As a leader of one or more teams, you may not see any purpose in holding team members accountable to agreed-upon values—but you’d be making a huge mistake. Values are what make teams want to work hard and go above and beyond—and they’re also what will guarantee that your entire team will stay focused on the same goals, even when they are faced with challenges and stressors along the way.

Why Values Matter

The heart of any agile organization are the teams. With strong, dedicated, self-managing teams, an organization can accomplish anything. Without those teams, attempting agility becomes a fruitless and expensive effort that usually ends with outdated practices (i.e., “waterfall”) wrapped in Sprints. I call this common dysfunction “Scrummerfall.”

Values are a critical part of the foundation of any good team. Values help your team make consistent day-to-day decisions that, without good values would result in

  1. Frequent requests for management to give “permission.”
  2. Delayed decision-making and, therefore, delays getting work done.
  3. Lowered morale on the team; adults that have to keep asking permission tend to feel like they aren’t valued.

Nothing will destroy a team’s productivity more thoroughly than lowered morale, which leads to employee dis-engagement.

Once you know why you need a team (the purpose), values come next.

Defining Team Values

While an organization can have values that embrace everyone (Disney Parks have their famous Five Keys), teams should have values that complement the organizational values, yet reflect the people on the team and what they believe. For example, consider the employees at Disney World that drive the more than 400 buses moving millions every year. While the Disney Keys of safety, courtesy, inclusion, show, and efficiency can all apply to the drivers in various ways, perhaps the drivers also want to entertain their passengers by being funny. To that end, they might add “humor” to their values.

In defining a teams values, the team MUST drive the effort. In one or more meetings, you should bring your team together and

  1. Ask them to create a list of words that they want to be associated with, words they want those outside the team to associate with them (e.g., “boy, those bus drivers were funny…all of them!”).
  2. Give them time to consider the list; ask the team members to write down more words as they think of them.
  3. Have the team members cut the list in half by eliminating words; discuss the remaining words and cut the list in half again; stop when you’re down to 3-5 words. Hint: consider eliminating words that really should be true without having to be specifically listed. For example, words like “ethical,” “honest,” and “integrity.” If your team has to call these values out specifically, you’re hiring the wrong people.
  4. For each of the final 3-5 words, ask the team to identify examples of the value being demonstrated by a team member (i.e., what does it mean or look like to use Humor?)

Example Team Values

Let’s use some examples. In a workshop, your team creates an initial list:

They discuss the list of 18 items and begin trimming the list down to 9 candidates. “Integrity” and “Truth” are removed because the team feels these values are intrinsic to being a good person and don’t need additional mention. They remove “Reputation” because several team members feel that the team’s reputation is secondary to the results they produce. Likewise, “perfection,” “practical,” “imagination,” “efficiency,” “discipline,” and “continuous learning” are removed.

In a round of voting, the team removes the four words that get the fewest votes and keeps the top five. The result looks like this:

Now comes the hard part. The team discusses each value in terms of what actions, decisions, or behaviors would best exemplify the value. The results of the discussion can be summed up like this:

  • Accuracy – We double-check our work; if it’s really critical or if someone isn’t sure about their work, we’ll do a peer review. When pushed to do something quickly, we will still look for a way to do peer reviews while completing the work.
  • Innovation – When something is worth the risk, we’re not afraid to try something that might not work.
  • Quality – We test everything; if a defect escapes, we take the time to learn from it. We will not make decisions that cut corners, increase risk, decrease safety, or otherwise reduce potential product quality.
  • Results-Oriented – We’re focused on results; we won’t waste our time on anything that doesn’t get us closer to the expected results.
  • Timely – Our deadlines are more important than our plans; if we can’t hit a deadline, we’ll look for an alternative way to get there.

Values Support Decision Making

At this point, the values are not just words – now they can guide consistent decision-making. When a defect is reported after the team said the backlog item was DONE, they take time after solving the defect to determine how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. When the team has an innovative idea for a solution, they consider the potential risk of a failed experiment before deciding what to do. When the team discovers they can’t properly finish a feature before the ship date, they consider either a solution that is easier to complete or dropping all of part of the feature instead of trying to squeeze it in before the deadline.

Successful Outcomes

Values are critical to the well being of a team by supporting consistent decisions that are easier to make (e.g., “should we ship that somewhat buggy feature or hold it for a later update?”). Values also allow the team to make decisions without having to repeatedly request decisions from management. This not only supports faster decision-making, but also allows the team to be more self-managing – that is, in control of their jobs.

Values frequently get overlooked by organizations as fodder for pretty posters. I recommend you look at values as a tool for create more capable, more effective, and happier teams.