The Value of Iterating on Your Company Values

This story is also published on Medium

When done well, company values can play an outsized role in employees’ engagement and happiness. A good set of values not only provides a common language and norms around how to operate, but it becomes foundational to everything a company does across the employee lifecycle — attraction, engagement, and retention.

At Heap, we approach our company values like we approach everything else: we hypothesize, collect data, and improve. We know we can’t get all the details right the first time, which is why we lean heavily on feedback from our employees. We’re constantly iterating on our values as we work to incorporate new ideas and accommodate the diversity of voices that makes up Heap.

In our latest iteration of our values, we established behaviors and skills that aligned with each. Our hypothesis was that doing this would help our company live our values more fully, which means using them to drive both the employee experience and key strategic business decisions.

In our attempt to share learnings with the community, we’d like to walk through our refresh process and explain how we arrived at our new company values.

Five steps to refreshing your company values

Like all things, as companies evolve and grow, the governing behaviors need to change as well. Since we last set our values (two years ago), we have grown 74%, moved to Virtual First, and revamped our business strategy. And it was time to make sure our values evolved accordingly.

Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Engage executives

We set up a working group with our leadership team to refine our values and associated behaviors. Our goal was to establish values that would reflect the company culture we have today and for the foreseeable future. We discussed what in our existing set of values working well, what we thought could improve, what values should be on the list but weren’t, and values we admired at other companies.

Step 2: Articulate behaviors, not just values

We spent significant time articulating the behaviors we thought best captured each value (more details below). We refined our list to a manageable number of values (for us it was four) that felt authentic to the company. We generally agreed that our current values were great but we were missing a value that spoke to deeply understanding our product and customers and with that — “taste the soup” was formed. In the end, we decided to keep three of our current values, replace one, and add actionable behaviors to all four values.

Pro Tip: Pick a decision-maker to narrow down the list and finalize it. It is best to have this be the CEO as they ultimately drive the company culture — for us that was Matin Movassate (our former CEO and now Board Chairman).

Step 3: Solicit feedback

Once leadership agreed upon a list of values, we met with our culture committee (a group of Heaple nominated by their departments to provide a voice on people and culture at Heap). We asked this group to solicit feedback from their teams. Our former CEO Matin then met with this group to review feedback and further refine the values and associated behaviors.

Overall, the values were well received but a lot of conversation and tweaks happened as part of the review process. Our Heaple poured over not only our values, but the behaviors associated with them. What was some Heaple’s least favorite value was seen as essential to others.

The employee feedback journey consisted of dozens of Google comments, several long emails, and too many Slack threads to count, but was ultimately a crucial step in our values creation process. We wanted to ensure that the behaviors really landed with our Heaple so having an iterative process with room to incorporate feedback was extremely important to us.

Step 4: Roll out

After all of the feedback was addressed, Matin sat down with our leadership team to carefully review the revised values and provide some final tweaks. After finalizing the language around our chosen values, Matin presented the new list at our bi-monthly all-hands meeting to kick off the integration and adoption process.

Since most of the company had already given feedback, the kick-off felt more like the end of a decision process our entire team was involved in, rather than (as happens at some companies) something completely brand new.

Step 5: Integrate and adopt

We believe that if we want to make our values meaningful to the way we work day-to-day, the integration and adoption process should never end. Once our new values and behaviors were communicated, we set up a series of resources that help us all live these values every day across our employee experience. For starters, we updated our careers page and our recruiting and onboarding materials. We’ll also be running a values and behaviors workshop (led by our executives) with all our Heaple.

Since our values are essential to how we operate at Heap, we want to integrate them into every part of the employee lifecycle. In performance reviews, for example, we expect Heaple to be able to speak to how they “lived” one of our values (i.e. what behaviors did they exhibit; how did this impact their work or our customers).

And most importantly, we want to celebrate and recognize those that exhibit values. We will be doing yearly Heaple awards and finding ways to shout out our Heaple who are living the values and behaviors at work every day.

Pro Tip: While values are important, emphasizing the associated behaviors are what will allow your employees to understand how to live them everyday, not just what they are.

So, what makes values great?

Before figuring out what our values should be, we set out criteria that we thought define what makes values great. Throughout the process, we used these criteria to evaluate our evolving thoughts and make sure they accomplished what we wanted.

  • Distinctive. Our culture is defined by our unique values.
  • Clear pros and cons. What’s the point of repeating a value if it’s self-evident?
    • Ex: Prioritize Until it Hurts — means “saying no” to competing initiatives.
  • Memorable. Values with a memetic quality are more likely to affect behavior.
  • Natural to invoke. If we can repeat values in the moment, we can better live them.
  • Broadly applicable. They should inform decisions both micro and macro.
  • Actionable. It should be clear which specific behaviors reinforce the values.

