In 2004 I helped a large bank conduct a narrative project to examine trust in a call centre. They had just finished working on their corporate vision and values a few months earlier. Their list of values included the usual suspects: integrity, professionalism, respect. What I found interesting was that when we collected the anecdotes there was repeated, explicit and verbatim inclusion of only one of the values in the stories they told about themselves: tell it like it is, no spin.
This colloquially-worded value had established itself as a successful meme and was often extolled during meetings when someone was obviously pussy-footing around a topic—“tell it like it is, no spin” they demanded. I don’t think we heard explicitly about any of their other corporate values.
Tell it like it is, no spin resonated. Everyone knew what it meant. It was in their language—it was how they spoke.
In my experience working in and with large corporations and government agencies, most value statements are impossible to recall and totally forgettable. I think the most forgettable values are those that consist solely of a list of single words. For example, here is a set from one of the government departments in my home town:
A single word followed by a description is a minor improvement but based on my experience at the bank I would say phrases, especially memorable ones, make good value statements. GE used phrases. Some are more memorable than others.
- Have a Passion for Excellence and Hate Bureaucracy
- Are Open to Ideas from Anywhere… and Committed to Work-Out
- Live Quality… and Drive Cost and Speed for Competitive Advantage
- Have the Self-Confidence to Involve Everyone and Behave in a Boundaryless Fashion
- Create a Clear, Simple, Reality-Based Vision… and Communicate It to All Constituencies
- Have Enormous Energy and the Ability to Energize Others
- Stretch… Set Aggressive Goals… Reward Progress… Yet Understand Accountability and Commitment
- See Change as Opportunity… Not Threat
- Have Global Brains… and Build Diverse and Global Teams
From this list a couple of phrases stand out for me: ‘have global brains,’ ‘live quality,’ ‘have enormous energy.’ It would be interesting to know which ones resonated most with GE staff.
But I think there is another element which could add significantly: for each value include an anecdote illustrating the value in action.
This illustrative anecdote should be immediately recognisable as something which happens in the organisation. It mustn’t be concocted reflecting an ideal. Rather, it should be collected from people’s experience. There could also be benefit from including an anecdote that’s the antithesis of the value. An antithetical anecdote, however, is much harder to include because the perpetrators could be vilified.
The selection of the illustrative anecdotes could also be a way to include the entire organisation in bringing the values alive and help them learn about and remember the new values. A web-site could be built for people to vote on the anecdotes which they think best illustrates each value. The collective wisdom of the organisation is then brought to bear on the final outcome.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: