The Value of Commitments

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Values are the landlines of modern organizations. We think we should have them but can’t really articulate why. Maybe the power will go out and the people with values will win. Who knows?

Mostly we do it because that’s what we’ve always done or that’s what we’ve read in the latest leadership industrial complex self help book. At Corner Alliance, our experience with values has been mixed to say the least. Soon after the company was founded, we launched a participatory process with IdeaScale to identify which values we wanted to adopt for the company. The system allowed each employee to suggest values and then vote them up or down. After several weeks, we arrived at ten.

Some of them were often quoted, and even applied in our work. For instance, “Eat Our Own Dog Food,” was one we resonated with. The catchy title helped, but it also reminded us as management consultants to apply the same frameworks and methodologies used with clients to ourselves.

Writing this post, though, I can’t for the life of me remember many of the others values. So, our first problem was that there were too many values. It’s hard for even smart people to remember ten things.

The second problem: what to do with them. One of the values was boldness. What do I really do with that? Could I measure it? Is there a boldness scale? Maybe I could identify it when I saw it--but I mostly just forgot it was there. At best it became a call to action in a difficult situation, but I couldn’t understand how to operationalize it as part of our culture.

Despite the flaws with this first set of values, the firm survived and grew. At a certain point, with lots of new people coming on board, we felt we had outgrown them. We undertook another value creation exercise, this time without the software.

We got another set of values, but this time without the catchy titles. So we traded “Eat Your Own Dog Food,” for “Be Curious” and seven other similar concepts. There was nothing wrong with our new values--and we’d gone from 10 to 8, so that was progress. But over time it became clear that the new values had fallen flat.

What we had now was a set of bland values that once again no one could remember, and that we didn’t have a plan to operationalize. We made a valiant effort to promote the values by printing cool new posters and putting them on the website. It’s not that we disagreed with “be curious.” It represents an important characteristic of people who are successful at Corner Alliance. The problem was in what we were seeking to do with the values.

At base, we wanted to measure and run the firm as much as possible from the values. We wanted to be truly committed to them and that became the break through for us as a company. What we wanted weren’t values. What we wanted were commitments.

A commitment is a measurable attribute of what you will get when you work with or for us. We grouped those commitments into three parts: what the company is committed to delivering to our clients; what the company is committed to delivering to our employees; and what employees need to commit to the company. To institutionalize the commitments we ask each new employee to sign a commitments document on their first day of work and we kick off each client engagement with an overview of our commitments to them.

It was essential to us to be able to measure those commitments. We now have a quarterly process where we evaluate each employee on meeting her or his commitments to the company, and we ask him or her to, in turn, rate the company on how it is meeting its commitments to them. Additionally, we ask clients to rate the firm on how it is meeting its commitments to them.

The system is new, but it certainly feels better and provides our team with more actionable feedback on how we are doing. I’m sure the way we document and communicate our culture will continue to evolve, but commitments were a significant step in that evolution. We’ll check back in a year and see how it is going.