At Buildkite, we have just finished going through the process of reevaluating our values. Last year, we took a look at them and decided that they just didn’t quite feel right anymore. Why?
These four key reasons:
In his 1956 article, The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two, Harvard University psychologist Geroge Miller argues the limits of short-memory. In the piece he posits that most people can hold 7 ± 2 objects in their short-term memory.
So what happens if you’ve got more than seven values? Or - possibly more realistically - more than five values?
People can’t remember them! That’s what!
At Buildkite, we were pushing the limit with seven values. Most employees could only remember their one or two favorites. That meant we had different groups of employees upholding different values - and acting in different ways - believing that they were acting within the expectations of the company.
The values weren’t bringing us together. And if you have more than five values - it’s likely that yours aren’t either.
Sometimes it’s necessary to just crack open the dictionary. Here are two important terms as defined by the Oxford dictionary:
Value: Principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important.
Attribute: A quality or feature regarded as characteristic or inherent.
Here are Buildkite’s old values:
These are all nice words, but they're not values. They don’t guide judgement. They don’t help you work out how to act. They are attributes. They are outcomes of what your values should be, they are not your values themselves.
Let’s look at our old “value” of “transparency” - what does that even mean? That you share everything with everyone all the time? We’re a pretty open group at Buildkite, but that much sharing couldn’t possibly be a good idea.
We found that a company value needs to be more than one word so people are able to take the idea or framework and make it relevant for their own work. And then “transparency,” “empathy,” or “collaboration,” may very well end up being a positive outcome afterwards.
Values should be written in simple, non-jargon language that is easy to understand and act upon. They shouldn’t be written for a single team, and should be understandable by everyone at the company.
They shouldn’t have qualifiers “do X unless it is in situation Y”. Or long explanations of “well, what we mean by value X is...”
Here’s the formula we followed:
One word? Too short.
A full sentence? Too long.
A whole paragraph? No. Just no.
Between two and six words? Juuuuust right.
A company value should do one of two things:
Values are not a magic wand that you can wave and magically change your company culture. They can guide behavior, but they can’t change behavior overnight.
If an employee can look at your values and not see themselves there, what do you think they’re going to do? Leave? Unlikely. They’re just going to ignore the values!
Values should be aspirational. They should help you strive to be the best person, team and company that you can be. But if they’re too different to how you actually are, then no one is going to follow them.
So, for all of the above reasons Buildkite did some soul searching and came up with our values v1.2. (v1.2 because values are never set-and-forget, and maybe these will be right for the next 5 years, but need to be changed again later.)
So, without future ado, Buildkite’s new values:
We value and embrace what makes us different.
We acknowledge the whole human, not just the role.
Our teams are diverse, and our people are distributed — we provide everything they need to do their best work.
Continuous Delivery is all about shipping quickly and often, and we embody this in how we approach our work.
Magic happens when we collaborate directly with our customers, with our colleagues, and with our peers across the industry.
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