Because having a few words written down somewhere is not enough.
It took me a good ten years of being in business to begin to see and appreciate the place and importance of core values. Fast forward to today and values are at the core of most of the success that I have been fortunate enough to experience. Values are how we as a group of people agree to show up with and for each other and they deserve a lot of time and effort.
Getting our values right at Nona and making them things that we live by has not only increased staff retention and productivity for us but they also lie at the heart of the thing that is most valuable about us — our culture.
As with most useful things in business, the concept is quite simple but the execution and detail are where the success or failure happens. It’s with that in mind that I wanted to share with you some of the things that have worked for us at Nona in terms of setting strong and meaningful core values and how we brought them to life so that they are part of the everyday language across the business.
To set some context, here are our core values:
Continuous improvement as a way of Life.
Communicate often and honestly — no matter what.
Be in it for each other.
Be generous with your knowledge.
Values should not be aspirational.
This one usually divides the room and that’s OK, I like to divide rooms.
Values are things that already exist in your organisation. They are the things that already guide decisions and behaviour, especially when things get tough.
Values are not things that you want to become, values are things that you already are and that you want to nurture.
If you haven’t already set (and love) your organisation’s core values this exercise can you get you started:
- Get as many people in your business together as possible.
- Get everyone to answer this single question: “If you could clone 1 person in this organisation to achieve extraordinary things who would it be?”
- Once you have all the answers, it’s likely that there will be one person’s name that is mentioned more than anyone else.
- Once you have that name, ask this question: “What are the qualities of this person that makes you want to clone them?”.
- The answers that you get will almost certainly be attributes that can be massaged into values. This is a great start to defining your values because they are things that already exist and that can be nurtured.
Values should, as far as possible be co-created.
The more people you include in the creation and refinement of your values the better chance you have of them being strong, meaningful and well adopted.
If you walk into a room after a weekend away developing your values and tell everyone in the business that “these are now our values” you’re likely to encounter some resistance, and rightly so. Conversely, if you involve people in the process, the outcome is likely to be a lot more effective.
If you are a more mature business with your values already defined, you might get value from bringing people into the process by co-creating what the value means for the day-to-day, which is a great segway to the next point.
Explain what your values actually mean for the day-to-day.
If we want people to live these values day in and day out, we need to do the work to explain what this means. This should start at the interview stage for new hires and it should be explicitly communicated that if someone wants to work at your business that the values are a mutual agreement of how everyone shows up in the context of the business.
The most effective way for me to illustrate this is to share an example of how we did this:
Value: Continual improvement as a way of life.
We have a common interest (obsession) with learning and the constant pursuit of excellence in everything that we do. We understand that there are no absolutes and that this pursuit is life long. Nona exists in a space that requires constant upskilling and improvement, and without this focus we will very quickly become obsolete.
Continual improvement in many aspects of our lives is core to who we are and we support and nurture this always.
We recognise that truly continuous improvement is only possible if we are taking care of our health and relationships and we do our best to nurture this in ourselves and others.
Only through seeking to continually improve our craft will we have the opportunity to work on projects that truly matter — only then will we be privileged enough to build the things that change the world.
Illustrate your values beautifully and make them visible.
Once you have your values worded well, agreed on by as much of the team as possible, and explained in terms of what they mean and how they help guide behaviour, it’s time to get them designed up beautifully and made visible.
If you have an office, get posters made and stick them up around the office for people to see often.
If you are a remote team, build them into your daily huddles, company-wide standups, quarterly reports and whatever else you can. It’s important that they are nice to look at and seen often.
Repeat your values often.
This is the part that is often quite uncomfortable but absolutely crucial if you want your values to be adopted, believed in and lived.
Once you have your values agreed on and well worded, you need to repeat them, all the time and it’s going to feel awkward.
In my experience, it’s usually around the 10th time that things like this are repeated that people start hearing them for the first time.
At first, you’ll likely be ignored.
Then it’s likely that you’ll get some eye-rolling and some ‘not this stuff again’.
Then it’s likely that people will actually start hearing it and thinking about it.
Then, eventually, you’ll experience the magic moment when someone other than yourself mentions a value and it’s at that point that the values begin to become much bigger than you.
If you have a daily huddle, start off by sharing the values and ask different people to read them out.
If you have a weekly Company-wide standup, start or end with sharing the values.
If you have a company chat platform like Slack, make the effort to recognise and celebrate people for living the values with short stories of how they did so.
If you have a quarterly report, open with sharing your values.
It will feel awkward but if you persist it will take a life of its own and it will become bigger than you and that’s when the magic begins to happen.
Statements are more powerful than a single word.
Many companies simply use words like Honesty, Integrity, Trust etc. And while those values in principle are hard to argue with, it is my experience that they lack context and the ability to actually influence behaviour.
This is why we eventually realised that single words weren’t enough and that we wanted to make them into statements that can be acted on and that people can be guided by.
As an example, we started with ‘communication’ which then evolved to ‘communicate always’ which has evolved to ‘communicate often and honestly — no matter what’.
It is my experience that the current and more ‘statement like’ iteration is far more useable and real to be able to actually use and be guided by.
Revisit your values often.
Values are never complete and should be revisited often. For us, we revisit them every quarter at our quarterly planning sessions and after so many years of doing this work, we still make slight changes often.
It will likely take a good few iterations until you really love your values but the effort is really worth it.
Business at its core is just people doing things with other people and with that in mind, core values and how they are discovered, nurtured, brought to life and lived can be a major asset to your business and the people that come into contact with it.
I am the co-founder and CEO of Nona where continuous improvement is a way of life. We work with funded businesses to accelerate their software projects. If you have a project you’d like to discuss, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading.