Saturday, January 19, 2019

Team Values: Why?

The testers at Linguamatics decided to explore the adoption of a set of team values and this short series of posts describes how we got to them through extended and open discussion.

If you find the posts read like one of those "what I did in the holidays" essays you used to be forced to write at school then I'll have achieved my aim. I don't have a recipe to be followed here, only the story of what we did, in the order we did it, with a little commentary and hindsight.
Having decided that we wanted to go ahead and attempt to sculpt a set of values for ourselves, we reviewed the data from our research into what others had done. In terms of motivation, there were some reasonably common factors for enumerating values in teams:
  • Shared purpose.
  • Shared approach to achieving it.
  • A priori justification and guidance for work.
  • Empowering staff to take action.

The terminology used was much less consistent. For example, a mission might be simply a statement of objectives or might also include ways to get there. Some approaches distinguish principles and values as being objective or subjective, respectively. Values are variously asserted as supporting company goals, culture and philosophy, to guide decision-making, or to establish standards.

After talking around the differences for a while we agreed to use the term "values" as a catch-all to begin with. Semantics can be crucial — as you'll discover if and when you attempt to get a group of people to agree to a list of values — but the semantics of naming the way the values are presented seemed less crucial than the values themselves. We waited to see whether some way of capturing our values naturally fell out of our conversations.

This left us free to attack three key framing questions:
  • Why are we interested in doing this?
  • What do we want to achieve with it?
  • How will we go about achieving it?

We started with the Why in a lightly-facilitated discussion where I used a mind map on the whiteboard to capture our suggestions, questions, and criticisms without filtering. I aimed to apply minimal interventions to the conversation while giving everyone opportunities to share their perspective. I wanted to clarify points, to amplify shared understanding, and to get some agreement that I was recording the correct intent of all contributions.

After the meeting I transferred the map to XMind and shared it along with some notes on our company wiki. Our efforts had produced 30-40 reasons that a team might want to have a set of values, loosely grouped into categories:
  • Focusing on the right work.
  • Empowering team members.
  • Caring about the work.
  • Encouraging "good" behaviour.
  • Encouraging consistency.
  • Explaining what work we do.
  • Measuring success.

We also thought of some things that we'd consider to be negative motivations for team values. These included making them as some kind of marketing exercise or as a way to measure success.

You'll have noticed that measuring success is on both the pro and con lists! After some reflection outside of the meeting we dropped it from our discussions, and I proposed simplifying the remaining categories into four broader sets:
  • Encourage (consistency, behaviour)
  • Emphasise (focus)
  • Empower
  • Explain (caring, what we do)

We clarified to ourselves that dropping an idea was no comment on its merits in context, merely that we were choosing to pursue a different line at that time. Likewise, we were at pains to point out that by nominating some particular set of values for our team we wouldn't be saying that these were our only values.

That seemed like a good start. With a set of potential reasons for having values we began to consider  what kinds of values could support them. That'll be the next post.

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