There are few things more important than determining your company’s core values. I define an ideal core values statement as something you can frame and put on the wall so that, in your absence, any employee who has a question about how to handle a business relationship can read it and know the behavior that’s expected .
Like mission and vision statements, many business owners create a core values statement because “We have to have one.” This is largely a waste of time. Unless your core values are defined in a way that makes sense to customers and employees, they won’t get much attention.
Letting employees participate in the creation of core value statements helps make them “real” throughout the organization. The problem is, few of us think creatively when asked to develop something on the spot. The result tends to be something like “We believe in doing our best to provide the highest quality product, with integrity, compassion and excellent service.” (YAWN)
What does that mean? More importantly, what does it mean to other people? Defining core values that are clear to everyone isn’t easy, but getting there can be fairly simple.
I’ve used the “Mission to Mars” scenario for over a decade. The exercise was created in its original form by Jim Collins, and was reprised by Verne Harnish in Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. It is a quick and simple way to define the core values of an organization in a very short time, and without the usual tortuous wording that goes with developing a “Values Statement.”
It can be done at any level of the company. In fact, doing it at different levels can often lead to some illumination about what people with differing levels of responsibility think drives the organization.
The whole exercise can take as little as 30 minutes, and should not go more than about an hour. Here is the process that I use. It differs a bit from both Collin’s original (simple, but longer to do) and Harnish’s, but it is very effective. I’ve never had a group unhappy with the result.
1. Setting The Scenario
The first step is to gather 5-9 people (more than that can be a challenge) together for the Mission to Mars. Obviously, they should generally be people whom you feel have values that you embrace, and who are influential in the company. Here’s the setup:
“We have discovered life on Mars. With great difficulty, the Martians have communicated a desire to better understand Earthlings, so we are assembling a mission for that purpose. Our company has been picked as one of the representative groups.”
“Martians do not speak or read any Earth language. You must pick 5 of our employees to go on the mission who, simply by allowing the Martians to observe them perform their current daily duties, will best epitomize the values (not the operational skills) of our company.”
2. Picking the Crew
No one in the group is eligible to go. All the mission participants must be chosen from other employees who are not in the room. As a person is nominated, get general acceptance that he or she is a viable candidate, and then list the behaviors that will illustrate that person’s work values to the Martians. It is better to discuss behaviors, as values can get caught up in definitional or semantic arguments.
Put the employee’s name on an easel pad or whiteboard, listing the behaviors underneath that make him or her a good representative. It’s usually easy to come up with 7 to 10 behaviors. Often a behavior will be suggested, and someone will say “That applies to (name of someone listed previously) as well!” Put it all up there.
Typical behaviors include things like integrity, work ethic, positive attitude, customer focus, commitment to quality, attention to detail, creativity, problem solving, team first attitude, willing to pitch in, dependability, etc. Don’t worry if different people have similar but not identical behaviors listed. You’ll fix that later.
3. Defining the Behaviors
Once you have agreed on 5 employees, the moderator says “Uh-oh! Word has just come from Mission Control that we only have room for 3 people. Which two will stay behind?” (It goes without saying that the two selected should less strongly typify the values, and aren’t picked just because their supervisors will miss them!)
Cutting from 5 to 3 isn’t strictly necessary, but I’ve found that it reduces duplication and the time needed to assemble the final values list. I don’t recall the three “survivors” ever being the same as the first three people who were nominated.
Start a new column for the combined behaviors. This is the time to merge those that are similar, rather than trying to force consistency in the preceding steps. So if one employee has “work ethic” and another has “get it done attitude” you can ask the group how they would combine that wording into a single trait. I look over the board and circle similar behaviors, and then ask if there is a phrase that describes what we are trying to say. This is where we start lengthening the words into descriptive paragraphs.
You will wind up with a list of 5 to 8 behaviors. Ask the group “Can we formulate core values statement using these behaviors?” If they agree, ask “Are there any important values in our company that aren’t on this list?” Although there may be one or two suggestions, those can usually be incorporated into the existing list with a bit of modification.
4. Drafting the Statements.
Beginning with the behavior phrase list, ask the group “How would we say this in a way that is more specific?” I ask about what “assumed meaning’ words, such as responsible, diligent or consistent, really mean. For instance, the behavior of “Hard worker” can morph into the phrase “Takes ownership of getting things done.” When asked what that means, the group can better define something like “Each employee behaves as if he or she was solely responsible for the success of a project.”
If you have more than 5 statements, try to trim them down. Usually, two or more will be different aspects of the same values and can be combined. Note that, as the facilitator, this is where you are using the power of the pen to craft phrases describing behaviors into statements of values. Don’t be afraid to suggest alternative wordings here, although you should not be participating in the previous steps except to record the Mission Team’s input.
5. Prioritizing the Values:
I conclude by handing out slips of paper for a priority vote. The participants list the top three statements in what they feel is their order of importance. I tally the votes (weighting them in order of each individual’s selection), and re-list all the statements in the order determined by the group.
I think the Mission to Mars works so well because it’s fun, takes people out of visualizing the workplace, and at the same time focuses on concrete behaviors instead of vague “values.” It is very, very effective.
A Note to My Readers
This January marks the start of my seventh full year of writing Awake at 2 o’clock on a weekly basis. I got serious with the publishing of “The Strategic Triple Threat” in January of 2009, which will probably stand forever as my most accurate piece of economic prognostication. 🙂
Many thanks to the hundreds of you who have commented, and who come up to me at speaking events and say “I’ve been reading your blog for years.”If you read regularly and find yourself nodding in agreement or quoting a column, then I feel that I’m doing my job.
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