Value Statements Are (Typically) Useless
Enron, the company which made accounting fraud an Olympic-level sport, had, like so many other companies, a values statement – in Enron’s case, it was “Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence.”
Much has been written about the massive (and, in hindsight, incredibly obvious) disconnect between Enron’s values and actions. And much of the blame is typically put on Enron’s people.
But here’s the thing – those values are also completely useless (or, to be more precise, painfully obvious). It might say something about a company if it needs to remind its people to treat each other and its clients with “Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence.” Yet, these values are too common to find their way into many company values statements. Just spend a few minutes and ask your favorite AI (as we all stopped Googling stuff) about the value statements from well-known companies. It’s all the same – platitudes.
Values need to help you make decisions – they act as a compass or guiding star. When I was at Mozilla, we regularly talked about “open first” – everything we did was open by definition: open source code, wikis, participatory communication on mailing lists. You had to explain yourself whenever you wanted to deviate from this value. It acted as an anchor in our decision-making. At eBay, we were guided by the “we believe people are basically good” mantra. A value that meant everything we designed started from the perspective that our users were not out to scam other users but rather honest people doing their best to ensure a smooth transaction. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we didn’t protect our customers from bad actors – but starting from a basis of believing people are generally good meant a lot of product decisions were made to enhance the platform experience for those users instead of turning eBay into a surveillance platform not trusting it’s users.
Next time you think about codifying your company values – make them actionable. Values need to cut, tell right from wrong – and not just state the obvious.
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