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Fewer than 1 in 10 businesses have cultures that are understood. Why does this matter and how to address it?
Like many companies, yours probably has a set of values to inspire employees and serve as a code of honor. Corporate values statements are a great thing, because they can clarify a company’s identity and serve as a rallying point for its people. But values themselves do not drive your business, rather, they drive the people within the business. No matter how they were written or by whom, they are not based on the people who run the company, they are in the fabric of everyone who works there—from executive team to new hire. Here’s the question: if your company does have a compelling values statement, how truly meaningful it is to your people? Are your company values powerful tools embodied in everything you do, or are they just words?
Here is a real-world example: when I first started work in the early days of the dotcom boom, retail giant Walmart came to 80-person strategy event at my then-employer’s workshop space in Chicago. In those days, our clients typically spared no expense to bring a team to our offices, including business class flights, luxurious hotels and expensive dinners at fine restaurants. The works. Walmart, on the other hand, flew its party up from Arkansas on a budget airline and stayed two-to-a-room at a bargain hotel a few blocks from our office so they could walk to the workshop each morning. They catered the event through Walmart’s store deli (think tubs of potato salad and vats of barbecue), and in the evening the participants headed out together for a modest supper within a strict budget.
Why? At the time, Walmart was the single largest retail company in the world by several degrees. It’s not that they didn’t have the money for a more comfortable trip, it’s not that they didn’t have the power. It’s because their company values—a simple message of putting the customer first, personal responsibility, and teamwork—obliged them to adhere to a certain code of conduct. Expressing those values didn’t stop at store-brand cola and walking to work, it also meant that when it came time to develop a solution for an important strategic initiative, the workshop team in Chicago included representatives from all levels of the organization, including a woman who worked the checkout at one of their stores. Walmart had adopted that approach since Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 in order to keep their promise to provide the lowest prices to its customers. The employees we spoke to about it at the time seemed to accept that attitude at face value, because they were doing things “The Walmart Way,” and it chimed with their own personal value code.
Values, in a true sense, are basic, fundamental and enduring and mean something to the people who articulate them. They must be internalized, and importantly, this does not mean they can be pushed in from the outside. Morality and ethics are central to the issue: think of your personal values and the decisions they compel you to make. Start by drawing up a list of what you personally treasure—don’t be constrained by words like, “integrity,” or “respect,” but think of action words and phrases that mean something to you. Making family a priority? Maintaining lasting friendships? Doing work you are proud of? We each have different fundamental values; that’s why writing values statements for an entire organization is so tricky; how can five or six core values have meaning for thousands of individuals?
Innovation Arts has taken many different approaches with our clients in order to help shine a light on their organization’s true values, from company-wide Barratt Surveys as well as from delivering facilitated consultation and discussions during Employee Values Weeks to allowing a significant proportion of an organization to articulate for themselves what they really hold true. It may be that you have already defined your values, yet somehow, they don’t seem to be mobilizing your organization in the direction you would expect. Often, the trouble with values statements is not the values themselves but the corporate language chosen to express them, which can be so openly worded as to be vague. To play a meaningful role in creating an enduring organization, corporate values must be simply expressed and derived from fundamental philosophy about what constitutes the good for people both inside and outside the company.
When we performed our own values exercise at Innovation Arts, our team came up with some unique individual values. And, like most companies, we also defined the values that we share, and that link us to the clients with whom we work. These values are also easily translatable into specific behaviors that bring them to life in our organization, which is an excellent test of their worth. Over the years, we have discovered that if our clients can’t relate to our values then—given how closely we work together—we may not be a good fit for them:
Intellect: You learn rapidly and eagerly
Imagination: You create new ideas that prove useful
Impact: You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
High Performance: You care intensely about the success of (y)our business
Honesty: You are true to yourself and others
Humor: You take (y)our work seriously and yourself less so
If your organization has the right values—core values that cannot be compromised; aspirational values the company will need in the future but currently lacks; behavioral and social standards required of any employee; and accidental values that have arisen from the common interests or personalities of employees (i.e. “fun”)—they have to be integrated into everything. From the first interview to last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that values form the basis for each decision and action the company makes.
From our work on corporate values, we know that values discussions are best had by small teams; better if they can include a cross-section of the organization. Better still if they involve the CEO, any founders still with the company, and a handful of employees who have to make a lot of on-the-ground decisions. When you are working out how to really embed your values in culture and process, leadership and employee collaborative work can be vital to agree on nuances and behaviors, and how they work in practice to reinforce your strategy and objectives. We engage entire organizations on bringing values and behaviors to life in practice with our custom-designed game Dilemma,® which is the perfect venue for having meaningful conversations about values. Do you stick to your values no matter what, or do you cut corners because there is no one there to see? It’s the discussion about those decisions that ultimately proves to be the most valuable part of the experience. What do your company’s values really mean to you? What do they mean to your colleagues?
