Adam Johnston

Team values matter

For me, team values are a great way to understand what is important to the team and provide context for the things we believe in. When I set out to create the values for my team I wanted to build a foundation for the team to grow from, based on the values that most resonated with all of us. After some consoltation and some creative writing we defined the following three team values.

The values

Be a pillar

The team is there for one another, be it to help with day-to-day work or something more personal, we strive to support one-another through good and bad times.

It means understanding that people in the team have strengths and weaknesses and we grow together. We tackle problems head-on as a group to get the best outcomes.

We trust one another that we’re doing the right things at the right times. We avoid micro managing and we assume best intentions when something goes wrong. We work together to find a solution but we accept some of us need space to themselves at times.

Courage to be curious

We challenge ourselves to question how can we make things better? Where can we add value? How do we grow, develop and change? We use curiosity as an antidote to stagnation as a product and as a team.

We stay curious to keep work interesting and stretch ourselves to achieve new things. We’ll get things wrong and we’ll fail but we don’t point fingers and single others out. Instead we come together as a team to fix and make them better.

When mistakes are made we assume they were made with the best of intentions. We keep disagreements respectful and we don’t put others down. If we’re scared to experiment we won’t try new things.

‘Ave a laff!

We work in a light-hearted way, do our best not to let things worry us, keep our humour and find times have a laugh and a joke inside and outside of work.

We like to keep our work exciting and aim to involve all members of the team in our process. We don’t expect people to be code monkeys, pixel pushers or gantt chart trackers.

Fun strengthens the bonds between us and playfulness builds trust. With all this said we take what we do seriously when it matters.

Why values matter

I’ve worked at many companies that have missions and values, but I haven’t worked in teams that had them. It’s not that those teams didn’t have any values but what values they had were implicit and/or ambiguous. Company values have helped coordinate a group of individuals and steered these companies. I think team values can do the same.

A personal favourite company value of mine was Kahoot!’s ‘make learning awesome’. A value so core to the company at the time that it featured promonately at the top of the homepage. I remember several times during discussions where someone may ask the question, ‘is this making learning awesome?’. That wouldn’t just come from the CEO or CPO but from designers, product managers and engineers.

So while reading through some of the opening pages of Sarah Drasner’s Engineering Management for the Rest of Us it inspired me to realise the benefits of what values could bring to a team. I recommend reading the book if you’re also starting out as an engineering manager too.

Kahoot! webpage banner from 2016
Kahoot!'s webpage banner with the value; Make learning awesome from 2016

Defining the values

Following the suggestion outlined in Sarah Drasner’s book I created a Miro with a collection of various words. Some taken directly from the book and some of my own additions. Here’s a few examples of the kind of words that were included. Accountability, fun, vision, trust & curiosity.

Once the collection was gathered, I invited the team to vote for three of the words that most resonated with them. With all the votes cast we then organised a follow-up discussion. We began by digging into the most voted for word to the least and I took notes based on what the team reflected upon.

Here are some of the raw notes I took from that discussion:

Curiosity: Love curiosity in general as it can be a good antidote to judgement. When we’re in a challenging environment it’s healthy.

Fun: The way we work is light hearted. We don’t let things worry us and we get through difficulties. Find time to have a laugh.

Blame free: It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to make mistakes. If you’re scared of making mistakes then you won’t try things, you’ll be less curious and reluctant.

From these notes I then put on my creative writing hat and got to work grouping and distilling the essence of what I had heard into three to five values. Once I was happy with what I had, I shared it with the team to further refine them together. This process repeated until we were all in agreement and we had the three values you read above.

Reflections on team values

I was very happy with the values that we defined as a team. I think they captured how the team was at the time and I found myself referring back to them on occasion during one to ones with various members of my team.

I do believe there was more I could have done to have made them more impactful on a regular basis. When a worry was flagged to me from a member of the team, I could have cited our team values back to them as a way of saying, you don’t need to worry, as a team we expect these things, we understand them and we’ve accounted for them in our values.

Onboarding new people to the team could be made easier by providing them with the team values ahead of them joining. I think that could give them an idea of the ways we work and what behaviours they can expect.

Values don’t need to be set in stone. Teams change, companies change and people come and go. While values form a good basis for working together, I think they should be adaptable. If you’re a start-up or rapidly experimenting then some of your values may reflect this but when you’ve matured you might find the same values no longer reflect as well as they once had. I think it’s okay to repeat the process and define new ones.

So that’s what I have on values. I hope this got you to consider your team’s values and whether codifying and making them explicit would be beneficial to you. I know I will certainly look to define future values with future teams.