and speed" it's pointless. It's going to get a well-deserved eye-roll. However, if we tell our employees we value "quality even/over speed" now we have provided clear guidance about our values and enabled our employees to make appropriate choices. We will also attract the right people who value quality.

Example

Let's assume our company has a value called "Fairness". First, let's make our value a verb. Instead of just "fairness" how about:

"Always treat our customers and our employees equally and fairly."

Good. But we can do much better - let's specify the tradeoffs we expect:

"Always treat our customers and employees equally and fairly, even if that means we cannot satisfy some of our most demanding customers."

Our value is now clear. It will serve as a guide for our culture and enable our employees to operate independently and make decisions aligned with our concept of fairness.

Best - Beliefs, not Values

I believe a company should not have core values. Instead, I believe "core beliefs" are better and far more powerful.

Martin Luther King inspired change in a country where many people didn't want to change. In his famous speech he told us his core beliefs and where they could take us. He said "I believe..." and "I have a dream.." If your beliefs aligned with his you felt inspired. His dreams became your dreams. Shared beliefs were the "fuel" that inspired us to act.

Core beliefs begin with "I believe" or "We believe". Let's re-craft Facebook's "move fast and break things" as a belief:

"We believe we are the most powerful social media platform on earth. However, our competitors have access to the same technology and talent that we do, and they move quickly. As we grow we must keep our ability to move fast to continue to lead our industry. So, move fast and break things!"

How about Netflix:

"We believe business is a contact sport. There are winners and losers. Only the winners reap the rewards, and we believe in winning. We compete hard. We’re a team, not a family; We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. We are laser-focused on winning."

Get the idea? See how powerful beliefs can be?


Coda

The words "incision" and "decision" have the same Latin root; the verb incīdere, meaning “to carve” or “to cut into.” So, a decision is when you “cut away” the other options and commit to the one you’ve left intact.

In logic and philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb that you can use to “cut” weaker lines of reasoning — which can help you to make wiser judgments and cleaner decisions, quickly.

Most of us have heard of Occam's razor:

When confronted with equally plausible lines of reasoning, favor the one which makes fewer assumptions.

The concept in decision-making of a "razor" is a principle or guideline that is worded specifically enough to clearly slice up a set of options into whether they fit or not. Your beliefs and values must be the "razors" that guide your decisions.

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