How to Avoid the 4 Mistakes “Values-Driven” Organizations Make

In the six years since the first edition of The 31 Practices book was published, the topic of values has caught the imagination of people all over the world. In the second edition of the book in 2018 (Chapter 2, Values), we described how the inaugural World Values Day took place in 2016 and that people in more than one hundred countries took part in October 2017 and 2018. Putting values at the centre of everything an organization does is the starting point to creating a strong and authentic brand. This is particularly relevant for service organisations where people are a core element of their offer.

Simon Sinek’s excellent and popular Golden Circle concept is a good place to start understanding how this is happening. Simon explains that it is not what people do that inspires them. Instead, it is the why (Purpose) and how (Values) that achieve emotional engagement.

Using Values as a Guidepost for Alignment

PwC’s CEO Survey of 1,400 CEOs in approximately 80 countries highlighted that 75% of CEOs are changing their values and code of conduct to respond to stakeholder expectations in an environment of unprecedented change. It reported how values can provide a guidepost for creating internal cohesion to support achievement of organisational aims and assist in strategy execution.

“96% of CEOs agree that it is important for leaders to take time to explain how values influence business decisions.”

The Financial Reporting Council has been perhaps the most influential source of governance advice around the world as originator of the widely copied Corporate Code in 1992. In 2018, the FRC tore up its previous code and replaced it with a radically rewritten version for consultation that stresses long-term success and proposes a new requirement for businesses to test their values across the business, from top to bottom. The new revised text is as follows:

“Directors should embody and promote the desired culture of the company. The board should monitor and assess the culture to satisfy itself that behaviour throughout the business is aligned with the company’s values. Where it finds misalignment, it should take corrective action. The annual report should explain the board’s activities and any action taken.”

Whilst the FRC itself is being replaced by a new regulator, The Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority will have enhanced powers and a brief for “strong” leadership to “change the culture” of the auditing sector so there is a real opportunity for the topics of culture and values to be placed squarely at the centre of corporate governance.

Putting Values into Practice

We are living in extraordinary times — volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. The pace of change will never be this slow again. Many traditional approaches are no longer relevant and there is a new business agenda emerging. It has become fashionable for organizations to describe themselves as values-driven and yet, for the stakeholders (employees, customers, service partners, local communities, investors, members, citizens) of some, if not many, of these organizations, there is a disconnect between the aspirational words and the experienced reality. Values are now mainstream; it is no longer about a framed plaque on the wall. Values are the organisation’s guiding compass and are most effective when they inform everything else an organisation does.

“In theory there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”
– Yogi Berra, baseball coach

So why is it such a challenge to be a values-driven organisation…in practice? How can you avoid the four mistakes outlined below that these organizations often make? Consider the questions in each section and how they relate to your own organization.

1) Lack of clarity

Clarity means identifying the true values and clearly describing what they mean.

Have the values been decided by a few senior leaders or a branding or communications consultancy?

Do the words chosen feel completely disconnected from the reality of the organization?

Is the values language soulless, ambiguous, management-speak?

Is there confusion about what the values are and what they mean?

2) The values exist in theory rather than in practice

“In practice” means putting the values into action throughout the organization.

Are they hidden on the website or on a values presentation—or even displayed on an impressive plaque on the wall—but not lived?

To what extent are they expressed in policies and processes?

Are they referred to when making decisions about the direction and development of the business?

Are they reflected in how the organisation spends time and resources?

How active are leaders in recognising examples of values-driven behaviour?

3) Insufficient assessment of impact

Assessment means measuring the impact the values have internally and externally.

To what extent do employees give each other constructive feedback and is everybody held accountable?

How are the perceptions of employees, customers, service partners/suppliers and other stakeholders sought, measured, shared and acted upon?

Are the values and culture metrics and achievements publicly reported alongside financial and other business indicators?

4) Lack of a development mindset

Development means learning from efforts and continuously developing the way the values are brought to life in everything that happens in the organization.

Do people take time to reflect on key decisions, consciously referring to the values?

What is the approach to learning, individually and collectively, from all the available information (including perceptions) to live the values more fully?

How prevalent is open and robust debate to tackle the complexity of competing values?

How are policies and processes reviewed and updated to reflect learning?

How are learnings shared with other organizations and groups, and lessons learned from their experience?

Committing to a Values-Driven Path

If you were to reflect on these four mistakes and ask yourself the question, “Which is the most important one to address?”, which one would you choose? It’s an unfair question because all four challenges need to be addressed…all at the same time. If any one area Is not addressed, then the organization will not be able to function in a truly values-driven way.

