Three steps to discover the core values driving our company culture

- Management 3.0

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by Jurgen Appelo

Our Management 3.0 team had a fascinating series of discussions recently. We talked about our core values, and we made some important decisions!

Like an infant not being aware of its personality, a startup cannot properly articulate its culture and values. Sure, you can be smart enough to describe your espoused values, but your enacted values will have to emerge over time — they are not designed upfront. And the culture and values of a startup can be in a state of flux for awhile.

After two years of working as a team, I decided to take our pulse to see where we stand.

First, I checked the values we tag in Bonusly, the app that we use for Merit Money, our peer-to-peer bonus system. In the tool, in order to acknowledge teammates and to give them bonus points or Merit Money, you have to hashtag the giving with a team value. For a good while, we had the informal practice of allowing each new team member to add a new value after onboarding, and we deleted the value that we used the least.

This Bonusly values list was the first of three lists of values that I used in my assessment.


Next, I invited the team for an online Zoom conversation about the following question:

“Give us one example of what makes you feel good working with the Management 3.0 team, and you wished that every day was like that.”

Our team members came up with plenty of great examples like “I like the flexibility of the work, and the responsibility and trust we get,” and “I like learning about myself and how to work on remote teams.”

From all these examples, I deduced the second list of values for my assessment.

Third and last, I had a good look at our #value-stories channel on our team Slack. This is the channel that we prefer to use when we discuss ethical challenges, difficult decisions, or any other topics that we feel are important to our team’s culture. I checked all discussions we had in the last six months and derived a third list of values for my assessment.

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Needless to say, the three lists of values differed significantly. Some values that we used in our bonus system never emerged in our online discussions, including, interestingly enough, the most popularly attributed “commitment.” And vice versa, there were some values clearly identified in our conversations on Slack and Zoom that were not available when we credited each other in Bonusly.

Another issue was that our team used different words that almost (but not quite) meant the same thing. For example, I consider risk, experimentation, and learning all to be in the same category. And I also decided to count honesty, sincerity, and candor as the same thing. This is how we were able to discover our core company values.

After all this soul-searching and tag-counting, I found that three values were mentioned in each of the three sources for this assessment:

  • boldness (or initiative or assertiveness)
  • kindness (or compassion or helpfulness)
  • creativity

And the following seven values were mentioned in two out of the three sources:

  • flexibility
  • patience
  • spontaneity
  • risk (or experimentation or learning)
  • honesty (or sincerity or candor)
  • trust
  • fairness (or integrity)

Based on these results, I suggested to the team that we make the first three values our core values. This means that, from now on, we should use these to guide our daily decisions. And because phrases are easier to remember than a list of words, we changed them into these small but memorable pieces of text or value statements:

  • Dare to be bold.
  • Always be kind.
  • Make it creative.

For some of us, this may be a challenge. For example, I have no problem being bold and creative — I do that almost without thinking. But kindness is the one I struggle with all the time, and it’s good to have this reminder that the team appreciates more kindness. Other team members may struggle with boldness or creativity. It is up to the team to remind ourselves (and each other) of these core values on a regular basis.

We agreed to use the first three along with the next seven values making up our ten value list of tags in Bonusly:

  • #boldness
  • #kindness
  • #creativity
  • #flexibility
  • #patience
  • #spontaneity
  • #risk
  • #honesty
  • #trust
  • #fairness

It will be interesting to see how the new list of values is going to change our perception of performance and collaboration as a team.

As I said, a team’s culture and values can change. This is probably even truer for startups and younger teams than for mature groups. It will be worth doing the entire exercise again in a year or two, based on the stories we will have then.

What does your values list look like? How did you come up with these values? Tell us in the comments below.

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