How to Define Company Values

Twenty three people milled about the room. We had gathered together to talk about culture. Culture is that unwritten set of rules that governs our behavior as we work together. With such a large group, from vice-presidents to managers to supervisors, we broke into six smaller groups so quick discussions could occur. The CEO was in the back of the room with strict instructions to simply listen.

“On the table, everyone grab a little stack of sticky notes. Please identify five values that you believe are important in guiding our behavior as the company works together. Write one value on a separate sticky note.” Within 90 seconds, most had completed the assignment. Each small group was given another 90 seconds to share their responses, to make sure each person had five sticky notes. We were three minutes into the meeting.

“We have a big white board up here. I know it will get noisy, but everyone stand and come stick your five values to the board. Once all the notes are on the board feel free to group all the duplicates together and then sit down.”

And so the room was thrown into chaos for a few minutes. In the end, 62 different values were represented on the board. Those 62 values were quickly and randomly rearranged into 31 pairs of words.

“This next step is like a double-elimination tournament for a softball game, only quicker. For each random pair, we are going to vote on which value best represents what we want for our collective culture. The winners will go on one side and the losers on the other. Then we will pair all the winners and pair all the losers. To get off the board, the value has to lose twice, so a losing value could earn its way back to the winner’s side of the board.”

The voting went quickly. As the selections went from 62 to 31, down to 12, we then broke into group discussions to get the last 12 down to six. Groups were allowed to advocate for their most important values. In the end, we had five values, with very clear understandings what behaviors were connected to each. The process had taken an hour and a half. Our next meeting was scheduled for the following week.

One thought on “How to Define Company Values

  1. Robert Vedral

    Tom: Great exercise for a company to begin to identify the values of the culture they want. Sometimes organizations go through the process and don’t end up “walking the talk”.
    How would you recommend putting accountability to the implementation of the values that were identified?


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