The question asked at the start of this post was, “So why is it such a challenge to be a values-driven organisation…in practice?” Perhaps you now have a better understanding of why this is the case. And yet, none of these four challenges is impossible to overcome. Far from it. Improvement across the four areas does not involve a huge investment of time, money or other resources. What it does take, though, is a collective commitment led from the most senior level and throughout the whole organisation, followed by a relentless determination to follow a values-driven path. Sustained success requires sustained effort, and leaders need to lead…in practice.

A Note on World Values Day

What will you be inspired to do this World Values Day?

Global Values Alliance will be launching a Values Pledge in October 2019 to coincide with World Values Day. The Values Pledge shows organisations how they can become values-driven. Signing the pledge gives an important message to customers, employees and others that you are clear about what really matters to you and practice what you preach. If you are interested in signing the Values Pledge or taking part in the beta test, you can contact the Global Values Alliance at or Alan Williams at

The main theme for this year’s World Values Day is Values and Wellbeing. It is an opportunity to think about our most deeply held values and to act on them. Living our lives aligned to our values is essential for our own wellbeing and helps the wellbeing of those around us. When we are out of alignment, our wellbeing suffers.

What will you be inspired to do this World Values Day? Get involved at

Shhh . . . the Values Economy has arrived

The Values Economy Has Arrived

We are living in extraordinary times – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.

The pace of change will never be this slow again.

In the service sector, many traditional approaches are no longer relevant and there is a new business agenda emerging.

The landscape of Brand Identity, Employee Engagement and Customer Experience is changing . . . all at the same time, all of the time:

  • Organisations no longer own their brand. Investors are no longer the sole influencer.
  • Brands are co-owned by stakeholders: customers, employees, service partners, local communities and investors.
  • Employees want a sense of meaning and fulfilment more than a monthly pay packet . . . and outsourced does not mean out of mind – these employees represent the organisation every bit as much as employed employees.
  • Customers’ expectations are increasing and they vote with their wallet or contactless card.
  • Social media amplifies all stakeholder opinion in what some are calling the age of the naked organisation.

On the surface, it might seem that nothing much is wrong . . . but pause for a moment:

  • How alive is your organisation’s Purpose and Values?
  • How inspired are the employees representing the organisation?
  • How passionate are your customers?
  • How consistent is the service delivered by your organisation across geographies, functions and channels?
  • How do the functional centres support the business? . . . or do they operate unilaterally?
  • How “connected” is your senior leadership with the front line and customer-facing employees?
  • Is your business at risk . . . without even realising?

There is little doubt that a different approach is needed for organisations to create sustainable performance. Collaboration . . . engagement . . . agility . . . and innovation are the new black. The successful SERVICEBRANDs of the future will be those who share common values with stakeholders. We refer to this paradigm as The Values Economy.

Values are the things that are important to us, the foundation of our lives. They are deeply held principles that guide our choices and behaviours and influence our emotions. Values are the core of who we are. They are our motivators, our drivers, the passion in our hearts and the reason why we do the things we do. In a world that is constantly and rapidly changing, values serve as a compass to navigate uncertainty. Research has shown that purpose and values-led organisations consistently outperform.


PwC conducts an annual CEO survey and presented the results of the latest edition at the World Economic Forum in March 2017. Based on input from 1,379 CEOs worldwide across multiple sectors, this year’s results suggest that business leaders are acknowledging the unique challenges and opportunities that have come about due to globalisation and technological change. In response to this radically new environment, CEOs are focusing on three key areas: managing man and machine; gaining from connectivity without losing trust; making globalisation work for all.

58% of CEOs are worried that lack of trust in business is a threat to continued business growth. In a more digitalised world, 69% of CEOs think it is harder for business to gain and keep trust. In response, 85% of them responded that it is crucial to run business in a way that accounts for wider stakeholder expectations, and 93% agreed that a strong corporate purpose is essential, one that is reflected in their organisation’s values, culture and behaviour. These results clearly demonstrate the importance of values recognised at the C-suite level of some of the largest organisations in the world.

How can groups and organisations put their values into action? In other words, how can organisations design their internal culture?

Purpose and values set the foundation for an organisation’s culture, and are core to its way of working. Culture is not an initiative or a project. Culture is the sum of habits and behaviours, and thus the best place to put values into action. Organisations can make conscious their values and then empower employees to live those values via everyday behaviours. Culture may be intangible but the benefits are very tangible. If an organisation’s values are clear, they can and retain employees who share the same values. With shared values, there is greater trust within the organisation – employees feel safe and valued with a strong sense of belonging. With a truly shared purpose, organisations can achieve more than as many individuals could alone.

