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I bet the organisation you work for has a set of values. Practically every large company I worked for had their standard corporate list. They do this to help create a sense of identity and a common standard for how to behave. Aside for the moment, whether these values remain only on paper (they often do) rather than perspire in actions of the employees. To follow Ricardo Semler we could actually go a step further as:

No organisation needs a corporate values statement on the wall. You can tell what the company values by how people behave.

However, values on their own are not enough. According to Kent Beck:

Values are too abstract to guide behaviour.

That is why values are often complemented with principles – “a rule or belief governing one’s behaviour”.

Well written, clear and commonly accepted principles can be very effective at guiding behaviour and creating a homogenous and effective team or organisation.

For example, this is how Herb Kelleher (CEO of Southwest airlines) demonstrates the usefulness of clear and actionable principles (quoted after Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath)

“Here’s an example,” he said. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entree on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?” The person stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded: “You say, ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.'” Kelleher’s Commander’s Intent is “We are THE low-fare airline.” This is a simple idea, but it is sufficiently useful that it has guided the actions of Southwest’s employees for more than thirty years.

Few organisations go far enough, or care enough, to achieve such clarity and consistency. It’s a pity. But while you might not be able to tackle this at the global level, there is no reason you can’t make it work for the team you’re on.

Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies in their new book “Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams & Projects” make writing team values and principles part of the chartering exercise in the chartering alignment part.

The process of collaboratively identifying values and principles gives you team a chance to share and explore views about what’s important, and to define the work environment you will create. And when difficult decisions need to be made, you’ll use the principles as guides.

If you decide to give it a go, and I encourage you to so, there is one aspect to consider.

May times I have participated in meetings where we get together, deliberate, discuss and come up with a list of values and principles we display prominently. This often left one issue outstanding – we didn’t really know if they would work or not. The feedback cycle is too long and often gets neglected. We don’t re-visit the list, we don’t check if it all works, we don’t know if it guides our behaviour as we expected.

Instead, you may want to try a different approach.

Organise a workshop to create your principles together. To make it more effective also prepare a set of realistic scenarios of what may happen in your team or on your project. Things that have happened in the past, things you know may surprise you, situations that require a bold decision to be taken, difficult situations.

For example:

  • “a senior manager comes to one member of the team to ask them to work on something very important for a few days”
  • “one of the developers keeps breaking the builds although others have already tried to help and explain what he can do to avoid it”
  • “you suddenly discover the feature you have promised to deliver to your customer in this iteration is not going to make it”
  • “a tester comes to you with some back news – there is a high priority defect she just discovered in the live environment”

With your scenarios in hand you can start thinking of and drafting your values and principles, as you would otherwise have. Once an initial list is ready you can then turn the feedback mechanism on, right there, in a safe environment of your workshop, to see how useful what you came up with might be. Take each scenario and try to play it out. You may do it all together or in pairs of smaller groups. As you enact each scenario reach the decision point and see if your principles help you agree on an expected outcome. If the principle helps, you’re on track. More likely though, some will not; clarity will be missing, perhaps a pinch of context, perhaps you’ll find out you have had different expectations amongst you. Go back to the drawing board, adjust and rewrite the principles and give them a go with the previous or new set of scenarios. Iterate a few times.

To continue the previous example, if you decide to pick “courage” as on of your values and write it out as a principle along the lines of “we have the courage to always speak openly and directly about problems that we encounter during our development processes” you could try and test it with scenario 2. The principle will tell you that you should now confront the situation and have a conversation with the developer who is having problems. But how should you do it and who should do it – the whole team, a manager, one of the colleagues (and you know this already failed once in your imaginary scenario)? Maybe in the course of role-playing the scene you realise that the way you address each other creates more defensiveness than problem-solving. This could lead you on to adding another principle around the value of “trust” or “mutual respect“.

Let’s recap; in order to take charge of your principles use the following process to create them:

  • Write a few scenarios
  • Brainstorm and sketch an initial list of principles
  • Test each principle against the prepared scenarios
  • Improve and adjust the values and principles
  • Iterate

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