Our new values

Here’s what great values look like for us. But please, consider these an MVP (more iterations to come!).

Taste the soup

Taste the soup

Our thesis for how we execute

We believe the foundation to building an enduring business is simple: give customers the best damn experience possible. Easier said than done, of course. How do you build a great experience, let alone the best one?

We can lean on something we know to be true: you can’t know what a world-class experience looks like without customer empathy. Customer empathy is behind every aspect of our business. We can win our market purely by being better than competitors at understanding customer pain.

What would it look like to build a cultural competency around empathy? There’s a joke in an old Eddie Murphy movie that may give us some clues:

An old man calls the waiter over to his table.
“What would you like, sir?” asks the waiter.
“Taste the soup,” he says.
“Is the soup too cold?” asks the waiter.
“Taste the soup,” says the old man.
“Is it too salty?” asks the waiter.
“Taste the soup!” says the old man.
“Is there a fly in it?” asks the waiter.
“Taste the soup!” the old man insists.
The waiter looks down: “There’s no spoon!”
“Aha!” exclaims the old man.

Nothing provides clarity like direct exposure to customer pain. Whether it’s our Engineering, Product, Design or CS teams serving external customers, or our People team serving internal customers, we can build better experiences by tasting the soup.

Top two corresponding behaviors

  • Dogfood. Nothing builds customer empathy better than being a customer. Don’t just consider things in the abstract. Find ways to meaningfully use the products you ship.
  • Immerse before you judge. Not on the marketing team, but think we’re making the wrong pitches to prospects? Understand our messaging, look at alternatives, and propose improvements!

Prioritize until it hurts

Prioritize until it hurts

Our thesis for how we move quickly

In 2018, Apple became the first publicly-traded company to reach a $1 trillion valuation. And they did it with an unprecedented level of focus, offering only a few product lines.

We sometimes forget that the customer problems we set out to solve are endlessly deep. And there’s a compounding benefit to focus: the more you work on a problem, the more you understand it, and the better you can deliver on it.

We move quickly through ruthless prioritization. We believe in the Pareto principle: that 80% of the results come from 20% of the work. We identify the few things that have the highest leverage and over-achieve on them.

This means saying “no” to some important and exciting initiatives. This is inevitably painful. But if our non-goals don’t give us heartburn, we’re probably not executing with enough focus.

Top two corresponding behaviors

  • Clarify non-goals. Don’t just say what you will do. Make clear what you won’t do, too.
  • Question scope increase. Any time your purview expands (e.g. the product portfolio you manage is now broader, or someone gave you a project), it’s your responsibility to understand why and communicate trade-offs.

Slope over y-intercept

Slope over y-intercept

Our thesis for how we hire and develop

The most important decisions we make are choosing who we work with. Period. We want teammates with immense potential (slope), not just those with past success (y-intercept). A little bit of slope goes a long way.

Slope over Y-Intercept

Unfortunately, predicting a teammate’s future is much harder than reading their resume. We use a few proxies to predict someone’s growth potential:

  • Whether they’re low ego and comfortable with feedback
  • Whether they’re hungry and always looking towards the next big thing
  • Whether they’re eager to learn and intellectually curious, both in and out of work

Top behaviors

  • Low ego: Actively seek feedback. From peers, managers, and – most importantly – reports.
  • Hungry: Seek the best idea, not your idea. Acknowledge all ideas before identifying the best one. Celebrate when others have contributed ideas that evolve your thinking!
  • Intellectual curiosity: Invest in learning. It’s the best way to invest in yourself. And broadcast your learnings with others!

Assume good intent

Assume good intent

Our thesis for how we collaborate

Communication is lossy. No one will ever have 100% of the context all the time. As such, it’s inevitable that we’ll misinterpret each other’s actions from time to time.

Our collaboration hinges on the Principle of Charity. We default to assuming our teammates are capable, well-intentioned, and mature adults who are doing their best to make Heap win. If we don’t understand something, we embrace curiosity rather than judgment.

Assuming good intention is key to building a work culture we’re proud of where each of us feels trusted, where discussions are guided by truth rather than ego, where problems can be tackled transparently, and where we empower each other.

Top two corresponding behaviors

  • Apply the Principle of Charity. When considering multiple interpretations of a co-workers words/actions, default to the most charitable one.
  • Separate facts from stories. Be clear to yourself and others what actually happened, and what your interpretation is. It’s easy to conflate the two.

Like our values? Join our team!

Our values are only as good as the people who embody them. We’re always on the lookout for amazing new Heaple — find your fit with us today!