Exercises to help you achieve a cohesive company culture

Coworkers meeting seen through glass window

9 mins, 34 secs read time

In my last post, I showed you how you could utilize design mapping techniques to better understand how the disparate pieces of your culture interrelate. Now, I’m going to show you how to build on the mapping process to further visualize a more granular piece of your culture: your core values.

Having a set of core values is crucial. If you can’t visualize your core values and if your team members can’t describe how you embody those values, this may be keeping your culture from thriving. In order for a group of people to work together at the highest level, they have to have a shared belief in where they are going, how they’re getting there, and the ways in which they interact with one another along the way.

Before we dive into the second part of the culture mapping process, let's first get on the same page about what "core values" means, as it relates to other terms it's sometimes confused with.

Defining “core values”

I’ve seen many definitions for what mission, vision, and core values each mean for different organizations, but to keep the exercise simple, here is how I define them:

  • Your Vision is your grand plan—how you’re going to change the world, disrupt a market, or revolutionize an industry.

  • Your Mission is the 1/3/5/10-year plan summarized in a sentence. What are you going to do to work towards making your vision a reality, and how are you going to do it?

  • Your Core Values are the ideals you refuse to compromise as you conduct your mission in pursuit of your vision.

The easiest way to know if you have a good set of values is to pit them against your willingness to lose money, not hire someone, or to fire someone. If a customer asked you to compromise one of your values for a deal, would you do it? A good set of values that are clearly and often communicated can make decision-making at the board level all the way down to the front line a set of operating principles that everyone understands are uncompromising. The most effective organizational cultures are built upon a strong set of values above anything else.

Intro to the exercise

Below, I’m going to help you visualize what your cores values really mean, map how they are communicated and tested by your team, and if necessary, give you the guidance to revise and strengthen them. Remember, this exercise can be performed with your vision, mission, or core values in mind, but for this post, we’re going to focus on core values.

I highly recommend collaborating on the exercise with a cross-functional team of individuals who work in different departments and at different levels in your organization and who experience varying microcultures. Working with just an executive team to map your values means that you’ll only hear what leaders think inspires your team, as opposed to trying to understand if your values truly mean the same thing to every person at your company.

Let’s get started...

Step 1: Identify your values

If you don’t yet have a set of core values, skip to the below portion of this post to understand how you can use the editing process I discuss to craft them with the help of your team.

Assuming you have a predefined set of values, list them each out on a green post-it note. (If you went through the exercise in my last post, you can work off of the Mission, Vision, Values note you’ve already created).

Map company culture 1

Once you’ve listed out each of your values, have everyone in the room write out one sentence on a yellow post-it note defining what they think that value means.

Similarly, have them each think of a scenario where that value played out in a real life interaction.

Map company culture 2

Your values should fit your company’s personality. Our values at WeVue are all intentionally layered with meaning. There’s a story behind every one, true business reasons to back up their importance, and a tongue in cheek aphorism to sum them up. They fit the collective beliefs of our team members and make us excited about how we do business. A common value I often see is “Fun” – and “Fun” means different things to different people; at one company it’s nerf gun battles, while at another it’s the occasional after work happy hour. The important thing to understand here is that the language behind your values is irrelevant as long as the meaning actually inspires your team.

On that note, one of our values at WeVue is “Drink Good Coffee.” We literally drink good coffee in the office, but it’s its metaphorical meaning that resonates with us most. We strive for a high degree of craftsmanship when developing technology, and we believe in supporting local business whenever possible.

Coffee doesn’t have to be insanely expensive to be fantastic—you can find a great cup almost anywhere in the world, and a stunning amount of care is put into a good cup of joe when the person making it loves what they do. The same can be said for creating software.

And a few months ago, we had a choice between two development partners to help us with a new feature for our product. One was a company based in San Francisco, while the other was local (we’re based in Tampa). We went with the local vendor, even though it was a bit more expensive. But, we lived our values and didn’t think twice about the decision.

