Values Are A Company’s Cultural APIs
The solution to operations debt isn’t new tools. It’s a coherent mission, vision, and values.
I ended Working Alone When Deciding As A Team with a simple idea: Sometimes the best process is no process at all. But of course that’s not the whole story. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, a task without a process will see a process develop organically. The resulting operations debt leads to inconsistencies and “spaghetti operations” (in the same vein as “spaghetti code” and not to be confused with a spaghetti diagram; the latter at least has the potential to simplify and standardize).
Meanwhile, very few people have the skills or training to build scalable processes and they are rarely incentivized to learn. There is a mountain of startup lore telling us that our clever solutions will inevitably look foolish sooner than we think. So why spend your limited time building an 80% solution that you’ll outgrow next year? We can’t presume to know how our future colleagues and counterparts will want to work and communicate.
But this good-enough solution doesn’t simply degrade over time. It’s the first step, a foundation for learning. And with a little bit of thoughtful design, it’s how we discover the edge cases that we’ll eventually incorporate into a truly scalable process. Yet those edge cases never end.
Processes need off-ramps where context and adaptation can flourish. In practice, a simple value judgment is often better than adding another checkbox. And the bridge between the repeatability of a checkbox and responsive human judgement is culture.
The reliability of that human judgement is intimately tied to the strength, coherence, and consistency of an organization’s mission and values.
Amazon might be the most famous modern example of this thinking. One of the things Amazon is most famous for is its 14 Leadership Principles. The list itself epitomizes their “Invent and Simplify” principle. The principles are easy to remember because they are so specific to the Amazon point of view. “Bias For Action.” “Disagree and Commit.” “Earn Trust.” “Are Right, A Lot.” They all roll off the tongue.
But the power of these words is about more than their mouthfeel. They draw from the sheer volume of anecdotal evidence associated with each principle. Every time this lore is passed down, more people learn that following these values will generally lead to good decisions. (Or, more accurately, explainable decisions. When a decision goes a little sideways and you can point to the principles that guided you and your team, it vastly reduces how much explaining you have to do.) When one Amazonian tells another Amazonian to “think big,” they are reminding them to favor boldness when faced with uncertainty.
This is important because uncertain situations happen a lot! Uncertainty is arguably the default state for most knowledge workers. Amazon’s leadership principles grew up in tandem with a corporate structure that forced teams to act autonomously and adapt to their unique circumstances. Top-down, company-wide mandates were all but impossible, except for the mandate that both embodied and enabled this structure in the first place: “All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.”
The leadership principles are Amazon’s cultural APIs. Given an input — any edge case — expect a structured output — some combination of these 14 principles. They are building blocks that spread at meme-level speed, carrying consistent interpretations reinforced over time through repetition. They often manifest in combinations that reoccur, which further adds to an organizational memory and cultural understanding that treats edge cases as an inevitability.
That’s how you get to $386 billion in annual revenue with more than a million employees across Bezos-knows how many two-quesadilla teams while building a ubiquitous and consistent brand experience.
Good values don’t happen by accident. They are the result of choices that begin on Day 1 and leaders need to be conscious about the values they promote and the cultures they incubate. This is as true for companies already at scale as it is for startups that aspire to make it there or for small firms that intend to stay that way.
A few years ago I interviewed a very successful repeat founder. He had an awesome exit from his last company and I used my .edu address as an excuse to quiz him on all things entrepreneurial strategy and marketing. As I was waiting for him in the lobby, I noticed custom posters on the walls with catchy phrases that I recognized as company mission and values statements.
This was a surprise to me, a person who was still relatively new to tech. In my prior career in media, I worked in places that had posters on the walls. As far as I knew, nobody cared about them at all. If you had asked me at the time, I couldn’t have named a single company value. Even now, I can’t find anything about them on Discovery's corporate site. (In contrast, I am embarrassed to admit how long I held onto the Honey Boo Boo swag.)
So when I sat down with this successful founder, I decided to ask him about the posters. Here’s what he told me:
You need to be able to point to the poster, literally, which is why they’re up... You have to be able to allude to them. And it seems kind of corny, almost like Silicon Valley, but it works…
Things come up. You can go, like, “Is this our mission? Is this how we said we were going to do it?” And if it isn’t, you have to obey the rules… People need to know what are the rules of engagement, how do we work on these things.
The posters were physical reminders of the mission and values they had chosen to run in parallel with the strategic and tactical decisions they made to achieve their vision.
Process design goes hand-in-hand with mission and values. This founder knew from experience that employees — from the CEO down — need regular reminders about what to do when they get stuck. He knew that he couldn’t be there to provide those reminders for every single edge case. But leaders can’t just let people go off on their own. They need to move together. They need to speak a common language and use common tools to navigate uncertainty.
Consistent and memorable values are like reliable compasses that can be summoned when you find yourself lost — or, at the very least, on the edge.