By Jeff Schwaber and Travis Marsh
November 11, 2021
We’ve all heard high-profile stories of companies adopting Vision, Mission, and Values and seeing amazing business success come out of them. Netflix, in particular, is known for its strong values statements and recruiting people who firmly agree with them. At least, this seems to be what most organizational culture consultants conclude. However, there are just as many stories of these inspirational statements and guideposts being a waste of time or even steering companies off-track.
Let’s start by defining briefly what is the “VMV” of an organization. According to the typology created by strategy expert Graham Kenny in a piece for Harvard Business Review, these terms refer to:
- Vision: a statement that aims to clarify your company’s ideal future state. This expectation is meant to take the thinking beyond day-to-day work.
- Mission: a statement that helps everyone within the organization stay focused. It describes the sector the company is in, the different products/services it provides, the type of clients it serves, and how it serves them.
- Values: these describe the desired culture and serve as a behavioral compass for staff (the way to act, the way to be). From these company’s values usually derives a set of principles. If the first ones are the guideposts, principles are the guardrails or hard boundaries we set for ourselves.
The first two are more aspirational and are typically crafted by founders, as they reflect why they are taking the initiative—or risk—to start the company. Values, on the other hand, are often a collaboration with the leadership team. When an organization is small, it makes sense for the founders to create the Vision, Mission, and Values. They often are the reason why early employees join a higher-risk start-up. But once the company has matured and grown, like most tasks, leaders need to ensure that a diverse group of employees is included in the evolution of the VMV.
Sometimes when leaders build the Vision, Mission, and Values on their own, without input, the impact on the organization is boldly bad. These VMV tend to be aspirational and grand, and they don’t usually connect with the reality and priorities of the team. When they feel too much of a stretch and unrealistic, people silently mock the words. So either the organization lives with a disconnect between the daily work of the team and the lofty aspirations of the leaders, or the leadership team attempts to indoctrinate everyone, generating conflict. Unsurprisingly, the team tends to resent this, and it doesn’t help their cohesion or productivity.
Instead of being inspiring, particularly during challenging times, these cargo cult VMV are forgotten, like old shoes in the back of the closet. And particularly with values, if leaders themselves don’t exhibit them, the rest of the staff will ignore them too.
Can values harm?
Not long ago, Travis was having an interesting conversation with a close friend on whether defining values at the company or the team level matters. This friend is a phenomenal leader. He’s technically excellent and a deeply caring individual. So when he said he was on the fence about whether articulating values was of any worth to his organization, Travis paid close attention.
We often recommend companies craft values collaboratively. This leader argued, however, that articulating values can be anywhere from a frivolous waste of time to a self-induced disaster. So Travis wanted to dig into what makes them have such different effects in different contexts. Here are some of the most common ways these definition exercises fail:
- Creating values that don’t impact the business. They may be cute, and people like them, but they don’t do anything. They’re just fluffy words that nobody cares about and guide no behavior.
- Creating values that are confusing, contradictory, or so open to personal interpretation that they are meaningless. The same goes for those that are long and complicated or adopting too many values. People don’t remember or think of them.
- As with the Vision and Mission, adopting top-down aspirational Values statements that don’t connect with people’s lived experience.
- When leaders don’t follow the values they set. This hypocrisy becomes evident for everyone in the organization.
Comedian Jon Stewart’s quip gets to the heart of it: “if you don’t stick to your values when they are being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.” There is no reason to define values that we are not going to use to guide our decisions and behavior. In contrast, when we reinforce and live the values that we say we aspire to, that’s when we can build enormous trust and loyalty as leaders.
So before you put work into a values exercise that is just going to be paper tacked to a wall, ask yourself how you are going to connect the values you want to clarify to the day-to-day operations of the business:
- Will you test-drive them yourself and only roll them out to the whole company once you see yourself using them daily?
- Will you ensure that everyone in the company feels heard and included, or do you want these values to push people into a place where they either need to change or leave?
- Will you evaluate the values regularly to determine their usefulness to the organization and how they guide decisions
You may find, like some of our clients have, that what you want with a values exercise is to change the culture, and that requires more work than just writing down words on paper. Changing culture starts with deciding where you want the culture to go, but then takes a winding path through challenging interpersonal conversations and growth. You will find this more interesting and worthwhile than defining values that won’t get used.