Values Based Decision Making

Three years ago my father died. 2 weeks prior my father-in-law had been diagnosed with leukaemia. Shortly after, I had major shoulder surgery, my second daughter Heidi arrived and wasn’t sleeping and I was commuting 2-3 hours a day to work I felt completely disconnected from.

One of my favourite things is performance. To set a direction and chase it down the rabbit hole, whether for myself as an athlete working towards Athens Olympics or for my team as we built Bluewire Media. But at this point I found myself in the middle of a black box with seemingly nowhere to turn.

At the same time, I still knew I was one of the lucky ones. I had my wife Luce, my daughters, family, friends, a roof over my head, food on my plate… I knew that there were literally billions of people worse off than me.

But that knowledge didn’t seem to help. If anything it just made me more frustrated. Audio books, meditation, philosophy, deep conversations with friends and mentors, all seemed at best, to be short term relief.

I was stuck. Really stuck.

Why now?

This isn’t a cry out for pity, it’s a story to illustrate how circumstances conspired to dial up the pressure on my own (and since then, my clients and teams’) burning sense of disconnection from work. I think this needs to be addressed urgently – whether at work or across the other domains of our lives.

So let’s zoom in for a second and look at individuals, teams and organisations specifically in a work context.

Here are some of the reasons I think Values Based Decision Making is critical:

  • According to World Health Organisation, we spend 1/3 of our waking lives working.
  • According to Gallup, 87% of employees are not engaged in their work. And engagement is crucial to high performing teams. (Gallup says that highly engaged teams are 21% more profitable!)
  • In a world where speed, interdependence and uncertainty are the norm, values need to be considered in every decision and reinforced with action. And they need to be able to match the speed of change.
  • There are no shortages of values failures. We all have values already. Some people are aware of them, others aren’t and most don’t know how to put them into practice. Enron had values too. It’s just they weren’t lived. It is not enough just to have values, they must be put into action.
  • The Paradox of Choice means there have never been so many choices available and adding values to filter decision making helps to distinguish signal from noise.
  • The adoption of Agile as a value delivery mechanism and key competitive advantage across all types of teams and organisations requires distributed, de-centralised and (semi-) autonomous decision making. Values Based Decision Making can contribute to the quality and consistency of those decisions.
  • Data has transformed the way we make decisions. Values bring a human and ethical layer to ensure the data isn’t followed blindly. (A really interesting take on this in the tech sphere: Working Ethically At Speed.)
  • The pursuit of goals or OKRs on their own without appreciation and connection is a recipe for suffering.
  • With so many external comparison points, we need an internal anchor or definition of success. Values help us create an internal locus of control.

What if…

Fortunately, around the time of my black box, I completely changed work tack and took a short term contract at the Queensland Academy of Sport. There I reconnected with an old friend of mine Jonah Oliver who was the Head of People, Culture and Performance.

Jonah introduced me to the role of my own values in my personal decision making and performance through a psychology framework called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

I’d seen and implemented values before in a business context through Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but had somehow missed unpacking my own values along the way. And missed the opportunity for performance that comes with aligning values.

That began my path out of the black box.

Since then, I’ve seen the power and importance of defining values for myself and for the individuals and teams I’ve coached. I’ve come to understand the role they play in engagement, ethics and performance and witnessed the challenges of putting them into practice – making them more than just “words on a wall” (great HBR article).

This has become so important to me personally that if I could only leave one thing to my daughters, Values Based Decision Making would be it.

What if we could help millions of people to reconnect to their values and use them to take action? What kind of impact might that have?

What would the process look like and how might it work?

What are Values?

You’ve nearly certainly come across values before – at work, in sporting teams, at schools. So let’s recap.

Values are not just words, values are a way of being. They are the person, team or organisation we are when we are being our best.

For instance, as individuals there is a huge difference between:

  • getting married vs being loving every day.
  • running a marathon vs living a healthy life.
  • graduating with a PHD or an MBA vs a lifelong pursuit of learning.

The fun part is when you combine both – you get married and you’re in a loving relationship, it’s running a marathon and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it’s graduating with a PHD because you love learning.

What is Values Based Decision Making?

Let’s be clear: we are wired NOT to like doing hard things. Our brains don’t like adversity, challenge, conflict. We don’t like pain.

Let me use a hypothetical (please suspend disbelief for a second).

If I was to cover the floor in broken glass and asked you to walk across it bare footed, you’d most likely think I was mad.

If I was then to say that if you walk across the glass, I have the power to make all of your and your loved ones’ dreams come true and remove all suffering from the rest of your lives… Well, typically the response might start to look different.

What that shows is that we are terrible at suffering meaningless pain. BUT, if we feel the pain is in the service of what is most important to us, then we will not just endure, but embrace great hardship.

Values Based Decision Making works to answer 4 questions:

  1. What are the values you hold and aspire to live up to?
  2. Who is most important to you?
  3. What is most important to you?
  4. What you do when you are at your best?

By defining, then organising those answers, we can put decisions and actions in the service of values and what holds the most meaning for us as individuals and teams.

What Values Based Decision Making is not:

  1. It is not an answer. It’s an iterative process and, frankly, the work is never done. It starts with self-awareness at an individual level (and shared awareness for teams) and then migrates to action. And action is everything.
  2. It is not about adding anything new. Values Based Decision Making is about minimum effective dose. Remove the unimportant and reconnect with what is most important.
  3. It isn’t necessarily going to make life easier. In fact, life and decisions may become more difficult once you articulate your values. Living up to your values will present new challenges – mentally, emotionally and behaviourally – every day. But using your values to guide your decisions will make life so much more purposeful and meaningful, however you define that for yourself.

The Process of Values Based Decision Making:

Once Values are understood conceptually, here are two possible approaches – one for individuals and one for teams.

For individuals:

  1. Self-awareness:
    • What are your values?
    • Who is most important to you?
    • What is most important to you?
    • What do you do when you are at your best?
  2. Make sure that your current goals are in service of your values.
  3. Build an action plan to bring your values to life through habits and routines.
  4. Put your values into practice.
  5. Accelerate the development of values and practices through a coaching process.

For teams and organisations:

  1. Self-awareness for the individuals within the team.
  2. Build a shared vision and shared awareness for the team or organisation as a whole.
  3. Foster a culture of psychological safety (Google’s #1 indicator of team effectiveness).
  4. Create a framework of expected team behaviours to help translate values into actions.
  5. Build and certify the capacity of leaders and key people within an organisation to continue to coach existing and new team members.
  6. Embed values and bring them to life throughout the organisation from job ads and performance management to product design, communication rhythms and marketing.

If you, your team or your organisation is struggling to define values and translate them into decision making and action at scale, or if you are working to innovate in those areas, I would love to talk more with you about your approaches and attempts.

And thank you to Jonah, Alix, James, Phoebe, Lucy and Adam for helping to shape these ideas.

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