Scaling Culture: Are Your Startup Values Surviving the Test of Time?

We've seen a number of entrepreneurs struggling with how to keep their values relevant.  We hope some of our experiences below help other companies keep their soul as they scale.

One of the early defining traits of being a Myplaneteer was our core values. As we approached our 25th team member, we began forming them, working to capture the essence of what had made us successful to-date, and what we hoped would endure regardless of how the company evolved.

Our values were developed late into the night by the majority of the company, so we knew them well and held them in a shared esteem. We debated them and called them out to help guide our actions. In the end, we landed on five points to focus on:

  • Innovation - Constantly question convention
  • Collaboration - Be open, be honest, build trust
  • Humanity - Focus on people, not policies
  • Mastery - Ensure our work is extraordinary
  • Focus - Do less, if it means doing it better

We used them as a foundation for everything.

From the work we did, to how we did it and who we were doing it with, they were our constant touchstones. We assumed they were integrated, absorbed and understood by all team members. They were fundamental to our rapidly growing company. So imagine our surprise as we entered 2014 and noticed a strange trend: increasing uncertainty among Myplaneteers on how to live our values, and varying perceptions on what each value meant. Shocked, we had to ask ourselves:

Was it time to regroup on our values? Had we missed something? Would we be able to scale our culture as we progressed — or would it all fall apart?

Much of the business literature we had read to-date declared that values should be timeless, should always hold true. We worried that we made a mistake and chose the wrong values. We worried that times changed and our values were no longer relevant. We worried that we lost our way and had begun hiring people who no longer valued the same things. We debated for quite a while on re-visiting the description of our values, but in the end decided that they were too important to let this uncertainty slide.

Culture is, after all, the bed-rock that your organization is built on. Get it right and you fuel your growth with exceptional people. A culture that supports and promotes employee satisfaction, growth and engagement will draw talent to your door and keep it there. We had worked hard to set that cultural foundation through our values and we were determined not to lose it to complacency or confusion.

The Plan

We set out on a six-month discovery process in an attempt to understand the challenge. We gathered feedback from as many interested parties as we could. We canvassed staff, both during company-wide All Hands meetings and through a terrific tool called Know Your Company; we got more staff input through a monthly Morning Coffee where we openly discuss critical topics affecting the business; we looked back on how our values got us here through targeted huddles among our Directors and Founders; and through discussions with clients on what they valued, we heard how our values impact our public perception.

Through this process we came to a fortunate conclusion — and one that I have since seen other companies experience as they grow over time. Our values are timeless, but how we articulate them to be relevant to our team may change over time.

We also found that some of our values were articulated in a way that allowed for misinterpretation. For example, our value of Focus would sometimes be cited as a reason to not think (for at least a portion of the time) about future Innovation.

Our many forms of feedback were synthesized into one document and the input was grouped into recurring themes. We identified many areas where the original genesis of our values were still very real strengths, a testament to their ongoing merit. We also looked very carefully at the areas where our team members and customers felt that we could live our values better, raising our own bar for performance in the process.

Excel Sheet on Startup Values

It was like beginning a delicate surgery, determining how to make our values more relevant without losing the essence of what made them so important back in our early days.

Building a Framework

At Myplanet we love frameworks. Even when an end state is unknown, they allow us to collaborate and come to agreement through an agreed approach. We agreed on a test that would guide us from Jim Collins.

We started by asking one critical question:

In our best times, and in our worst times, have we been tempted to get rid of [X] value?

We were heartened to see that even in our toughest times— even at our critical junctures— we have always held our values to be true. We may err and we may make mistakes, but we always strive towards living our values.

Knowing that our high level pillars were sound, we began a document to map the considerable feedback we had to each value. Our work was rough to begin, mapping the following:

  • Known strengths that we wanted to reinforce
  • Areas where better clarity was needed
  • Areas where we had struggled to use the values to correct a negative behaviour
  • Areas where the values had not allowed us to celebrate positive behaviours
  • How the values were manifesting themselves in cultural artefacts and routines

These helped us form paragraph-long statements for each value. We then took a pass at reviewing the long value descriptions against personas (customers, end users, Myplaneteers, community) to see if we had considered them from the many angles with which they would be interpreted. Would these values indeed be actionable for various groups?

Excel Sheet on Collaboration and Values

Once that was done, we set out on three intense rounds of curation. We were fortunate to have turnout from many of our Myplaneteers for these sessions, contributing their insights to help us capture the essence of each value into a succinct set of statements.

Focus is one of our five values, and we knew from experience that the values needed to be simple and actionable if they were to be remembered and acted upon.

Narrowing In On The Core Values

Here are the 5 techniques that helped us in focusing these values:

  • Overlap - were we describing the same traits across multiple values?
  • Shared traits - where was someone who values one trait highly likely to carry out another?
  • Worst case scenario - if the effect was not large or cumulative, that item could be trimmed.
  • Added ‘antithesis’ statements - sometimes it is faster to describe a behaviour that is not a fit.
  • Prioritization - where we could not narrow enough, could we find consensus that one trait was more important than another?

The Results

All of this effort eventually narrowed in on the following refresh to our values.

Our Values - Focus, Innovation and Humanity

Our Values Part 2: Mastery and Collaboration

These values will continue to serve us well for the next several years.

And, should the time arise that we need to once again refresh how we articulate them, at least this time we will have a playbook.

Continuously Re-Energizing and Integrating

To integrate our new values we’re doing the following:

  • Created a quarter-long focus on calling out the values through physical cards to recognized peers who are exhibiting them
  • Telling stories which exemplify the values every Thursday at “The Gathering” - our version of an all-hands drinks/pour-before-four weekly event
  • Review them several times during Engagement Week - our way of getting some quality face time between our remote staff and our in-office teams
  • Discuss them twice quarterly during our SOTU (State of the Universe) - our version of a Director Level update meeting

So far the results have been very positive - collaboration is up, communication is more fluid and our regular employee survey is showing great results.

More importantly though - we’re finding that people are once again congratulating their colleagues - and feeling empowered to challenge others when activities aren’t in alignment with our values.

It's an ongoing process - but one that is critical to maintaining a solid culture as you scale.

How have you incorporated values into your growing startup?  Or what lessons have helped you solidify your core values?

Written by

Jason Cottrell

Jason Cottrell

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