Applied Culture: How We Redefined Our Values

Published by:
Cameo Choquer
October 8, 2021
min read

“They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a cover-up.” — Amos Tversky

If only Amos Tversky was around now to see the plethora of startup values written in the form of lofty metaphors. Values are often interchangeable with operating principles — they are or should be a guide for employees on how to work, make decisions, and take action.

For something so important, you shouldn’t rely on a semantic tool to guide your team.

When we set about reviewing our values at Applied, our goal wasn’t to rewrite them entirely. Instead, our goal was was to make sure that the values we had stood true and could set a good foundation for us to grow.

We wanted to make sure that when people read them, they knew exactly what they meant and didn’t need to already be at Applied or know some inside joke to fully grasp what they meant.

So, we spent a lot of time crowdsourcing, collaborating and digging into what could really help us define how we work.

The difference between values and principles

So what are Values? What are principles? Why the differentiation? A lot of the time, they’re used interchangeably. I personally turn to the likes of Stripe’s operating principles (as many others do) as a good measure for how to approach these things. Claire Hughe’s Johnson explains it here:

Your principles should be clear and explicit enough that the people who consult them will make the same decisions a founder of your company would.

👉 Values are a set of beliefs that guide or motivate.

👉 Principles are fundamental truths that set the foundation for a system of beliefs

At stripe, they distinguished their operating principles because they wanted “to distinguish philosophical beliefs from the concrete principles that should be applied to the day-to-day work of running the business.”

At Applied, it’s a bit of both, which I’ll explain in three parts:

  • Part 1: how we crowdsourced and used a bottoms up approach
  • Part 2: how we refined them and built them off of what we already had
  • Part 3: how we embed them and live them everyday.

And so, we think that our values are what we turn to when we’re swimming through an ocean of slack notifications, metrics, analysing leads and trends, and trying to see if we can make it to the next lunch ’n’ learn.

They are what we can turn to when we’re lost or not sure where to go next — they’re there to be the light that helps us break to the surface.

Part 1: Crowdsourcing with Team Canvas

Many companies share values in different forms and stem from the big 9: agility, collaboration, customer, diversity, execution, innovation, integrity, performance, and respect. Companies bring these to life in different ways, with some emphasis on some over others — it’s how we differentiate ourselves. In the early days of 2020 our team was changing: we were expecting to grow, teams were adapting, we were about to raise money, and Khyati Sundaram was stepping up as CEO.

This felt like a good time to pause, set new norms and rituals, and grow as one team. This became even more important as the pandemic became very real, and not only were our teams changing and but our office environment was too. In order to do this we set up team canvas workshops with each of the different functions.

Example team canvas
Example canvas (not from Applied)

The Team Canvas is a workshop tool that helps teams establish the fundamentals of working collaboratively: who are we, what are we working on, what do we believe in, what are we good and bad at, and what can we agree as a common goal. We did these canvases with 10s possibly 100s of post-its and an office as well as using Mural & Miro for those who were remote.

These workshops were an adventure and not something any of the teams had really done before. We did ice breakers, some teams had a potlach, while others dialled in from across the world.

What the team canvases did:

  • Helped us workshop where our teams were strong, where we needed skills, and what truly brought out the best in people
  • Highlighted that experience of our users was at the heart of what we do and that everyone on the team feels a deep sense of responsibility to them
  • Showed that trust is nothing without communication and collaboration and that without trust, we can’t get anything done
  • Helped clarify a baseline for our progression framework

What is really important about when conducting these workshops is that the team walks away feeling like a team. It’s also important that everyone has a voice (either verbally or written) and that everyone agrees on people & roles, commons goals, and rules & activities.

While it wasn’t the goal at the time, having each team agree on their own values, helped with the process in discovering what was missing from our company written values. They acted as the stepping stone to what would eventually be our shared and updated company values.

Part 2: Amplify what’s good and shine a light on your aspirations

When we did the team canvases we didn’t have a blank slate. Everyone had some idea in their mind of what our values were. We started with values that were written out by the founding team and built on them through crowdsourcing ideas, feelings, comments, and some very questionable mural boards. So while teams got to explore and discuss what they thought of as their individual team values, a lot of what was written before (and below) shone through:

  • 100 points rule: Everyone, no matter where they came from, has 100 points of talent that can add to the Applied team
  • Talent, plus hard work, over ego: a formula for staying ambitious and humble. Meaning, if you have a big ego, it has to be over met with incredible talent and hard work.
  • Empiricism: every piece of work that we do is grounded in rigorous research testing and iterative improvement
  • Publication bias: Everyone at Applied does amazing work that is worth sharing with the world, whether it’s a scientific journal or a medium post
Pre 2020 Applied values
Our pre-2020 values

As we reflected on all of the canvas workshops we did, there were lots of values shared across teams. This was a great indicator that the values we already had were well embedded and bought in by the team.

In my first few months at Applied a candidate asked me if I could guarantee that that the culture wouldn’t change.

If the culture didn’t change we would be doing something wrong. We’re still early on in our journey as a company and have a lot of growing and impact to make. Social impact happens at scale and everyone at Applied is motivated and determined to make the world a fairer place through hiring. With scale, comes new tools, new ways of working and ultimately change.

We’re big believers that tools and infrastructure influence culture. As you scale, you need to adapt to more complex systems, implement different processes and manage more edge cases. The point is that the values and operating principles will tweak overtime, and that that is okay — it’s all part of growing. It’s also why the era of “move fast and break things” is over — which I think everyone can appreciate.

With some word smithing and lively discussion about semantics, we found common threads that were true for all teams. The fundamentals are there and so we created a baseline for how we expected people to create rituals, make decisions, take action, and most importantly how we would treat those around us.

Values from workshops
Team values from canvas workshops

Our values are based off of these fundamentals. People at applied have:

  • a growth mindset
  • are data driven
  • have a bias to action
  • take ownership
  • are empathetic
  • are user focused
  • are mission driven
  • are ambitious
  • can communicate and give/share recognition
  • are trusting/trustworthy and collaborative
Behaviours and rituals
Behaviours and rituals from the teams

While these are things we all agreed on as a baseline, having 10 values or principles is a bit difficult to remember let alone communicate. So how do you boil all of these down? The answer is spreadsheets. The answer is always spreadsheets.

In all seriousness, we found that some of them coexisted or could sit under another. We always came back to — what speaks true for every team, what will keep us on track and what will guide us in achieving our goal of making hiring better for everyone?

The other things that we asked ourselves that were fundamental to narrowing these down were: What do we not want to see? What could be left off the table? Which of these behaviours or characteristics are overwhelming the team or do we need more of? Are there areas we want to aspire to?

Tying in our values

So, while I’m not a huge fan of metaphors here is a good one: Are your values steel beams or just scaffolding?

Values and operating principles should be seen and felt throughout your work. While I joke about spreadsheets, having our rituals, behaviours, and actions tied to our values helped us to create a baseline for our progression framework.

It helped us reflect on the responsibility, accountability, knowledge, and skills that could have varying levels as people progressed through the company. They went from words on our website and onboarding documents, to defining how people progress and how we do our best work.

Part 3: Bringing them to light and living them everyday

As mentioned earlier, many companies have similar values, principles and beliefs. It’s important that we as a team carve out what they mean here at Applied. How do we differ from other companies? Why do they mean so much to us? As a company founded in behavioural science, we believe that experience and culture begins at the moment of engagement. Our values are built into our hiring processes, how we talk about ourselves and how we introduce people to the team.

Five people on the team wrote their own articles about why their chosen value was so important to them. Sometimes values come across as just writing on the wall, but for us they do really express how we see the world.

While we could’ve stopped there, we didn’t.

We talk about our values (almost) everyday in our appreciation channel in slack, weekly in our team meetings, and in many 1:1s with our managers at Applied. We don’t always talk about them so explicitly and use many other words and phrases that express what they mean — the best examples are always during team meetings when someone shouts out someone else for being data-driven, trusting their colleagues to get things done or updating them when they get back from holiday.

Conclusion: WWCHD?

What would Claire Hughes Johnson do?

In behavioural science and psychology, one of the things that can be really helpful when you don’t know what to do (and you haven’t updated your values yet!) is to turn to someone who would know what to do. It’s called behavioural activation therapy or “what if” thinking.

So, while we went through a lot of workshops, meetings, and miro boards to refine our values the first thing I started with and would recommend to to others taking on big changes or overhauling ways of working is to practice “what if” thinking.

At the top of this article, I mentioned an important name: Claire Hughes Johnson. I’m a fan of how she approaches things (and runs a meeting), and so what helped a lot during this process and collaborating with the team, I continually thought… What would Claire Hughes Johnson do?