Values: are they worth it?
It’s 2017; I’m Head of Student Voice & Communications at Imperial College Union. Soon, on 1 August 2017, our new organisational strategy would come into full force.
The strategy updated our organisational values - now Leadership, Partnership, Democracy, and Inclusivity.
How could we ensure they actually had a measurable, positive impact on our organisation?
The first stage: understand the problem. What challenges did we foresee with the values? What mistakes did we need to avoid?
Support new strategic cycle: The new values were a central feature of the new organisational strategy. They needed to be well-known, understood, meaningful, and able to be actually used across the whole of the Union.
Create boundaries and behaviours: We wanted the values to genuinely affect the actions and decisions of our staff on a day-to-day basis.
Build upon past experience: The values of the previous strategic cycle were not that well-known, and were rarely mentioned in meetings, papers or presentations.
Prevent ignorability: It could no longer be possible for staff to work without encountering the values. To achieve this, they had to be useable, of practical value, with clear examples and guidelines.
The second stage: dig into the roots of the problems identified and find the insights needed to solve them. This analysis gave us key insights that helped us make sure the values would be ubiquitous and successful.
Bake it in: To ensure they were well-known and unavoidable, values needed to be baked in - not just to the new strategy, but firmly embedded in the organisation’s everyday work.
Lead from the front: Values needed to be seen at work - senior leaders needed to mention them explicitly and demonstrate their value: how they make things better.
Bare their teeth: Values had to have teeth. If they didn’t cause any kind of friction, they weren’t making any kind of change. Our unofficial mantra: “values are meant to hurt”.
Give people a reason to care: Staff needed reasons to care - what value did values have for them? We had to insert the values into what staff cared about, such as their professional development, a fair working environment, autonomy, and achieving their goals.
Stage three: creating resources that tackled the identified problems by making use of the insights.
Single version of the truth: our designer created a document clearly related to the strategy by language, design and structure.
Making it useable: each value came with a ‘blurb’ that unpacked what it meant for us in a fast-paced, active tone
Making staff care: In workshops, we unpacked how each value could be used by staff to demonstrate their professional growth. This was then converted into Our Standards, a staff handbook for understanding and living the values.
Baking it in: The values were integrated into external and internal work: PDR frameworks, annual reports, impact reports, the staff website, leadership communications, presentations and meetings.
Leading from the top: our CEO and senior managers explicitly mentioned the values in internal communications, explaining how they had been used to frame and clarify difficult decisions.
Did we achieve what we set out to? I believe so. We saw the following outcomes from the values project:
Increase in understanding: more staff were aware of the values, and they were being spontaneously mentioned verbally and in written proposals by staff across all levels without management prompting. This demonstrates that staff saw the values as assets to be made use of, rather than impractical aspirations.
Used to stabilise difficult conversations: We cited and used the values when tackling complex challenges, such as a decision to restart a compromised online election cycle; this was received well by stakeholders who commended our openness.
Enabling objectivity: the values were a clear, bottom-up framework for behaviour that applied to all staff at any level of seniority. This empowered staff to recognise both positive and negative behaviour by colleagues in a constructive manner.
True recognition: We knew the values had genuinely landed and had an effect when they were (surprisingly gently) spoofed by a prominent student social media outlet!