World Values Day

As a quick start, the core initiative for this year’s World Values Day in October could be a very worthwhile exercise. A one-hour working session called the Values Challenge for organisations to identify one of their chosen values to work with and then agree to (at least) one action that will close the gap between the aspired state and the current, day-to-day reality. Details and free resources are at

World Values Day is an opportunity for us to think about our most deeply held values and to act on them. By truly putting those values into action we can help to change the world. I encourage your participation, look forward to your success, and welcome your questions and discoveries.

Wake Up to Values…in Practice

Wake Up to Practice

The topic of values is gaining more and more attention on a number of levels: organizational, personal, community, societal, political. At an organizational level, the values define what the organization stands for and how it is seen and experienced by customers and other stakeholders (employees, service partners, suppliers and communities). Values act as guiding principles – as a behavioural and decision-making compass. If these values are not embraced and displayed by everybody representing the organization, there is a likelihood that customers will, at best, be confused and at worst, not trust what is being communicated through “official channels.” In today’s super connected, transparent world, the value of values is greater than ever before – workplace culture is at the hub. This article provides an insight into the culture journey of the UK’s leading independent protection insurance adviser, LifeSearch.

On Values & Brand

Over the last 100 years or so, we have seen an evolution in the way in which customers engage with organizations: moving from a focus on the value of products to a focus on service and more recently the development of the experience economy concept in the late 1990s. An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event[i]. Examples of organisations adopting this approach range from Walt Disney’s leisure parks to theme restaurants such as the Hard Rock Cafe, and stores such as Niketown.

Now, social media moving into the mainstream may be creating the conditions for the next evolution. Whereas previously organizations could invest in marketing and PR to “tell a story,” things have changed and there is nowhere to hide. Trust is becoming increasingly important as customers seek to understand the substance behind the promoted “face” of brands they buy. What do they really stand for and believe in? The speed and reach of communication enabled by social media magnifies this trust factor. Significantly, brand control is moving away from the organization that “owns” the brands to the communities that engage with them. Organizations and brands are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are.

This environment provides real opportunities for brands that are true to their values and have a meaningful story if they deliver that in a compelling and authentic way. Research shows that customers’ perception of a brand is strongly influenced by their experience of the people that represent the brand (Enterprise IG 2004 and Ken Irons, Market Leader study). Employees are ambassadors of the brand and arguably have more influence over customer perception than the classical marketing or PR activities. Authenticity from the tip to the root is the new Holy Grail for organizations and a focus will be how the values and brand can be translated into the daily practices and behaviour of their employees, drawing a golden thread from the boardroom to the front line customer experience. Workplace culture is central in this new paradigm of recognising the value of values … but this has to be in practice rather than a PR or communications exercise.

Practice in practice

LifeSearch is the UK’s leading independent protection insurance adviser. In 2012 the organization realised that there was an issue: the attrition rate in their 100 key customer facing sales-advisers had reached 39% and sales and profit were in decline.

They embarked on a three phase programme: Awaken, Connect, Action–focussed on establishing the organization culture and values, enabling employees to communicate freely with each other and bring the values to life every day.

Phase One

The initiative started with involvement of everybody in the business in a series of workshops led personally by members of the leadership team. This led to the articulation of the organisation culture and values in words used by the employees themselves.



Phase Two 

The next stage was to provide a technology platform to assist interaction and communication, but in a way that was more like social media communication out of work rather than more formal “corporate” communication. This included the following features:

  • an online portal where anyone in the business can submit an idea, however big or small, that they think will improve the business in some way. There is a review, feedback and reward process for the ideas submitted.
  • a discussion board open to any employee to post something they think will be of interest to everyone (these posts can be “liked” and replied to).
  • a Training and Coaching area which houses a vast wealth of technical facts, helpful guides, best practice ideas and hints and tips amongst other things.

The leadership team also took the brave decision that this communication flow would not be regulated or monitored which meant that even controversial topics could be discussed and views aired.

Phase Three

The final phase of the initiative was the 31Practices approach[ii], used to translate the stated values into practical daily behaviour every day. This involved a series of co-creation workshops to identify a set of practical day to day behaviours explicitly connected to the organizational values. The way that 31Practices works is for all employees to mindfully focus on the Practice for the day. Why 31? Because there are no more than 31 days in a month. The process means that all employees are involved in creating the organization’s 31Practices and every day employees take responsibility for taking action in line with the Practice for the day so it adds value in their job.


Living Values

Over time, through conscious practise, the behaviours become embedded and consistent, not only in individuals, but across groups of individuals. By definition, the organization’s values are brought to life.

