Your Values Are Questionable

The holy trinity of enduring statements in a strategic plan are mission, vision and values. Essentially, they answer three fundamental questions: who are you, where are you trying to go, and what’s important about how you get there?

In particular, they should define what makes your organization unique. How it stands out. What it stands for. And that’s where many organizations struggle. The enduring declarations that should highlight what makes them distinctive are often watered down into unecessarily broad and meaningless statements that seem carefully targetted at the lowest common denominator.

Good mission statements and vision statements are hard to develop. Values statements are possibly even harder. At their core, they are the principles that govern how we operate. They are our internal, (hopefully) inviolable rules. They are what gets closest to who we are, how we think and why we do what we do.

That means that they can be hard to recognize, and even harder to articulate. Getting them right feels like exposing our inner core to external scrutiny, and that level of vulnerability can be scary. It also means that it can be hard for us to find them, even if we resonate with recognition when we see them written down.

Most organizations—as well as most groups and individuals—play it safe when defining values. What comes out are pronouncements that appear to be universally acceptable and palatable. Creativity. Respectfulness. Growth. Profitability. Kind to children and puppies.

Polite and acceptable though all of those principles might be, unless they define the essential core of your decision making and actions, they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. And if you can’t define what does reflect the essential core, then your decisions and actions won’t be consistent.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m going to share a personal example this week. The principles of how I consult—and how Interthink operates—have been evolving for nearly thirty years. Some of that has been evolution of the principles, as I’ve grown and evolved as a consultant and as the organization has transitioned through different stages of its own. And part of that has been in my ability to clearly express what those principles and values actually are.

Some essential ones that have endured over an extended period of time include:

  • we meet our customers where they are and guide them where they need to go
  • we deliver solutions that work for our clients
  • our clients are people, not organizations
  • we have the courage to make honest recommendations
  • we take the high road, even when others don’t
  • we are willing to work ourselves out of a job

There are some very specific statements in there. And each of them has very specific meaning and interpretation that articulates what we stand for, and what makes us different from other consulting organizations.

Let’s take the first one, about meeting our clients where they are and taking them where they need to go. This has been a fundamental truth for me for pretty much as long as I’ve been a consultant. It is the essence of why my answer to most questions begins with the statement, “It depends.” Because I don’t believe in single right answers. I don’t embrace or espouse “best practices.” And I am highly skeptical of many industry standards.

The best practice for any organization is the one that works for them. It has to fit who they are, the culture they have and how they operate. To be accepted, new capabilities have to be seen as a logical progression of what exists today. They also have to be recognized as an improvement. People need to see themselves as being successful in the new way before they are prepared to give up the old. And in my view, no consultant flogging “best practices” is going to be successful if they pretend otherwise. It’s a value that is core to how Interthink operates, and it is also one that clearly delineates us from many others.

The idea that our clients are people, not organizations, is another one that I see as not just significant, but significantly different. As a consultant, I’m hired by a person, not by an organization. I’m being brought in to help them solve a problem they care about finding a solution for. That solution needs to work for them. It needs to help them to be more successful. That’s not to say that I’m working at cross purposes to the organization. But if I deliver a solution that just meets the abstract needs of the organization without responding to the personal needs of my client, I’m not doing my job.

The value that we are willing to work ourselves out of a job is another case in point. It’s an interesting statement to make to a client, and it generates some profound reactions. Arguably, there are a number of consulting organizations that don’t have this as a value. In fact, their business model is predicated on the reverse. Many are looking for a crack they can get the thin edge of the wedge into, that allows them to move in and set up shop for an extended period of time. One (hopefully apocryphal) statement attributed to a senior consulting executive is “We lead our clients into the valley of death, so that we can lead them back out again.”

The solutions that I deliver are my clients’ solutions. They need to work for them. And they need to solve their problems in a way that problems stay solved. That is not—and should not—be predicated on having me or one of my staff being retained in perpetuity. The strategies that I help clients build are their strategies; they need to own them and run with them. The projects that I help them to define are their projects; they need to ensure they ultimately deliver on the value that was promised. And the processes I help build are their processes; they need to take ownership of them and use them for the purpose that was intended.

These principles are core to how I consult, how I think about consulting, and how I lead the consulting firm I’m responsible for. Different values would produce different results. We might be larger than we are, have greater revenues, and we might even even be more profitable with different principles. But we wouldn’t be who we are, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with our services if we were to compromise these essential values. And I wouldn’t expect my clients to, either.

That’s the thing with all enduring statements. Not only do they define who you uniquely are, but they also define who you are not. I am not prepared to take contracts, no matter how profitable, that I can’t be successful in delivering well. The solutions that I develop and implement aren’t the ones that are easy to deliver, or the ones that simply replicate what I did for the last client and the client before that. They are the ones that work here, for this client, because of who they are. That’s what I stand for. And that is—I firmly believe—what my clients respond to. I may have fewer clients than I might otherwise have, but the clients that I have absolutely value what I do.

So what are your organization’s values and principles? And how do you define them, test them and adopt them? How do you make sure that they reflect the core of who you really are as an organization, and how you operate? It’s an important question, and one worth exploring.

First and foremost, I can tell you what not to do. What doesn’t work is to bring your senior executive—or your entire organization—into a room, confront them with a blank flip chart bad, and ask, “So, what are our values, then?” It’s an easy way to get that safe, generic list (although even that will be painful and awkward to extract, based on my experience). But the truth will remain well hidden.

Getting that truth—also based on my experience—involves an exploration that isn’t head-on and direct. It’s oblique. You need to take tangents. And above all, you need to triangulate. You need to ask questions, but not the direct one of “What are the principles and values that reflect how you operate?” The questions you need to ask are more ancillary.

Depending upon the organization, I will ask different questions, and I will ask those questions of different people. Examples of some of the questions that I might ask include:

  • What are the things you look for that tell you a customer is going to be great to work with?
  • How do you make sure that your services or solutions are most appropriate for a particular customer?
  • What is different about how you operate compared to your competitors?
  • What were the first rules that you were taught when you joined the organization?
  • How do you know you are being successful in your role?
  • What do you value most about working here?
  • What do you take most pride in about your job and how you approach it?

All of those questions are variations on one very important, very fundamental question. And that question is, “What’s important to you?” Asking the general question, though, is hard; people struggle with knowing what you are asking them. More particularly, they struggle with how specifically to answer it. Narrow the question, though, and answering becomes easier. Not that you are in any way guiding them to an answer. But you are framing the kind of answer that you are looking for.

The larger approach, though, is asking these types of questions over and over again. Exploring the answers of a broad range of people. And listening very carefully to what they tell you. In particular, its about listening across all of the answers that you here to identify what is common and consistent. That’s not to say what is most generic, but what is most highlighted by everyone in how they view the organization, how they see it operating, and what they care about most in describing their perceptions.

Getting to an answer of what you value most is an exercise in exploration, in persistence and in patience. It’s often one that is difficult to do yourself. In part, that’s because you are too close to it, and you will have your own biases about the answer—or what you think the answer should be. It is probably the biggest reason why having an outside facilitator is a useful investment: they can ask obvious questions, and they can listen without bias to what the answers are.

But only you will know when you get it right. When the answers are played back, when they are distilled to their essential essence, you should feel them resonate and vibrate in your core. You should want to shout, “Yes! That’s it!” And you might marvel at the simplicity of what results. But don’t discount the complexity of how you got there.

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