Values and guiding principles are crucial in enabling distributed decision-making within an organization. They empower individuals to make decisions autonomously, without constant supervision or hierarchical approval. This leads to increased efficiency and agility and fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among team members.
In my last article, I wrote about the importance of an engineering vision. While a vision tells you what the organization wants to achieve, and the mission (see my next article) gives you an idea of how it intends to achieve the vision, there is still a lot of room for interpretation, uncertainty, and discussion.
In this fourth part of my series around high-purpose environments, I focus on the importance of values and guiding principles and their role in distributed decision-making. Practical values and guiding principles enable people in every position to make decisions in alignment with vision and mission. They reduce the need for lengthy circular discussions and top-down decision-making.
Vision and Guiding Principles: What is What?
Values and guiding principles are closely related. Some values might give enough guidance to stand as guiding principles. However, you might have guiding principles that are too specific to count as values. For a value, you might have more than one guiding principle.
Values are the core beliefs that guide the actions and decisions of individuals within the organization. They provide a framework for understanding the company culture and help employees align their behavior with the company’s expectations. Values can be both aspirational and reflect the current reality of the organization. Strong values support a healthy work environment, encourage trust, and ultimately contribute to the company’s success.
Even though they can be aspirational, they should not be a fantasy. If your value set has nothing to do with life and work in the organization, people will ignore them and even get frustrated by this mismatch.
- Integrity: We commit to being honest, transparent, and accountable in all our actions. We strive to make ethical decisions and stand by them, even when it is difficult or unpopular.
- Collaboration: We believe in the power of working together, sharing ideas, and supporting one another. Together we can achieve more than we could individually.
- Empathy: We treat others with kindness, understanding, and respect. By putting ourselves in the shoes of clients, partners, and others, we can better address their needs and concerns.
Guiding principles are specific, actionable guidelines that help employees put the company’s values into practice. They offer a clear framework for decision-making and behavior, allowing team members to align their actions with the organization’s values.
Guiding principles help to live in alignment with the values. More importantly, they guide decision-making. While a value leaves much room for interpretation, guiding principles are more specific.
Take Collaboration for example. I have met teams that would say they collaborate when all they do are daily stand-ups and pull request-based code reviews. A guiding principle could be: We favor synchronous team programming over code reviews.
Good guiding principles are relevant for day-to-day work and are referred to regularly. Good values and guiding principles are not something you write in the company handbook, read during onboarding, and then forget. They should be something that influences how you work and should be relevant.
Some examples for the value Empathy:
- Always assume the best intentions.
- Actively listen and seek to understand others’ perspectives and needs.
- Offer support and assistance to colleagues and clients when needed.
Finding Good Guiding Principles and Values
Every company and context is different; therefore, the values and guiding principles might also differ. While values, vision, and mission should rarely change, guiding principles might evolve more fluently.
The reason is that other guidance might be needed as the context changes. Whenever you observe the inability for decision making, it might be time to revisit the guiding principles: Is there one that could help make the decisions? Why is it not followed? Or is there none, but it should be?
The most important aspect of finding good values and guiding principles is to have open discussions about them. This helps people to question them and understand their reasons. When people disagree with values or guiding principles, they are unlikely to follow them. The consequence would be an organization with those values on paper but not in reality.
By inviting people into the discussion, you make sure that the values and principles are meaningful to them and that they know how they influence day-to-day work.
When people disagree with values and principles, this can have one of the following reasons:
- They have not understood them and would benefit from more information about the values and principles.
- The values and principles are inaccurate and no longer support the mission. In this case, consider changing the principles so that they get new buy-in from the team.
- They do not share the company’s values and principles and are unlikely to follow them. This mismatch is ideally detected during hiring. Having people on the team who disagree with the values and principles of the company is dangerous as they are unlikely to follow and might even sabotage them. This can quickly derail best efforts in creating a high-purpose environment.
It can be tempting to create a long list of values and even more guiding principles. Many values sound nice on paper, and we want to have all of them. While there is no specific number, and it depends on the context, I recommend having 3 to 7 core values to maintain focus and clarity. Everything above that will be hard to remember, and everything below that will not seem relevant.
Core values should be clear, concise, and actionable, guiding decision-making, behavior, and overall company culture. The values must be authentic and genuinely reflect the beliefs and aspirations of the organization, as well as resonate with employees and other stakeholders.
When it comes to guiding principles, the number you will need depends on how much guidance your value statements need to be effective. I would not go with more than 3 to 5 guiding principles per value. In total, I would limit it to 15 – 20 maximum. Already at that size, it is hard to imagine that all 20 are relevant enough to be applied daily. Fewer principles that are applied more often are better than more principles that are applied rarely. Only when values and guiding principles are used frequently will they remain present and impactful.
This was part four of the high-purpose environments series.
- The topic “Engineering Excellence through Mission-Driven Teams” will be covered in part five.
- The sixth and final part will be about “Engineering Strategy: Actionable and Specific Guidance for Growing Engineering Teams”.
Creating a high-purpose environment requires developing and implementing solid values and guiding principles that are relevant, actionable, and consistently reinforced. By establishing a shared understanding of these values and principles, organizations can enable distributed decision-making, foster a sense of ownership and responsibility, and ultimately achieve tremendous success.
It is essential to regularly review and update values and guiding principles to ensure they remain aligned with the organization’s mission and vision. By engaging team members in discussions about these values and principles, organizations can ensure that they are both meaningful and effective in guiding decision-making and behavior. This ongoing conversation helps to build a robust and resilient company culture that supports individual growth and drives collective success.
Does your organization have values and guiding principles? How do you ensure they stay relevant and are applied frequently?