Monday, April 2, 2012

Every Organization Needs Two Values Statements

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So I finished reading Humanize on my last airplane trip a few days ago, and there are a few more things I want to say about it.

If you're not familiar with the book, it's a deft and well-reasoned battle cry from Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant for making organizations more human in our increasingly social age--by which the authors mean making them more open, more trustworthy, more generative, and more courageous.

Chapter 7 is about being trustworthy, and there are several pages in there about the importance of having a values statement--a clear and transparent declaration of what actions, beliefs and assumptions your organization values.

Now, I have a confession to make. I've always hated values statements. There was a time when I would have been ashamed to admit that. But no more. I'm comfortable confessing it now because Humanize has helped me understand why I hate them so much.

They're fake. And being fake, they too often undermine the very purpose they were created to fulfill.

The next time someone talks about creating a values statement, do what I'm going to do. Tell them you'll only participate if you actually get to write two of them.

Call the first your current values statement. It will be an honest and direct summary of what the organization actually does value. Butts in chairs, hours on timesheets, whatever makes Ruthie in accounting happy. It's time to take the gauze off everyone's eyes and have real conversation. Whatever makes your organization tick, you've got to be able to say those things out loud, get them up on your flipchart paper, and make sure everyone agrees that they accurately describe your current values before you're ready to move on.

And moving on means writing your second values statement, what I'll call your aspirational values statement. This one describes the values you wished the organization embraced. The values it needs to embrace if it is going to succeed in a way that produces meaningful change for its customers or stakeholders.

The problem with not taking this dual approach when writing values statements is that it leaves too much to everyone's assumptions about what they're doing. And if those assumptions don't all align, then the project is doomed to failure.

Many leaders are reluctant to have a conversation about current values, and I don't blame them. It takes a lot of courage to embrace the level of honesty necessary to write one. So instead they skip that step and rush right into the aspirational statement. The problem is that they are seldom clear about what they are doing. Some participants may think they've actually been asked to describe the organization's current values, and the disillusion and frustration comes quickly when they realize that something else entirely is going on.

This is where all the flowery language that usually populates values statements comes from. The words come easy because they are largely meaningless. They don't describe reality and people suspect that there's no real intention of working towards them, so what does it matter? "Excellence"? Sure, sounds good. We can be about excellence. Wait, I know! How about "optimal performance"!

One solution may be to be very clear about the aspirational nature of the exercise. But without grounding everyone in a collective understanding of the organization's current situation, these more transparent exercises can also quickly become meaningless. If the leader isn't willing to acknowledge where things are, can he or she really expect a productive consensus about where things need to go? Identifying targets to aim for is a good thing. But unless there are realistic pathways for an organization to use in hitting them, they probably do more harm than good. Rather than inspire people, unrealistic targets depress morale, especially if the leader proposing them seems out of touch with practical realities.

So I say write two values statements--one that describes your current values and another that describes those that you aspire to. Then, roll up your sleeves and put the statements to work by figuring out how your organization can move from the first to the second.


  1. It's an interesting approach Eric, and one that I think makes a lot of sense. Essentially the current values statement would answer the question: what really drives how things get done around here?" I've often found that creating the statement, difficult as it can be, is not nearly as important as then creating the behavioral alignment mechanisms that the new values require. I think Colins and Porras talk about the need for 80% or more of the leader's efforts need to be devoted to the latter.

    In my last consultant practice our team had a pretty decent system with embers of the team each serving on an alignment team for one of our values, essentially charged with being the conscience of that value. Time at each of our retreats (the only time we all met together physically) would focus on reviewing the alignment mechanisms, where we needed work, and how the mechanisms cold be refined. Here's a link to a PDF offering a sample of what we did:

  2. Thanks for sharing, Jeffrey. I especially like the "one possible process" articulated on the last page of the document. It seems like a reasonable way to deal with the fact that identifying desirable values is only part of the battle. In my experience, nearly every organization proclaims their values and nearly every organization does nothing to consciously align itself with them.