Last year, Eastern Standard set out on an exercise that’s probably familiar to many of you: crafting a company values statement.
It was long overdue. We were approaching our 5-year anniversary as a company and hadn’t ever taken the time to codify what we felt was important and compelling about the work that we do.
The exercise proved interesting — and a bit difficult — for two reasons. First, the founding partners at our company all come from a freelance background that required us to scrounge up work from anyone who had a job for us. In those early days, the goal was simply to make it through the next month without going broke. That sort of circumstance doesn’t offer extra time to think about overarching values, nor does it allow you to be selective with the clients you work with. The company would evolve organically, and ultimately grow to a point where it was important to assess our shared values, but we hadn’t taken the time to zoom out for a 30,000-foot view of what our shared values really looked like.
The second and probably most complicating factor was this: As a group of partners, we are very wary of anything that sounds inauthentic or sanctimonious. We did not want a bubbly values statement that people might like to hear, but that didn’t really represent us or provide a compass for future decision-making.
As someone whose tolerance for bullshit is exceptionally low, I was plagued by the question of how to come up with a values statement I could get behind, and that didn’t strike me as a sanctimonious drivel. I wanted to understand the practical use of a values statement, and here’s the exercise I went through to get there:
Values, Perspectives, and Expectations
My goal was to take the abstract concept of “values” and somehow funnel it into something more tactical, more concrete.
It occurred to me that values can reduce to perspectives, and perspectives can reduce to expectations. I’ll explain what I mean.
Consider the following value:
"We care about creating meaningful experiences."
If we have that value, it inherently means that we bring a certain set of perspectives to our work.
For example, a list of perspectives based on this value might include:
- Design should be used to solve problems and enhance human experience (as opposed to being thought of as a purely visual exercise).
- Our clients and collaborators should have a positive, constructive experience throughout the process of working with us.
There can be any number of perspectives tied to a given value. Where the rubber meets the road, though, is in the expectations. The expectations dictate what sort of practical, day-to-day standards it is fair to hold yourself and your team to.
Some practical expectations that emerge from this set of perspectives:
- UX decisions should prioritize end-user usability over a designer’s intuitions or opinions.
- Web accessibility is non-negotiable.
- Clients and collaborators should receive consistent, honest communication throughout a project.
The way I think about it is that values are more or less immutable: They represent core tenets of what we believe. A perspective is a less abstract result of holding that value, and introduces one or more notions of how that value might look in practice. Perspectives can change with time, and more than one can be tied to a particular value. Expectations are specific, day-to-day standards that we hold ourselves and others to.
The Value of Values
For me, the practical benefit of identifying and codifying our values is that we create a shared framework for making decisions, as it aligns our approach to the work that we do. As practitioners-turned-leaders, it can be difficult to escape the desire to micromanage. Our instinct is to have each and every decision be made “the way we would do it.” But that’s not scalable for a company, nor does it create a healthy environment for team growth.
However, by defining our top-level values, we're able to maintain the core tenets of our company while allowing the team to explore new ways in which those values can be implemented as perspectives and expectations. When we rolled out our values statement to the team, we did so in a workshop that asked everyone to break into groups and try to think of perspectives and expectations that align with each value.
Going forward, this list will continue to evolve and expand as we grow, but it will always remain bracketed by the top-level values that we think are most critical to our team, our clients, and our end product.