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How to Create Company Values That Mean Something

Having explicit, shared values within our organization helps us get on the same page, move faster, and make better decisions.

When we're faced with a tough situation, we often find ourselves looking to our values for answers. It's an awesome feeling when they guide us toward sound decisions, faster.

Sometimes, though, you hit roadblocks that your values don't help you get around. When those moments arise, they can be extremely challenging—but they're also where the magic happens. Those moments help our values evolve over time.

As companies grow and change, values get tugged around and challenged on a somewhat regular basis. They serve as flexible spines, allowing us to stretch and experiment while remaining rooted in our core principles.

When your values conflict

After we wrote down the most recent iteration of our values, it became clear that they were often interconnected in complicated ways. Our individual values did not exist in vacuums. Rather, they could conflict at times and stymie our decision-making.

Our values today are:

  • Customer first.
  • Pioneering.
  • Simplicity.
  • Act fast, learn faster.
  • Fun work.

Each value is backed by experience from the 9+ years we've been in business, and they don't always get along.

First, explicit values can go head-to-head.

For example, our value of simplicity might brush up against our other value of putting the customer first. Let's say we've come up with a complicated way to solve a problem that our customers currently face—should we forge ahead at the expense of simplicity? Well, it depends on whether the benefits of solving the issue for our customers outweigh the potential costs of building something complicated.

Second, explicit values can conflict with implicit values.

It's impossible to capture everything you value. Inevitably, the values you do jot down tend to hold more weight than the ones you don't.

When it comes to giving feedback, honesty allows us to uphold our core value of act fast, learn faster. However, since empathy is an implicit value we all care about, utter transparency can sometimes be tempered. It doesn't feel right to put learning fast above the feelings of people on the team, even if one value is articulated and the other isn't.

Navigating these divides is hard. You have to look beyond the superficial labels and words that comprise your values and into the purpose and history behind them. That's the only way we've been able to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.

"You have to look beyond the superficial labels and words that comprise your values and into the purpose and history behind them."

But in taking that plunge together, we've built up an incredible amount of trust that makes it possible for us to take risks, be creative, and do things that we never thought we'd pull off.

Round one

When we were smaller, we'd all get together and try to write down the way that we worked. With only 10 people, this wasn't that hard to do. We wrote down a list of the things that we thought made our work unique. Then we moved on and continued working.

Over time, we realized that writing down principles and never looking at them wasn't actually driving the way we worked. So we tried to pare down our values. We wanted something really simple and memorable that could more easily enter our vocabulary. After hours of meetings, thinking, and editing, we came up with Delight, Impact, and Growth as our values.

In order to reinforce our choices, we built processes around them. For example, during our team feedback and evaluation process, we asked questions around whether people were living out our values:

  • How much delighting is Brendan doing?
  • Do you think Brendan is having a big impact?
  • How much do you see Brendan growing? (not his height)

This worked well generally, but over time, we noticed a problem.

Our values didn't inspire us to make different decisions. When confronted with a tough situation, our three principles didn't lead us to a path that felt uniquely Wistian. In other words, we were halfway to building any old company.

This forced us to confront a harsh truth—in the process of trying to make our values memorable, we removed the soul that made our values unique. Delight, Impact, and Growth could be the values of any company, and that made them much less useful. They also lacked the history and intuitive sense that actually helped people make better decisions.

Rewriting our values

Earlier this year, we decided to revisit our values.

Rather than just adding a few new values and tweaking the existing ones, we decided to start from scratch, with a blank slate. This time, we changed our approach—and that made all the difference.

My co-founder Brendan and I started by writing down the things we value the most. We thought about the criteria that we implicitly use to evaluate the team's work, and we went from there.

Once we had a rough draft of the values, we shared them with the whole company, both in person and in a document, and solicited feedback to help improve and simplify them. Throughout the process, we focused on the stories and experience underlying the values, rather than the values themselves.

"Throughout the process, we focused on the stories and experience underlying the values, rather than the values themselves."

We're proud of what we came up with, because our values aren't just a list of sterile pronouncements. They're living and breathing stories about how our company came to be and what we've learned along the way.

The handle and the suitcase

In his book, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull describes the context behind companies' values as a suitcase, and the values themselves as the bag's handle.

"Too often, we grab the handle and—without realizing it—walk off without the suitcase. What’s more we don’t even think about what we've left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase."

Handles without suitcases. Gets me every time.

Our values on their own are public and practical, but ultimately superficial without the all the history, context, and experiences contained in the suitcase. In other words, it's important to carry the whole bag. By connecting the suitcase to the handle and carrying the whole thing with us, we can act with real meaning and purpose.

Considering greater contexts also means acknowledging our values' potential "darksides."

For instance, the darkside of being obsessively customer-focused and putting the customer first is that we'll often do things that are not good for our business in the short term in order to satisfy customers. This might mean missing revenue targets.

The darkside of pioneering and challenging the normal way of thinking is that we're going to end up reinventing the wheel from time to time. This type of thinking can produce really innovative results at its best, and lots of duplicate and wasted effort at its worst.

Shared values make autonomy possible

When we're on the same page about our values in a deep way, we're able to, in Catmull's words, "trust the people who use the process" and give them autonomy to take risks. "The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures, but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries."

It's trust over shared values that makes possible the risk-taking and boundary-pushing that's so important to creative work. Together, trust and shared values allow for individual ownership in the team context.

"It's trust over shared values that makes possible the risk-taking and boundary-pushing that's so important to creative work."

At Wistia, we strive to be really clear about who has the ownership over a decision and what kind of input they should expect from others. That puts the power to act on our company values in the hands of every team member.

If someone has a really strong opinion on something, everyone will listen to them and take their feedback seriously. They'll be able to push the team past our comfort zones and the boundaries of what we think is possible.

When it all comes together

Last year during conference season in Boston, someone at Wistia decided that we should make a mobile billboard (a board driven around on the back of a truck), and it sounded like a terrible idea.

Usually, this kind of billboard is reserved for energy drinks, strip clubs, and anything sketchy. This felt like an impossible thing for us to pull off.

But then we decided to ask ourselves if we could do it in a Wistia way. We saw it as an opportunity to put our values to the test.

When coming up with ideas for the potential billboard, we decided to focus on something that would delight people who had already heard of Wistia. Fun work? Check.

The goal of the billboard wasn't to sell Wistia accounts. We just wanted to make something memorable that we could learn from and get customers excited about. Since HubSpot's Inbound marketing conference and the Business of Software conference would be in Boston at the same time, we moved quickly to seize the opportunity. Act fast, learn faster? Check.

We knew that there would be a lot of marketers roaming around, and it was our hope that there would be some Wistia customers in the mix who would recognize Lenny and enter their next session with smiles on their faces. If we could do that, then the experiment would be a success. Customer first? Check.

It ended up going really, really well. Many of our customers tweeted photos of the board, and the positive buzz we generated confirmed that our experiment was worthwhile. We were extremely proud that we had done something that initially felt like an off-brand absolute no-go and figured out how to turn it into something that felt really right and was effective at delighting the customers who saw it.

To me, that delight was the fruit of our labor in going deeper to understand and clarify our shared values.

That's why we love to say that it's our values that allow us to say yes to things that seem impossible.


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