Values to Make Decisions

Quick, what are your core values?

How about the values of your discipline, your company, your industry? Your…family1?

If you can actually answer these questions without stopping in your tracks and making the thinking-emoji face 🤔, then you’re either probably lying, or re-reading this post after mulling it over a bit. I can’t name them convincingly either—to even enumerate a consistent set of value for myself—on account that they don’t come up all that much in everyday life. Yet, there is a sense that values are important in some way, that there is insights gleaned merely from the exercise of identifying a set of values, that they eventually help define core principles and philosophies and—cue the swelling orchestral score—purpose.

This is ostensibly why every company spend a bunch of time creating and then evangelizing, both internally and externally, a set of corporate values. The really big corporations have done such a good job in their PR that it’s in their business vernicular: “focus on the user“; “move fast and break things“; “customers first.” And despite their proliferation and widespread conformity, they’re surprisingly difficult to craft from scratch. I’ve helped a handful of teams define and refine a shared set of values, and a major part of the challenge was getting everyone to identify with enough tenets to agree on the collective whole.

Which explains why, beyond those espoused by individuals, that most core values end up sounding pretty bland. By attrition and compromise, the values that everybody can agree on are, well, the ones that everyone can agree are good and aspirational and worthy of working towards. Integrity. Team. Innovation. It’s kinda hard to argue that a group of people working together should really care about itself reflexively, or that cheating and lying and stealing are bad behaviors unbecoming of law-abiding (corporate) citizenry. The lowest common denominator is always a safe choice.

More interesting, though, is when value systems provide a discrete perspective, an opinion that involves a tradeoff and a sense of direction. Move fast and break things is probably the most famous recent example; the mantra elevates a virtue—who wants to move slow?—but acknowledges that there is a cost associated with that speed2. In essence, value systems that take a stance provide focus, elevating one ideal while saying no to potentially equally good alternatives. In fact, there are even times when a set of values contradict each other and trying to adhere to all of them at the same time feels hypocritical; Stratechery has talked a bit about this idea of a principle stack, where values on the top of the stack supersede those beneath3.

All of this is to set up what I mentioned in the title: with opinionated values, it’s possible to actually use them to make tough decisions. To use my most recent job as an example, Affirm’s mission statement is to deliver honest financial products that improve lives. And while no one would really be against improving lives, that notion of honesty turns out to be an important principle; in the market that Affirm competes in, it’s usually better for business to keep lending terms vague and not have customers fully understand what they’re signing up for. Adding on to this theme, the company value no fine print follows directly from this mission statement, and I remember a number of times when we debated product features and partnerships internally because of precisely this value.

So there can be a lot riding on getting your values—at the individual, team, company, or even industry-level—right! Granted, most of the time they’re generic and fluffy, but I do appreciate those principles that have an edge to them, slicing down complex situations into clear decisions.

  1. Hey, if each house in Game of Thrones gets a motto, some families may be inspired to pass down their modus operandi down the generations via pithy phrases too.

  2. The updated version is supposed to be move fast with stable infrastructure, which no one remembers.

  3. E.g., for a country like the US, democracy may be at the top of our value stack, overriding federalist states’ rights which are still important but would be lower on said stack.

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