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On Values

12-06-16 Ben Callahan

Values are the context for your culture. Ben demystifies “trusting your heart” by sharing that “your heart” is simply the things that matter most to you—your values.

It’s About the People

Most of us have learned the hard way that technical projects don’t fail for technical reasons. Politics, egos, misunderstandings—working with people is a messy business. Every experience we create alongside our human clients is intended to make life a little better for a human user.

It’s about the people.

So how do we create an environment where our people can work alongside other people to create better experiences for the people: our users? That’s the question that has been nagging at me for as long as I can remember. And in a sense, almost everything we’ve done here at Sparkbox has been an attempt to answer it. We certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I want to share about one area where we’re working to be more intentional—our values.

A Part of Something Bigger

I’ve always been skeptical about the stuff you see in all the business and leadership books. The lofty language, the inspiring mission and vision always felt useless to me. In hindsight, I realize it’s not the ideas themselves but their implementation that has left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s taken me 20 years of working in this industry and of running teams and companies to understand how important this stuff is. It has to do with the fact that we are all humans, and humans are not solitary animals. Aristotle was onto something when he wrote the following:

“Man is by nature a social animal....Anyone who...does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

We sit square in the middle. We’re not ignorant beasts unaware of our need for others, and we’re not all-powerful gods such that we have no need for others. A big part of what it means to be human is our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. “Society,” as Aristotle uses it, is actually what we might call “community” today. A group of individuals who do life together. In this world, where the norm is that we spend more time with our work community than with our friends or family, the lines are increasingly blurry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it just needs to be a consideration if you want people to do great work while they’re with you. Without values, your work will likely be uninspiring because the people doing it will be uninspired.

Values provide the context for your culture. Values are what you have in common; they are how people know they fit in your community—or how they know they don’t. Values attract the right people and repel the wrong ones. Values give you and every person on your team a filter through which they’re empowered to make decisions. Values help you recognize when to compromise and they help you explain how to communicate why you do so. Values lead you to a clear mission and vision. Values unite your team and enable you to do more together than you could do apart.

Understanding your values will give you confidence as you navigate the challenges of being on or running a team. And if you want a team that runs itself, start with common values.

What’s great is that you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with branding firms or consultancies to figure out what your values are. It starts with you.

Here’s How

Make a list of the major decisions you’ve recently made in your life. These could be choices you’ve made in your career, your family life, where you live, who you spend time with, places you’ve traveled to, etc. You’re trying to identify the moments when something shifted for you, the times when the direction of your life changed.

Now review this list and jot down a few words next to each decision that embody the reasons you made that choice. You’re trying to get at why you chose to make these major shifts in your life—what was the driving force compelling you to do so?

Perhaps you moved from the Midwest out to the coast after college. Why? Were you pursuing a career, a relationship, a dream? Are you the kind of person who needs to be surrounded by beauty? By activity? By tranquility? Did you just need a change of scenery?

Maybe you quit the job you thought you wanted and decided to start your own business. Why? Were you unhappy before? Was your last role not fulfilling? Did you imagine yourself 30 years from the present, still doing the same thing?

This is intended to be a little raw, to expose some of what’s underneath the tough exterior and get to the core of a decision. It’s this core that gives visibility into what matters for you as a person—what you value. After you’ve spent some time considering these life choices and why you made them, take one more pass through the list to look for some consistencies or overlap. Did several of the decisions have to do with prioritizing your family? Were they about finding a role where you could actually help people? Maybe you just wanted to make more money. That’s okay too! Boil it down to a few values that you feel comfortable starting with.

There are a few points to this exercise. First, you need to know what you value. You may find that the organization you are currently a part of has very different values. This is actually pretty normal. Because most companies don’t do a great job of identifying and clearly communicating their values, and most individuals don’t either, the natural “attract” and “repel” forces are not as strong as they could be. Perhaps you just needed to make ends meet. Or it could be that your manager saw something in you that she felt the team needed—she sees you as an agent of change. None of these understandings are possible if you don’t do the work to know your values.

Second, values take time. This little exercise is not the end of identifying your values. Once you put words to them, you need to live with them, to try them on. You will find that you’ll need to make some changes. You may even find that your values will evolve over time. As life happens, your priorities will change.

Finally, values enable you to make the tough calls. Once you settle into a set of values that work for you, making decisions will become so much easier. “Trusting your heart” is demystified when you understand that “your heart” is actually just the things that matter most to you. Every single person on this planet has a set of values. Whether you choose to recognize them, to give voice to them, to put them to work for you is your call. The benefits are tremendous—take some time to identify yours!

Translating to the Team

The exercise above can also be done for an organization or a team. Simply broaden the questions to the decisions your group has made. And get your coworkers involved in the process. Having some different perspectives involved in identifying the historical values of your team will help move things along.

One mistake commonly made by organizations as they attempt to define their values is that they get too aspirational. Values are not what you want to be; they should reflect what you are. If you state a set of lofty values but they don’t reflect the current state of things, they lose all credibility instantly. The contradiction between the ideal and the realistic will make your aspirational values feel like a marketing spin rather than something useful.

Putting Values to Use

Having gone through this exercise a few times now, I can’t imagine trying to build a team without a solid understanding of the values driving that team. Every decision Sparkbox makes about hiring, benefits, how our office is setup, how we interact with clients, and even which clients we want to work with is filtered through our values. It gives guidance to our project managers in how they approach a project, and it provides clarity to our devs when they are selecting the appropriate tech stack for a new engagement. Our values enable every person here to make similar decisions—ones that align with who we are as an organization—in a myriad of unique circumstances.

What I’ve realized is that values are the answer to how we build an environment where messy, difficult, flawed people can work together to create something beautiful. They help us to rise above the challenging-people stuff in service of a common goal. But it takes regular talk about these values, as well as using them to build your team. Only then will you see folks making beautifully aligned decisions simply because beautifully aligned decisions are the norm.

Most importantly, values connect people to something bigger than themselves. Values give us purpose, and that purpose allows us to create amazing things together.

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