Company Non-Values

January 21st, 2020

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin

Well-defined projects have both goals and non-goals. While every project has to have goals, non-goals help you think harder less by limiting the scope to prevent the team from over-thinking or over-engineering. Every project always has a hidden “zeroth” goal: shipping. When teams are too disconnected from users (typical in larger companies), it’s easy to let the desire for perfection or stability override this fundamental goal and non-goals can be used to preempt those priorities.

It’s common (particularly in tech) for companies to adopt company values. They’re useful when the CEO has to start delegating day-to-day decisions and provide a foundation for others to make decisions. While leadership focuses on setting the “What are we doing?”, values can guide the “How do we do it?”. These values are often high minded, overly broad: “Value people” or “Put customers first.” These values are like bad statistics: easy to warp to any argument. Company values are forged by committee. No one wants to explicitly reject values like “diversity”. However, what price is the company actually willing to pay to support that value? Dropbox had official company values that I detested, “Be worthy of trust” and “Cupcake” (no joke). They were easy to clap to at an all-hands, but in meetings, they were only cited jokingly.

Companies have a hidden “zeroth” value that Paul Graham correctly articulated: build something people want.1 In practice, all other values fall before this one. That, or the company itself falls. So just like project goals, might it be useful to provide non-values to guide the company values?

Non-values, just like non-goals, are not meant to be a repudiation of the values. For each value, you don’t need some bizzaro-world non-value. Instead, it should clarify the boundaries of what the company wants to value. One of Sentry’s company values was “Open source, open company”. Some took that to mean transparency in all things and their right to be part of decision making. Eventually, the CEO had to clarify at an all-hands that it meant we should bias towards sharing information and hearing input, but decision making was still the responsibility of leadership. That is a non-value: helping others understand the limits and compromise between the company values, including the implicit, zeroth value.

  1. I’m ignoring services because the service sector’s incentives are in the other direction: we do whatever the customer wants. In the service industry, picking your customers is the most important way to pick your company values.