3 steps to building a values engine to transform culture

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Luke Shipley
February 5, 2021
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I’m a member of a small startup team which recently doubled in size. Along the process, we started searching for a framework to define our values and build our company culture. As an ex-recruiter, I’ve always been an avid reader of culture content so I know it’s something worth investing in. But I don’t have a background in the people profession and this is my first real startup rodeo.

For this reason, I’ve been trying to consume as much content on the topic as I could. I found no shortage of culture tribalism with founders citing culture as their superpower. This only made my appetite for a culture framework greater. But I still couldn’t find anything tangible to help my team, so I set out to build something.

Dogma I hear from folks at larger companies is: “we’re too early for values''. But culture can be even more important at the early stage. In smaller teams, each person is a greater proportion of the whole group. Hence each person has a greater influence on the group’s values. Being a tiny team, when a new member joins, it’s exciting and it affects everybody. When this happens, it’s paramount that we find out if our values as a group have shifted. This is why we decided to start discussing company values every time a new member joins. Is this unnecessarily heavy-handed?

Much has been said about speed as a competitive advantage and blitzscaling is a widely accepted startup strategy. Reed Hastings, is open about citing Netflix’s culture as the reason they’re able to play to their strengths. If an individual doesn’t compliment the company's values it can weaken the collective strength and dilute the direction of the group. I think of a sporting analogy when a team has different ideas about how to play, they’re ineffective.

The rowing team that’s out of sync will lose to the team that’s in sync. If you're a 10 person startup, that impact is 100x greater than a 1000 person company. When you have a framework and shared belief system, people are empowered and confident to move fast.

It’s not just about speed, it’s about trust and feeling empowered. These are the foundations of a team that is happy and confident to execute. Whatever your values, if a team member has clarity on values they connect to, they are safe in the knowledge they’re taking the right action. This should be a framework to enable people to feel good whilst making the million small decisions they do every day.

Step 1: Benchmark

How many of us need to be aligned? You need more than 30% of a group to be connected to your values to have minimum viable alignment and to simply function. To be highly effective, you’ll need more than 80% of the group to be connected to your values. I can only imagine how hard it would be to align a team of 100.

In your 100 person team, you need 30+ people to be aligned compared with 3+ people aligned in the 10 person team. This may be partially why tiny startup teams can fight against enterprises 100 times their size. Since their rowing is perfectly in sync, their tiny sailboat can overtake the colossal cruiseliner, with its misaligned rowers.

What does this mean? For Zinc as a small startup, this means we really must harness the collective power of a ‘joined-up’ approach. Our hypothesis is that meeting to discuss our values every time a new team member joins, gives us the best shot. That sounds like a lot of work and it is, but it’s worth it for three reasons:

  • Defining values is really hard so maybe it’s something that’s worth getting better at
  • The better we get, the less time and work it should take
  • Cracking this process can allow culture to be your competitive advantage

If your setting values for the first time, or the first time in a long time, you can start with these three questions:

Coming up with values isn’t easy but it’s still not the hardest bit. Even trickier, is having inclusive, productive discussions about values and then making those values stick. How do we make values stick is a question I hear a lot. The answer is the secret to all learning, practice.

Step 2: Listen and measure

How do we measure if we’re getting better aligned? The Netflix team is famed for their culture deck. Netflix VP, Gibson Biddle credit’s getting better at this stuff by running lots of scenarios.

One measure of the success of Netflix’s culture was how they made the decision to fire Kevin Spacey from their hit series, House of Cards. Once the sexual abuse accusations against him came to light, a mid-level content manager, Cindy Holland, was able to. The years spent running scenarios paid off, Cindy was empowered to make a business-defining decision in a short space of time. Proof their people are empowered and confident to take immediate action under immense pressure.

Inspired by Netflix, we wrote down some scenario questions to measure our alignment. Here are some of our ‘what do we do?’ questions for inspiration:

We have a culture reference question generator, for more inspiration, tell Janice your values

Making this a productive, non-judgemental session is tricky. There’s no right or wrong answer and discussion after each question is key. I like this format:

  • Cast a blind vote
  • Discuss
  • Blind vote again

The person orchestrating should listen out for connection to values and alignment. If this doesn’t work for you, try answering individually, then break off into pairs to discuss, then come together as a group.

Step 3: Iterate

You want to see alignment but it’s not about shaping the group’s views to fit with your company's existing values. That’s how you end up with homogenous, undiversified teams. Values are a living breathing entity that’s constantly evolving. You can’t push an existing set of values on new people and expect their belief system to bend and fit them. It’s about constantly iterating on your values to capture the outlook of the group.

It’s solely about listening to capture the perspective of the group. Luckily I’m a raging introvert so listening unlike speaking is one of the things that comes naturally to me. When you run the ‘What would we do’ questions (from Step 2), we’re looking to remove or add values to capture the latest sentiment of the group. The philosophy is that it’s not about fitting a mould, it’s simply about becoming aligned as a group.

Too often values represent stagnant, stale hearsay from the organisation's previous collective. They get iterated yearly at best. For Zinc, we want our values to move as fast as our organisation and not be playing catch-up. This means we’re committed to discussing our values every time each new member joins.

This does feel heavy-handed and there will be yawns but this is our framework to achieve the >80% alignment mark. This may not be appropriate for larger teams that have new members each week. But we’ve met monthly to discuss values in the past quarter and it feels great to be better connected.

See the latest iteration of Zinc’s values on our Zinc’s a startup changing the employee referencing and. We help companies implement automated, and scalable checking processes for the first time. Or we help teams modernise their checking process.

This post was written in collaboration with Recruiting Brainfood.

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