Thinking back to that event with Walmart many years ago, seeing their corporate values in action was an exciting part of working with them. When they talk about customer service and respect, they mean it. Remember the checkout lady? At the end of three days of high-stakes design and collaboration, she drafted the final plan the entire group—including the senior management team—signed up to develop. From company cheers to employee training and benefits, the retail giant’s management constantly stresses its values not only for their employees, but for themselves. What does that mean for you?
A similar challenge faces businesses who employ workers with non-traditional relationships to the home office such as distance or home working, part- or flexi-time, or the project-by-project contracts so popular in today’s so-called “gig economy.” No matter where your employees are, they represent your brand. So how do you keep your employees involved and engaged when you only see them occasionally? Non-traditional work models are popular because they suit a mobile and flexible workforce, whether maximizing available skills, creating more opportunities, or just a good way to keep people working, consumers spending, and the whole economy moving. The gig economy has existed for a long time in the corporate world where freelance designers or IT professionals, too expensive to keep on staff, are frequently hired temporarily for their unique skills. However, increased connectivity and improved mobile services also mean that even permanent employees don’t need to come into the office every day in order to maintain links to the organization. For the first time in history, employees are in a unique position of being both their own and the company’s person, a state that can be difficult for any manager to cope with: they wear the uniform, but they’re out on the town. So even though a chunk of your employees enjoys a non-traditional career path, what’s the best way to engender values and behaviors across boundaries to ensure distance workers live and breathe your corporate culture?
At Innovation Arts, we rely on a talented network of freelancers to support and deliver the work we do. We value their individual expertise, their unique talents, and their ability to bring a distinctive point of view into our design events, which benefits the process of collaboration. We depend upon varied and deep experiences in order to bring the best ideas to life, so by employing contractors to help us out occasionally, we can add the specific skills our business needs to thrive. On any given event, you can be sure to encounter at least one, if not several, freelancers adding a particular spice to the Innovation Arts recipe. Our events are supported by pop-up teams of people who may have never worked together before, but who, from the moment an event kicks off, rely upon and trust one another to get the job done as intensely as in any hospital emergency room. What allows this to happen is a specific pattern language unique to our industry, our philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination, and a simple set of systems and culture that everyone accepts.
As someone who used to “gig” for Innovation Arts before I came onto its staff full-time, I can say there are downsides to a free and flexible mode of working. The unstable hours, feast-or-famine workloads, and don’t even get me started on accounting. However, as part of the extended Innovation Arts family, I always knew that if I accepted a freelance project I’d know exactly what I was getting into, specifically what the work would be, and precisely what role I was expected to perform. And that comes down to the values and behaviors Innovation Arts promotes, which are clear and easy to understand, rather than a restrictive management structure. Thanks to our values of “High Performance” and “Honesty,” I always knew my work was valued, I knew I’d be expected to make my own decisions and be honest about the work I was doing and if I needed help, to be collaborative and creative, so I delivered. Because iteration is a key part of our ethos, I knew that if I messed up I would have the chance to try again, to fail better. The unspoken laws of team-working never varied from gig-to-gig, manager-to-manager. And now that I work for IA full time, the same rules apply. By embracing a simple and clear values statement and promoting a desired mode of behavior, Innovation Arts has made working easy for me and other colleagues who have made the switch from freelance, both as full-timers and as contractors.
So how do you know if your company’s values are filtering down into a workforce you might only see occasionally—or in the case of app-managed Deliveroo, never—and yet who undeniably represent your organization? How can you engender loyalty and a sense of belonging if you only come in contact now and again? It comes down to the behaviors accepted and promoted for each person who answers to your company’s name. What behaviors do you expect from your employees, whether full-time or contracted, and how do those behaviors reflect your company’s values? We have worked with a number of organizations who have used our game Dilemma® to test how behaviors on the ground map back to the corporate value statement in the company’s lobby, and found that whether you are the CEO or a temp, the action should essentially be the same. By playing through the workplace scenarios in Dilemma®, employees have a chance to explore the preferred responses as well as the actions they might take if pressed for time or to deliver. We’ve discovered that companies who value “respect” will have employees who are respectful, no matter if they are in the home office or on a client site, and that those who embrace “diversity” will employ people who are diverse in ethnicity as well as in attitude. But, if your employees—no matter how entrenched with the company—can’t make sense of your values, or don’t know how the words on the plaque in the lobby translate to day-to-day actions, then you’re in trouble.
There can be a distance between the narrative surrounding labor and success, and the lived experience of workers. In our work with a variety of organizations we know that the culture envisioned by the leaders at the top of the tree can sometimes be very different from the culture lived by the employees at the bottom. In our experience, only a small percentage of companies are getting it completely right with respect to values, and that has a knock-on effect to distant parts of the company culture few leaders ever see. The gig economy is certainly working for the employers who want to have special skills on tap, but in order for it to truly work for the entire company, especially those temporary or distance employees who are a long way from head office; there must be something to sweeten the deal. Treating your workers—temporary, part-time, flexi or full—as you would treat the CEO is a small step, but at least it’s a step forward.