The business impact for LifeSearch was remarkable:

  • Customer facing sales-advisers attrition rate 21% (39%).
  • Customer Satisfaction 95.6% (91.6% )
  • Weekly policy completion +104 .
  • “Inspiration score” for Practice of the day 91%
  • Improvement ideas 174 – 73% actioned.

In addition, the technology platform resulted in a transformation of the way in which employees communicated with each other.

A quote from an employee summarised the impact well: “To be honest, I never really quite knew what culture and values meant. The culture statement that was agreed really feels like what I want my work life to be and it does feel like that day to day and not in a preachy, rammed down your throat kind of way.”

Of course, the value of values will be different in each particular situation but LifeSearch’s experience is yet more evidence of the impact that can be achieved and was a winner of the Employee Engagement category at the Association for Business Psychology Awards 2015[iii].

The Nature of Change 

The changing landscape for business and organizations will arguably bring the importance of values into even sharper focus in the coming years. There are examples nearly every day of how customer and employee experiences are being communicated widely and quickly on social media, encouraging (if not forcing) organizations to respond. There is nowhere to hide. Organizations delivering experiences to their customers, employees, service partners, communities and shareholders that are aligned to their stated purpose and values is moving from an “option” to a fundamental requirement. We could be seeing the dawn of a new “values economy.”

What would you add to this conversation? I welcome your ideas and comments on social media. Thank you in advance. 


[i] HBR July 1998 Welcome to the Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore

[ii] 31Practices is a trademarked tool which helps employees bring the brand of their organisation to life through their behaviour

[iii] The ABP’s Employee Workforce Awards Programme offers a unique and distinctive platform for the celebration of excellence in Business Psychology.

How the workplace can bring organisational values to life every day…or not

How the workplace can bring organisational values to life every day - or not

We have used stories to pass on information for thousands of years and they remain the most powerful way we know to communicate. Indeed, the power of story is magnified in today’s super-connected, transparent world – the truth gets out fast and can be widely communicated – to millions of people all over the world – in such a short space of time.

Here is a story which illustrates how employees’ “felt experience” every day strongly shapes their perception of an organisation and how the impact compares to official “corporate messaging”. This, in turn, highlights the critical (often underappreciated) role played by facilities management in reinforcing organisation brand and values. What are the implications for the role of Facilities Management and the wider HR agenda?

 Picture-1-e1427928660234 Please allow me to introduce you to Sam. From a young age, Sam had shown early promise, excelling at school, not only in academic subjects but also in art and music and a range of sports too. And he was popular too. Sam was one of those people we all wanted to be like….and some of us secretly hated!
 Picture2-e1427932765305 Sam realised his early potential, gaining a first in Geology at Cambridge and going on to complete an MBA at Harvard, where he achieved an all time record score.
 Picture3-e1427928906367 He fell in love with Claudia, an international jewelry designer, and in 2014 they welcomed baby Derek (!) into the world.
 Picture4-e1427929007506 Their new arrival helped reconfirm Sam and Claudia’s commitment to protecting the planet. They had met in Oxford at a Greenpeace event and continued to develop an active interest in how best to protect the planet for future generations. This had just become a whole lot more personal.
Looking for a job was no straightforward task for Sam. Of course, he was in high demand from prospective employers but he had very specific criteria. In addition to an organisation that could offer interesting, challenging work, personal and career development and reasonable remuneration, Sam wanted to work close to home….and most importantly to work for a company that had a similar level of commitment to the environment.
 picture5-e1427929109366 Big Utility Co fitted the bill from day one. The Environment was one of their core values and received significant coverage in the annual report by the CEO. It was heavily featured in all of their recruitment advertising.
 Picture6-e1427929190452 At the assessment centre, Sam was a big hit. No-one had scored so highly in the tests before and the assessors were amazed at Sam’s equally impressive social skills. One executive suggested that Sam was “future main Board material”.
Sam was offered a role where he would be working on projects across functions and with some of the senior leaders. He would be based at the office just 5 miles from his home. Sam was delighted … and so were Claudia and Derek.
 picture7-e1427929253514 On Sam’s first day at the office, he cycled to work and on his way from the car park to Reception, noticed a number of gas guzzling 4×4 vehicles parked at the front of the building. Being a curious person, he asked the receptionist whose vehicles they were. “Oh, the red one is the IT Director, that silver one is the Head of PR, and I think that blue one is the new lady in Health & Safety … sorry I don’t know her name.”
 picture8-e1427930500488 In his second week, one day there was a lot of activity in the vending machines area. The engineer explained “we’re installing these machines on all the office floors. Look, you choose which strength you want, put this foil sachet in here and “Bob’s your uncle”.” When Sam pointed out that the sachets were virtually indestructible and could not be recycled, the engineer said “I don’t know about that, mate, don’t you want better coffee?”
 picture9-e1427930559166 In week three, Sam emailed his PPT presentation to the fifteen people attending the review meeting the next day. At lunch, one of the PAs took him to one side and whispered “They like to have the document in front of them at meetings, so I will print a colour copy for everybody. You weren’t to know but important for the new boy to create a good impression. See you later.”
 picture10-e1427930611982 Week four was very busy and Sam had a number of deadlines to hit so one day he decided to work late into the evening. On the walk to his bike, he was reflecting on his first few weeks and turned around to look at the office building, only to see that all the lights were on, on every floor…

