Monday, August 18, 2014

Define the Values in Simple, Sixth-Grade Language

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the full introduction, go here.

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Here's Nader's first rule again, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language. Words mean different things to different people. Therefore, it is important that the words used to define the values be simple, clear, and easily understood by the constituents and are not jargon. This leaves no room for creative (mis)interpretation of the values and avoids using words that have different meanings or can’t be translated in other languages.

This one I think we did a pretty good job with. As I revealed and described in greater detail here, the four core values of our organization are:

We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

We work together to deliver exceptional service.

Simple, straightforward language. Reflecting back on what could possibly be misunderstood or misinterpreted, the only phrase that probably needs greater clarification is "creating new value for our members." Everything else, I think, is comprised of words and phrases that are intended to mean exactly what their dictionary definitions say. No jargon or hidden messages here.

Additionally, remember that we also defined a series of behavior statements to go with each of our core values. These were intended to be observable actions by which everyone in the organization could see and understand that the person exhibiting them was living up to the intent of the core value. This adds an extra layer of definition, intended to avoid confusion and misunderstandings, but certainly some of these statements stray from Nader's guidance about sixth-grade language.

Here, for example, is the list of behaviors that goes with Leadership:

1. We are concise and articulate in our speech and writing.
2. We minimize complexity, and look for efficiencies that can be shared across the organization.
3. We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments.
4. We engage others in iterative processes that result in higher levels of value and engagement.
5. We think strategically, make wise decisions despite ambiguity, and act with intention.
6. We challenge prevailing assumptions, suggest better approaches, and create new ideas that prove useful.
7. We exhibit a bias towards action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.
8. We take smart risks, learn from our mistakes, and share lessons with others.

Some of these seem straightforward; at least to me. But others, I admit, probably need even further definition if they are to be universally understood by everyone in our organization. We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments, for example, is one that some people have asked about. Here's my interpretation: When things are confused and uncertain, members of our staff should consistently display the leadership that is necessary to bring clarity and understanding about what is trying to be accomplished. Not just among ourselves, but especially with our members, volunteers, and Board members. How one does that is intentionally left open to experimentation and interpretation, but that is the outcome the behavior statement is directed toward.

The fact that this hasn't been clear to everyone (along with many of the other behavior statements) makes me wonder if Nader wouldn't suggest that I rewrite the behavior statements to make them easier for a sixth-grader to understand. For our Leadership value, that would result in a very different list:

1. Be brief and precise.
2. Keep it simple; and do more with less.
3. Show people the way.
4. Engage others in each new attempt to succeed.
5. Think about the big picture.
6. Try new things and keep what works.
7. When uncertain, act.
8. Take risks, and share your mistakes.

Which list is better? Although there are some nuances from the first list that have been eliminated in the second, the second list is clearly more memorable, and more likely, I think, to result in a unified understanding among a diverse group of people. We may still argue about how to do these things, but the intent of each statement is much more accessible.

Looks like I have some rewriting to do.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. Well, you know the old maxim: everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. With your number 3, I think "Show people the way" may not capture what you were trying to get at with "bringing purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments" (though I agree the original statement might not be simple enough, either). Here's where being iterative matters. Try new language, and then see what behavior emerges. If the behavior strays, then the language probably didn't hit the mark.

    1. I agree entirely, Jamie. Now, what does iterative mean again?