Making space to name our values

Anneke Victorica

Conventional wisdom might dictate that organisational values are something that you design with an executive director in the room, or at the very least in the organisation. Well, we didn’t really do that, or not exactly.

Values we already embodied

Last summer our entire team gathered for our annual staff retreat. We came together from four (now five) different continents in a lovely venue outside Berlin to enjoy face-to-face time. The only thing we were missing was an executive director. Our past ED had stepped back, and our next one had not yet been named. As staff retreats go, this was unorthodox, but in retrospect it was very powerful.

During this retreat, Chris Michael of Collaborations for Change (our retreat facilitator extraordinaire) led a wonderful session around our organisational values. Though we’ve always had a strong organisational culture, we hadn’t written down a list of values to keep ourselves accountable to them.

We went into the activity knowing that we wouldn’t finalise a list without the next lead of our organisation – we weren’t going rogue after all – but we did want to discuss the values we already embodied in order to build on them with the next Executive Director. Together, we identified values we felt were core to our organisation’s identity – values that were already built into our DNA. Everyone participated, including Julia Keseru, our (unbeknownst to us) next Executive Director. The values we discussed that day were not aspirational, they were what we were already doing every day.

Fast-forward a few months and we were lucky enough to have our very own team member Julia take on the role of Executive Director. It is hard to calculate all the ways that an internal promotion like this facilitates change management. One non-trivial example is the ability to mitigate unnecessary disruption to an organisation’s culture, including its values. Julia was already intimately familiar with our work, internal operations and culture. As a result, the transition was significantly smoother for our team, our partners, our funders, our work and for our new leader herself.

The transition was smooth but we didn’t want it to be invisible. We wanted to inaugurate this new chapter of the organisation and leadership with organisational values that reflected the best of what we were doing and where we wanted to go.

Naming and defining our values

To decide on what we wanted our final statement to look like, we researched different functions and structures of organisational values. We found an article by Denise Lee Yohn particularly helpful. It encourages teams establishing their organisational values to: 1) avoid clichés and instead frame values in a way that will resonate with their team, and 2) identify values that are unique to their team. She argues that if there is no organisation (on earth or in your sector) that would not subscribe to that value, then it isn’t unique enough to make the cut. We didn’t follow this strictly but we found it a very helpful way of narrowing down the list of what was relevant to what was unique and essential to The Engine Room.

We started the process of writing down our organisational values by compiling a list of all the characteristics that our team had identified in our staff retreat in July. Next, we created a survey with that list and asked everyone on the team to select the three values that they felt were most integral to the spirit of The Engine Room. As a result, we had a compelling, albeit messy, list of things that our team felt were core to our culture and our work. We grouped granular, concrete characteristics and actions into clusters based on the higher level values and sentiments each of those groups seemed to reflect.  

For example, two of those clusters or higher level values are: making space and embracing complexity.  We make space for people, creativity and mistakes, and we embrace complexity in people, feelings, and our work. Both concepts are broad but we feel the framing of these higher level values is unique enough to make them feel special and captures the respect, humility and curiosity we expect in our team and our work.

Having these values in place has empowered us with the ability to hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make at every level and in every area of our organisation, whether it’s deciding the projects we do or don’t take on, the way that we engage with partners, or how we collaborate internally in a way that makes our team healthy and productive. Our values reflect who we are on our best day and motivate us to strive toward that every day.

Now what?

You can engage with these values – or this process – few different ways!

  • Check out our values here or see them in action in our 2018 Annual Retrospective.
  • If you’re curious how our organisational values directly inform our work, read our executive director’s blog post.
  • If you’re trying to (re-)articulate your organisational values, try starting from your lived values. Not sure what your lived values are? Think about a time when someone exhibited a behavior that seemed highly unusual for your team, so unusual that you thought “that’s not us.” That level of friction could indicate that you’ve touched on a core value. Core organisational values aren’t values that we embody constantly without fail, we are human. But when our actions don’t align with a core value, it really gets people’s attention.


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