The Felt Experience is What Matters

You can imagine how Sam felt about the company he was working for. What was printed in the corporate literature was just not being followed through in the practical day to day operation of the business. A commitment to Values? I don’t think so. It was Sam’s “felt experience” that mattered rather than printed words in glossy corporate literature.

It is interesting to note that cars, vending machines, printing and night cleaning/utilities are all within the remit of Facilities Management. The FM function was clearly not playing its part in reinforcing the organisation values to its employees every day. This could have been for a number of different reasons and at a number of different levels, either within the FM/Real Estate function or more broadly in the organisation.

From a commercial perspective, the story raises several questions: What was the cost of attracting and recruiting Sam and others like him? What is the opportunity cost of having lost “future main Board material”? What is the cost in productivity and effectiveness of similarly disenchanted employees? What is the reputational risk of Sam’s experience and his views about Big Utility Co?

What are your organisation’s values and how could they be reinforced every day? I would be delighted to hear your thoughts and comments, please share them on social media.

Post script: Sam left Big Utility Co after three months and joined a political movement where he is expected to give the current representative a run for her money in the forthcoming election. Sam’s campaign is centered on the importance of values and bringing these to life every day at a personal, organisational and community level. A dialogue has been started with the CEO of Big Utility Co.

Footnote: This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Illustrations by John Montgomery

Values: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Values - It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

In the last twelve months, the topic of values has caught the imagination. Putting values at the center of everything your organization does can make all the difference in engaging and motivating employees and customers.

It is a year this October since our book about organizational values, THE 31 PRACTICES, was published and I wonder if you’ve noticed the increasing focus on values all over the world in this time.

In the past few days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the White House’s rebuke of his country’s settlement construction as “against American values”.  In UK, earlier in the year, The Mail on Sunday newspaper published an article by David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, about British values and the UK College of Policing published the final version of its new values-based Code of Ethics.  Meanwhile in China, the All China Journalists’ Association recently ordered its journalists to learn “Marxist news values”.

It’s happening in sport, too. The NFL has recently been in the spotlight over the conduct and behavior of players.  How much could be learned from England’s Rugby Football Union approach to delivering its purpose: To grow rugby in England through our values and performance?  The RFU’s Core Values project is the first time that a sport has defined its value system in formal terms:

Rugby Values

In English soccer’s Premier League, the coach of newly promoted Burnley, Sean Dyche, said: “It’s very difficult to be successful without key core values… When Spain win the World Cup…. or Oxford win the Boat Race, it’s rare that the first person who speaks says: “We were far more skillful.” Instead, they tell of the work ethic, the respect in the group, the camaraderie and honesty. It’s what I look for in my team.”

And in the corporate world, there was the largest IPO in history, Alibaba, where Jack Ma, co-founder and Executive Chairman, could not have stressed Alibaba’s values any more strongly.

“Values are moving from a PR exercise to become a guiding compass.”

In this organizational context, values are moving from a PR exercise to become the guiding compass, not only for progressive, enlightened organizations but for more well-established corporates, too.

Beyond formal organizations, movements to put values at the heart of society are gaining momentum in Sweden and UK, and others are forming in Canada, German speaking countries and India.  The likely next step is a global network of these movements.

The enduring power of corporate culture

Articulating ‘the way we do things around here’ through an explicit set of core values empowers employees to make decisions and facilitates creativity and innovation. The resulting corporate culture is powerful, as Ivan Misner, quoting Peter Drucker, reminds us: “Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast.”