Step 2: List out how each value is communicated and practiced

Now take a pink post-it and list out how each particular value is communicated and practiced inside your organization. Here, you can leverage the map you made in the last exercise to understand which systems and procedures are already in place for communicating your values.

Here are some helpful questions to guide you and your team in determining how each of your values are communicated and practiced in your org:

  • Are they communicated on your website, so candidates understand what you believe as an organization before applying?

  • Are they reinforced during the interview process? Do you ask interviewees questions designed to see if they culturally align to your belief system?

  • Do you train new hires on your values?

  • If you asked a random team member in the office what your values are, would they know off the top of their head?

  • Does leadership include your values as talking points in company meetings, emails, and updates?

  • Are your values actually engaged with? Do people talk about and live them?

  • When someone makes a decision that compromises your values, are they fired?
Map company culture 3

Another one of our values is that we “Don’t Sit in Traffic.” We communicate the meaning behind this value to new hires: We don’t believe in wasting time for the sake of convention—if working a 9-5 schedule means you spend two hours in the car commuting, don’t work 9-5. As such, it’s actually a useful recruitment tool: It allows us to expand our applicant pool to those who would be wary of having to drive to far into our office every day and shows that we care more about the work you do than where you work. We respect your time and your ability to do things differently when breaking convention makes more sense. There’s nothing quite like the first time a new hire asks if they can come into the office late or work from home because of some scheduling hiccup and we tell them: “You don’t need to ask, remember—we don’t sit in traffic.”

Step 3: Find missed opportunities

While looking at some of the above questions, use orange post-it notes to highlight areas where you could be communicating your values but perhaps are missing the mark. The most commonly missed opportunity is that organizations hire an expensive managment consultant to help them design a set of values that don’t actually represent the culture of the organization. As a result, team members don’t care about the values, and they certainly don’t make decisions based on them. When going through this exercise, you should all be shaking your heads in agreement during steps 1 & 2, showing that you have a firm understanding as to what your values mean and where and when they are communicated. You’ll then stumble upon a-ha moments as to how you can strengthen your culture during step 3. If there are disagreements during this exercise, it may be time to re-examine what your values are.

Map company culture 4

Step 4: Don’t fear change

I often hear people talk about changing their core values as if it were throwing out a product with 1,000,000 lines of code. Let me assure you, changing your values is one of the simplest things you can do to empower your team to come together around more passionate work. The key is to create a set of values that your entire company provided input on instead of just picking random buzzwords like “innovation” and “teamwork” and “learning” out of a hat. Your values are your identity and serve as the foundation of your employer brand. Remember: no one wants to work for a company that sounds like everyone else.

If you want to change one or all of your values, go through the exact same steps outlined above, but this time, subtly tweak the questions you ask your team with the following:

Step 1: Instead of first listing out your values, ask your team directly: “What do we value here? What is sacred? When do we refuse to compromise?”

Step 2: Dive deeper into those possible values by asking, “Why is this important? Why did we choose to leave money on the table because of this belief?”

Step 3: Identify how implementing these values could enhance your organization by asking, “Will identifying this as a value make decision making easier? Will it clarify who we are and what we do as a team?”

Step 4: Make a splash. Don’t just sent out an email saying you updated your values. Throw a party, host a storytelling show showcasing employees talking about examples of how they lived that value, create a video, and constantly reinforce WHY that value matters not only to you and your management team, but to the people who helped you design it collectively.

Tying it all together

If you’ve gone through both this exercise and the previous one I presented to you, you’ll have a map of your culture, an outline of your values, and a toolkit to apply design thinking to a variety of problems and processes across your company. Ideally, you’ll have identified some opportunities for growth and maybe you’ll even have stumbled upon a value that needs some TLC.

Besides your company culture and values, you can take this mapping technique and apply it to your company vision or mission statement, the new hire process, the exit process, or any experience or interaction that falls under the umbrella of “culture” or “people.” The only things you need to consider are: 1) What you are mapping? 2) How it is communicated internally? What does it mean? 3) How it is communicated externally?, and 4) Where are there opportunities for growth?

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