After months of research into the inner workings of the company, US Attorney general Eric Holder this week published a report with recommendations for what Uber could do to redeem itself https://goo.gl/zwGhJA. Central to the report was a recommendation to “Reformulate Uber’s 14 Cultural Values,” to reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors.
Corporate value statements—those things you often see engraved in Plexiglas in corporate lobbies—exist to remind a company of its purpose in the wider world, of its very human reason to exist. But they must move beyond the lobby to act as the glue to bind employees together like a family, a beacon to steer towards when the going gets rough, and a code of ethics to hold employees to a higher standard. And yet, because company value statements are—necessarily—broad and open (or in Uber’s case vague and meaningless), a company’s values can be difficult for employees to translate into day-to-day behavior. What, exactly is meant by “super-pumpedness,” and does that mean downing several cans of Red Bull before clocking on, or something else entirely? And what happens when colleagues have different interpretations of the values? How easy is it for the language of a company’s values to translate into action for the boots-on-the-ground employee? How can a company ensure that its values are lived, not just talked about?
Innovation Arts knows that company culture crises are often an accumulation of small transgressions by employees who do not understand what the corporate values mean for the day-to-day. Or that trouble begins when the values fail to communicate what top brass believes their company to be. In our experience, a company’s values come to life within the company culture, which tends to bubble up from the bottom, from the lowliest employee to the CEO. If a company’s stated values include respect and diversity, then employees will be respectful of one another, form teams with people not like themselves, and reach outside their own sphere for new ideas. When your company values and culture promote “be yourself” and “toe-stepping,” then, well, just ask Uber what happens.
We have worked with a number of companies and cherished national institutions who are mindful of the impact values have on an organization, and wanted to ensure their values were meaningful for the people who follow them every day. However, admitting that you don’t quite understand them, or maybe that you interpret your corporate values differently than your colleagues can be a difficult conversation. That’s where the concept of game science can literally be a game-changer. By working with game designers, Innovation Arts has developed a new way to engage and inspire employees about their organization through our game Dilemma™ that translates an organisation’s values into day-to-day behaviours for every employee to understand and act upon. Dilemma™ employs a rigorous interview process to ensure a bespoke experience for each organization that uses it, and allows employees to put their corporate values through their paces through a series of scenarios matched with potential responses. Players earn points for responding with the action most closely tied to the intent of their company’s values—carefully avoiding the reactions born of habit or context. As much as we want to aspire to the better angels of our nature, it is a fact of modern life that we go astray, especially when time is short. Dilemma™ addresses these little slips and shortcuts, and encourages the players to talk through what a “wrong” response is, and yet, why an employee might be tempted to take the easy route. By identifying the preferred actions and the likely workarounds, what we have noticed is that the people who play Dilemma™ are more likely to talk about their company’s values in a way that is meaningful for each person, clarifying what the values are, why they exist, and how they should be enacted. Being honest enough to have an open and frank conversation about the accepted wisdom of company culture can motivate a group to own their values, and bring them to life.
Corporate values everywhere are a hot topic. The May 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine featured a cover story about the importance of embracing corporate values, and the impact they can have on the wider world. From automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care firms to consumer packaged goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values—not just because it makes them look good, but because employees and customers have started to insist on it. Millennials spend money in areas they believe in, and companies will simply have to respond. If you count the number of lives big companies like Facebook or Airbnb touch, they can have as much influence as a national official, so what they stand for themselves matters.
And that finally is what makes a company’s values so important. With global politics in a state of upheaval and trust in governments and other institutions suffering, corporations and large businesses may have to step forward to fill that gap and lead. What will ultimately differentiate those leaders is their inner motivations, their intentions. If your company intends to do good, and your employees know how to translate that into action, then it is clear on which side you will end up. What are your intentions? Are your employees living it every day, with every action, every decision? Perhaps it’s not clear whether they are engaged or not, or if your company’s values are simply words without meaning. If so, we encourage you to challenge your people to live up to what you say you stand for, to make each other better. What do you do when the chips are down, or you are in a hurry, or you are simply desperate to make that sale? We know that if you can count on your values in times of stress, then you will be able to rely upon them in times of ease. And it is possible that having a higher purpose will help a company’s profits in the long run.
Corporate values, like personal ones, exist to make everyone’s life better. If you enact them in small ways every day, the value compounds, and you can make a big impact.
Is your organisation one of the 10% that is getting it spot on with Engagement and Values, or are you looking for new ideas and support? Whether it’s about articulating the right values for your organisation, embedding them, or engaging your employees around strategic initiatives, we’d love you to get in touch to explore how design thinking, collaboration and games science such as Dilemma™ could help.