Tough Decisions and Business Values

Because the issue recently came up, I thought I would offer a quick note about Business Values…

When you are trying to write value statements for your company or nonprofit or team or community group, you can’t simply list a whole bunch of “nice things.” Those lists get posted on some web-page or coffee room corkboard and never get read again. Why? Because no one is going to think twice about them. I mean, why would they? Who doesn’t think “excellence,” and “honesty” are good things?

It’s almost comical to think of putting “excellence” in a list of values. Think about it. That’s like waking up every day and saying, “Today, I’m going to be awesome. Yesterday I chose not to be awesome. But today is going to be different.” That kind of broad exceptionalism is not a real value statement. It doesn’t challenge you or your company to do anything besides agree that “good things are good” and “bad things are bad.” “Don’t be bad,” you say. And they all nod in agreement. “You should be excellent,” you say. And they nod again. Meeting adjourned.

If you think that your company has fallen victim to the feel-good, rainbows-and-puppies approach to culture and value statements, don’t lose hope. You can follow these two rules and get those corkboard posters whipped into shape.

First, a value statement must reflect “these versus those” values.

Second, a value statement must reflect “this versus that” definition.

That may be cryptic, but bear with me – they’re really quite simple to understand. Let’s tackle the first one. When you convene your brainstorming team, you must first focus on selecting values, of the many out there, that are most important to your organization. In fact, you can find great lists of business values online which are a perfect starting point for a brainstorming session. But keep in mind that there are MANY values. You need to whittle it down to 1-3. Some people say 5, but 5 is a lot for a multinational company. Your nonprofit can probably do fine with just 2. I like to encourage people to focus on 2 – one value that reflects how your culture deals with people and one value that reflects how your culture deals with products or results. Google famously was able to condense this down into one, three-word phrase, “Don’t be evil.” This aptly reflected the founders’ views towards use of their technology and data as well as treatment of customers and employees. People and product all in one. Bam.

Let’s say you’ve had your session, and you’ve got your list down to 2 or 3 values that are at the heart of your company. Great! Now comes that hard part.

The second rule focuses on refining your values through their definitions. When I said “excellence” is not a value, what I meant is that “striving for excellence” does not always convey a choice. Imagine for a second that you chose excellence as a value. “Well I want to be excellent!” you say. To which I would respond, “Instead of what?” If your answer is something negative, you haven’t thought hard enough. The “this versus that” choice is about choosing one good over another good, not about good versus bad. A businessman might say “I want to encourage accountability.” Now he’s not just choosing accountability over randomness. He can’t run a business if he says that everyone can do whatever they want. So that’s not really the choice he’s making when he says “encouraging accountability.” To make accountability a value, you have to be willing to make a trade-off. Accountability versus “being the nice boss” – you’re going to have to come down on those who don’t meet muster. Accountability versus “low turnover” – you may have to fire people who don’t improve. Another businessman might say “I want to be respected for my career, even at the cost of family.” That’s a value choice. A hard one, but a real choice.

Another example of a bad value I see a lot is “honesty.” Everybody wants to be honest. Great. But at the cost of what? How honest? When you dig a little deeper, the real question usually ends up being, not “honesty versus dishonesty,” but “honesty versus diplomacy.” Imagine you are a manufacturer. You’ve heard through the grapevine that your cardboard-box supplier might not get you all the boxes you need and it’s in the middle of the Christmas shipping season. Now you can tell your customers that you might not be able to ship to them, so they’d be safer buying somewhere else if they need immediate shipping; or you can keep it quiet and come up with an alternative shipping method to hold you over for the season, even though thousands of orders might be delayed past Christmas. The first method is “honest,” the second is “diplomatic” because it takes into account the broader goals of your company, namely being profitable. The phrase “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” is a great way to sum up the value choice of diplomacy versus honesty.

If you’ve gotten this far, your group probably has 2-3 values and definitions. And each definition reflects how far the value extends: “quality over quantity,” “quality over speed,” “honesty but not at the expense of good diplomacy,” “investors over employees,” “local suppliers over cheaper foreign suppliers,” etc. Now you have your business values. Congratulations! And when confronted with a difficult choice, you can run over to the break-room, find the printout tacked to the corkboard, and actually make a decision that’s right for you and your company… instead of … you know… being excellent. And stuff.

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