In what way? Here are summaries of two of the most compelling explanations of the enduring importance of culture:

  • “Organizational culture does have an impact on financial performance. It provides additional evidence of the significant role of corporate culture not only in overall organizational effectiveness, but also in the so-called bottom line.” Eric Flamholtz
  • “Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies [we identified] ….. the stronger the culture and the more it was directed toward the marketplace, the less need was there for policy manuals, organisation charts or detailed procedure and rules.” Tom Peters & Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence

Just consider the example of Zappos: after just a decade of growth, this one time shoe retailer was acquired by Amazon for more than $1.2bn, Tony Hsieh, CEO and his team had built a unique corporate culture dedicated to employee empowerment and the promise of delivering happiness though satisfied customers and a valued workforce.  Hsieh says “We wanted to come up with a list of core values that were actually committable. By committable, we mean we actually hire and fire people based on each of those core values.”

The Value of Values in the Digital Age

The changing landscape for business is bringing values into even sharper focus. The internet and social media have brought greater transparency than ever before. Some years ago, it was possible for organizations to fabricate a marketing and PR ‘front’, but now the truth gets out – fast.  Just look at the disappearance of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, a successful business since 1843 until advertisers and the general public turned against it for the way its employees behaved…allegedly.

Organizations are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are, and of course stakeholder perception is formed by the attitudes and actions of the employees.

Exploring your organization’s values

To explore your organization’s values, consider this: If your organization was a group of musicians, what group would it currently be? What would your music be like, your lyrics? How would the band members interact with each other and the fans? And, perhaps more importantly, what group would you like to be in future?

One member of a global corporate described their organization as like an elementary school orchestra: “lots of enthusiasm but no direction or coordination, and instruments that were long overdue an upgrade.”  They wanted to be like Rod Stewart, adapting their “brand” to win new fans but, at the same time keeping the old fans.  There was also something about the level of engagement: they wanted their customers to “be singing along with us and really enjoying being part of the performance”.  Time after time, this simple use of metaphor helps people think more creatively, feel less like they are being critical, and more easily able to identify core issues.

As Ella Fitzgerald (and Bananarama after her) sang: “T’ain’t what you do, It’s the way that you do it, That’s what gets results.”

What is the way you do it? And how alive are your organization’s values? Please comment below.

This post is adapted from the book Alan Williams wrote with Dr Alison Whybrow, THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organisational VALUES Every Day.

Special Anniversary Competition: To celebrate the one year anniversary of the publication of THE 31 PRACTICES book, authors Alan Williams and Dr Alison Whybrow are offering three copies to the winners of a short competition.  Email the answer to these questions to (stating a postal address) by 31 October 2014:

  • Which musical band/group/artist is your organisation like and why and which one would you like it to be like and why?

Alison and Alan will choose their favourite three answers and send  copies of the book to these people.

Values: Practice Makes More Perfect

Values - Practice Makes More Perfect

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
-Gary Player

Practice is about applying an idea, belief or method rather than the theories related to it. Practice is also about repeatedly performing an activity to become skilled in it.

The value and benefit of practice is taken for granted for performers at the highest level in fields such as sport, music, and art. Can you imagine teams like the New York Yankees in baseball, Toronto Maple Leafs in ice hockey, Dallas Cowboys in American Football, Manchester United in soccer just turning up on match day? In the arts, would the cast of Cirque du Soleil or the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet just turn up on the day of the performance? Even the Rolling Stones practice.

From the sporting world we see that anyone who wants to learn and improve needs to commit time and effort to practice, to notice what works and doesn’t, to keep training until a routine is improved, perfected.

How does this translate to organizations? Training exists of course – focused on new recruits or “teaching” new skills and technical knowledge that may be required. Skilled execution is highly valued. But, in most organizations, there is not much focus on practice – and a lack of focus on reflection – on learning from that practice, considering what worked, what didn’t work and what to adjust next time. In organizations, practice and reflection are the missing links between the theory – the idea, and skilled execution.

A further common assumption that we make is that skills are purely physical and visible – some are, but many skills are not. Have you ever noticed the routines of top sports people coming out to deliver their personal best at any sporting event? The external habits are easy to see, the touching of a chain, adjusting a cap. These are backed up by a host of internal habits and routines. Skills bloom from a fertile and resourceful set of inner beliefs, ideas and attitudes.

What does practice do for you?

Practice enables you to broaden your repertoire, to deepen your knowledge, insight and capability. The brain, once thought to be a “fixed” entity, is malleable. Purposeful practice builds new neural pathways and constant repetition deepens those connections, making that new option a readily available choice.

The result of all this practice? The seemingly super-sharp reaction time of various ball sports is an illusion. In standard reaction time tests, there is no difference between, say, a leading tennis player compared to people in general. BUT, the player is able to detect minute subtle movement in the server’s arm and shoulder which from years and years of practice has led them to read the direction of the serve before the ball has even been played. It’s this practice that has created unconscious patterns and distinctions that the player responds to equally unconsciously – resulting in the seemingly super-sharp responses in the professional game.

Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian ice hockey player, has been described as the greatest ice hockey player ever by many in his field. His talent captures this attention to the context of a game rather than focusing on distinct actions alone. “Gretzky’s gift…is for seeing…amid the mayhem, Gretzky can discern the game’s underlying pattern and flow, and anticipate what’s going to happen faster and in more detail than anyone else.”

The same is found in experts in many fields. They instinctively know – based on years of practice. They are able to pick up minute distinctions and patterns that the rest of us are blind to.

Purposeful practice is the primary contributing factor (above natural talent) to excellence in sport and life.  To be a truly practised at a skill or habit, hours of sustained practice are required – estimated at 10,000 hours (2.7 hours a day for 10 years). This finding has been validated across professions. The focus and attention to the practice and learning from that practice is fundamental.

At this level of competence in a particular skills context, you have developed what is described as reflection-in-action – where you are critically aware of what you are doing while you are doing it – judging each moment for its suitability against an inner set of criteria – at the same time that you are actually doing the activity. It’s this attention to practice that enables you to keep performing at your best.

It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.
-Eric Lindros

“Failure” is part of the territory –Paradoxically, failure is a key part of success. Framing failure as an opportunity to learn is a key to building success. For example, Shizuka Arakawa, one of Japan’s greatest ice skaters, reports falling over more than 20,000 times in her progression to become the 2006 Olympic champion.

Practice is the best of all instructors.
-Publilius Syrus

Excellence comes from pushing at the boundaries of what is thought to be possible –Practice leads to excellence from constantly stretching to reach a much higher goal (often a goal that only the coach/manager thinks is possible). Thus practicing with (and being with) the best is critical to drive up performance and mindset.

When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.
-Ed Macauley

One of the reasons Brazil is so successful at soccer is because most of the footballers played futsal. The smaller, heavier ball demands greater precision and encourages more frequent passing.

Linking heart, mind and body – practicing any skill is a full mind, heart and body event. As you build new physical skills, you’re laying down and deepening neural pathways. As you develop competence and strength in a particular skill, you’re building up the positive emotions associated with execution. Practice in something can lead to belief in your ability to do it. This principle is one that informs coaches and practitioners working in the area of somatics and embodiment.

So if you embody confidence, in how you stand, walk, and engage with others, you will believe that you are confident – try it.

So what?

How can organizations create the culture and space for practice in order to grow and learn, improve and deliver excellence? Individual practice at work is a systemic question – it’s about the prevailing culture, skills and process – as well as individual focus and motivation.

Specifically, what is the “feedback culture” of the organization? To what extent do people receive good quality feedback in a relatively “safe” environment (i.e. not a critical performance environment) so that they can learn and improve – getting it right when it really matters?

An organization with a blame culture will limit people’s motivation to practice. And it will suffocate learning and growth. Employees will look to hide and deny mistakes rather than own and learn from them. Such an organization will limit its ability to adapt and change, and within a fast-changing global context, such a limitation may well lead to demise.

It’s not just about avoiding a blame culture – how can you establish an environment of striving to achieve the best and an expectation that this will be achieved? Everybody then benefits from the virtuous circle of being with others who are excellent at what they do. This “multiplier” effect impacts across groups and communities.

Practice and 31Practices

31Practices is an approach to putting values into practice every day. To become part of the fabric and the way of being (rather than just words in a glossy document), the values have to be practiced each day, by everybody in the organization. For example, an organization may have the core value “Relationships”, and a Practice to bring this value to life, “We invest time with stakeholders to build long lasting relationships”. On the day of this particular Practice, all employees are therefore very mindful and consciously looking for opportunities to build strong relationships with colleagues, customers, suppliers, communities. The impact? Let’s consider:

Today, instead of sending an email update, I took the time to call the project sponsor and ask her what she was noticing, and what did we need to start, stop, continue in her view. I learned that a key team member was in the process of resigning for personal reasons – something that was not widely known – this information enabled me to think through the delivery schedule and prepare a shift in resource to come into play when the news was made public. The call took five minutes – it would have taken me longer to compose the email. I felt great.

Over the course of one month, you live each of the organization’s values through a number of different Practices. Initially, like any new activity, you may feel uncertain, perhaps even a little anxious: “Am I doing it right?” Over time, the Practices are repeated, becoming habitual – you don’t have to think about them and they become automatic. You will find that you start adopting the Practices more generally, not just the one that day.

This works across small and large groups. Marriott’s Daily Basics program was based on the same principle and operated across 3,000 hotels globally.

