Values are the principal components of culture in both individuals and teams alike. Despite being important, most people don’t take the time to decide on their own values, and companies often struggle when trying to express their shared beliefs.
I used to think the problem was that people just aren’t interested and either don’t want to spend the time to write their own values, or have other things to do that are more important than learning about their team’s values. That’s recently changed over the past few years; now I think the problem isn’t interest or finding time. It’s actually about information content.
Bad values contain no information and sound agreeable to everyone. Good values, on the other hand, contain information and by definition sound disagreeable to someone.
How much information does a value or statement contain? There are many answers; in fact, this is one of the root questions of information theory.
When it comes to personal and team values, however, it’s much simpler. You can answer this with a single question: would anybody claim to value the opposite? If the answer is no, then your value doesn’t contain information.
We value timeliness.
This sounds polite and agreeable, but contains no information whatsoever. After all, who values tardiness?
We value shipping products.
Opposite: we value not shipping products. Companies who value not shipping exist for a very short time. Bad.
When faced with this scenario, you have at least two options: don’t say it (because it’s obvious), or make it more specific. The one thing you shouldn’t do is to say you’re something you are not.
Let’s make “we value timeliness” more specific. I think it’s Andressen Horrowitz who had/has a policy where partners tardy to pitch meetings with entrepreneurs have to pay $100 for each minute they’re late.
5 minutes late to an entrepreneur’s pitch meeting? That’s a $500 fine. Ouch. Would someone say that’s too much? Probably.
Instead of “we value releasing products,” how about: “we value shipping something as soon as possible and are willing to accept product defects as long as we can fix them later, and we always escalate our incident response staffing when we do release something.” Values don’t need to fit on the back of a T-shirt.
If the outrage mob comes knocking, congratulations: your values contain information. While intimidating, the outrage mob is just a black hole. But instead of destroying mass, it tries to destroy anything that contains information.
When done well, good values guide us through challenges, tumult, and uncertainty. When we make it through, the only guaranteed reward is that we get to play again, this time with a new set of challenges. And as we graduate from one challenge to the next, we should make a point to periodically evaluate if our values are still in line with who we want to be. After all, what gets you here doesn’t necessarily get you there.
So, who do you want to be?