Reversing Cause-Consequence of Company Values and Manifestos

3 minute read

After years of both being inside processes defining company values and manifestos and being outside facilitating that same activity, I found that there are two big fallacies everyone falls into:

  1. Values are static
  2. Values are made

Recently I was reading an article mentioning UsTwo’s retrospective on this subject, and toward the end it shows exactly these fallacies:

But if you’re the founder, leader, or a member of a team—and if you work in a creative field, odds are you are—take the time and mental energy to establish some guidelines and standards.
— A. Stadd (2015) A Solid Team is Built On a Solid Manifesto

Whis is fascinating, because the original article by UsTwo states that their principles have the opposite origin:

In January, our team held a retrospective … Uncover and clearly define the principles which helped form our team.
— T. Brown (2015) The 7 Habits of Hightly Effective Teams

(Btw, I cringe a bit for the title…)

So even in the tiny gap between one article to another, the two fallacies already emerged.

Instead, the reality is:

  1. Values are dynamic
  2. Values are emergent

Static vs Dynamic

I’ve seen this over and over: a company has values expressed in some form and expects these to be stable, across time and across locations.

How they think it will happen? Usually magic. They think that just spelling them out is enough to make them real, without acknowledging that every new person joining the company shifts that balance, and every different office might be… different, so if you want to standardized these you need to put active, conscious effort to highlight these values and keep them alive.

This can be done in multiple ways:

  1. Specific hiring attention, where the values are checked if they area already present in the hired person. This can be very tricky because hiring is already challengin by itself, plus it could lead to a very bad state of groupthink (everyone thinks the same so the company grows stale). Regardless, attention to hiring, tuned to what are your goals, is important.
  2. Specific attention to offices and locations, where a new office opened somewhere needs these values stated clearly and loudly, because they are new and not yet embedded in the local culture (it might not even be entirely possible for certain values to translate well in certain cultures). This is even more important in case of an acquisition, but that’s an entirely different topic.
  3. And the most important of all: demonstrating these values in the day-to-day work, with every sentence and every action. I’ve been in plenty of situations where values were generic, wishful thinking constructs, and nobody really embodied them. Values that aren’t embodied do more harm than good because just end up highlighting the hypocrisy of management.

Made vs Emergent

UsTwo did a brilliant thing. Values were emerged after years of working together, they weren’d mandated from the beginning.

So we started to distill our thoughts into a list of principles.

That’s absolutely key. Any management team that defines the values and propagates them down is setting up to fail. The values already exists, and everyone is expressing them. The company choice isn’t between having them or not having them, the real choice is highlighting them vs leaving them implicit.

This for two reasons:

  • Stating the good ones helps the company to focus, and gives a boost to the explicit ones.
  • Stating the values makes them more clearly communicated and understood.

So the activity of “defining the values” or the “company manifesto” isn’t a management activity, it’s the beginning of a communication and change activity.