A key point is that, just as with sport or other activities, hours of purposeful practice of behaviors and attitudes that are purposefully linked to living core values will result in a strong values-based culture (if we take the view that culture is the “way things are done around here”).

What do you think about the concept of “practicing” your values?  How do you “practice” your values? Please comment on social media.

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from Chapter 16 Practice of the Williams and Whybrow book (2013) THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organization’s Values Every Day, LID Publishing, which is being released in the U.S. in June 2014.

Photo Information: Dressed in a ‘black hat’ costume, a Buddhist monk performs a sacred dance at the Tibetan monastery of Shechen in Nepal.” Photograph by Matthieu Ricard 2006 and altered with addition of quote.

The Value of Values

The Value of Values

Core values are traits or qualities that represent deeply held beliefs. They reflect what is important to us, and what motivates us. In an organization, values define what it stands for and how it is seen and experienced by all stakeholders (customers, employees, service partners, suppliers and communities). In this organizational context, values are moving from a PR exercise to become the guiding compass, not only for progressive, enlightened organizations but for more well established corporates too.

In reality, values often exist implicitly, outside formal organization processes and, mostly, under the radar of awareness. The commonly adopted behavior in an organization is a representation of the values and creates the culture, the “felt experience” that stakeholders have. Values impact how the very best thought-out rational processes actually operate in practice. This organization culture is powerful, as Ivan Misner, quoting Peter Drucker reminds us, “Culture will always eat strategy for breakfast.”

Awareness of values at an organizational level helps employees and organizations to more easily navigate today’s complex, ambiguous  business environment. Articulating core beliefs, traditions and “the way we do things around here” through an explicit set of core values opens things up, empowers employees to make decisions without reference to their line manager for tiny details, ideas flow freely and creativity and innovation take place.

“Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies [we identified]…the stronger the culture and the more it was directed toward the marketplace, the less need was there for policy manuals, organization charts, or detailed procedure and rules.”
-Tom Peters and Robert Waterman

Harnessing the value of core values

How do you ensure that your stakeholders’ experience of your organizational values is explicit and aligned from the boardroom to the front line?

The tone is set by every employee.  The leaders model what is important, and are particularly visible in everything they do – people take notice of how they behave.  Yet, each person has influence on others.  An organization is a system of loosely connected individuals, and, the organization is only as good as each of the component parts.

We need to turn the lens inwardly if the organization is going to “live” the core values. What are you doing? If you don’t behave as if the core values matter, then others won’t either. For values to be really cemented in the organization’s culture, everyone must be held accountable for demonstrating the values in their everyday actions. Embedding values is a challenge.

For organizations, identifying values is not enough. Well-written values without good execution can lead to Enron-sized disasters. Enron would be in good company today: many leadership surveys see corporate values as rhetoric rather than reality, with most employees unaware of their organizations values.  And yet, most employees see the potential benefits of having a set of values in the first place, especially if consequences of living and failing to live the core values are explicitly aligned.

“In the wake of the banking crisis and other corporate scandals, now more than ever, organizational values should be at the forefront of business leaders’ minds”.
-Peter Cheese

So what?

In 2001, Eric Flamholtz discovered a strong positive correlation between cultural agreement (a proxy for values or cultural alignment) and the company’s EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes).  He concludes:  “Organizational culture does have an impact on financial performance.  It provides additional evidence of the significant role of corporate culture not only in overall organizational effectiveness, but also in the so-called bottom line.”

The changing landscape for business and organizations will arguably bring the importance of values into even sharper focus.

The internet and social media have brought greater transparency than ever before. As a direct result, authenticity is, and will continue to be, increasingly important. Some years ago, it was possible for organizations to invest in marketing and PR to tell the story they wanted others to hear, but now it is becoming increasingly difficult to “tell a story.” Organizations are no longer what they say they are but what others say they are and stakeholder perception is formed by the behavior of the people representing the organization.

As the song says, “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It), that’s what gets results.”

Exercise: Exploring Your Organizational Values

Try this simple exercise to give you some insight into your organizational values.

If your organization were a group of musicians, what group would you be? What would your music be like, your lyrics? What kind of experience would your fans have?  How would the band members interact?

…and now what group would you like to be?

The above article is adapted from Williams and Whybrow (2013) THE 31 PRACTICES – Releasing the Power of Your Organisational VALUES Every Day, LID Publishing which is being released in the US in June 2014 

Photo Information: High in the mountains of eastern Tibet, five elaborately dressed young nomad women, their dresses lined in fur (chubas), attend the festival of Mani Gengok.  Photograph by Matthieu Ricard.