Turning Fuzzy Core Values Into A Practical Tool For Busting Bureaucracy

Written by in Practices
- 7 min read

It's hardly groundbreaking to announce that organizations should reduce bureaucracy in order to improve many aspects of their business; from employee engagement, to the speed of decision making and organizational agility. But in order to reduce bureaucracy, organizations have to do something that frightens them to death: abandoning the rules, procedures and protocols.

Once organizations overcome their fear and succeed to bust bureaucracy, they reap the full benefits of bureaucratic liberation. From visiting over 50 workplace pioneers, we have learned and witnessed lots of different ways to get rid of rules without unleashing full anarchy or complete chaos.

A study on complexity by BCG shows that, since 1955, organizational complexity has gone up 6-fold, where the number of procedures & rules to fight the same complexity have seen a 35-fold increase!

In the most complicated organizations, managers spend:

  • more than 40% of their time writing reports, and
  • between 30 - 60% of their time on (coordination) meetings.

Everyone can do the math and realize that this way of working is broken and highly unproductive.

Replace rules by a set of values

A powerful way to bust bureaucracy is to replace the proliferation of rules with a clear set of values. Getting rid of rules liberates employees and provides them with the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions. This will greatly boost engagement and productivity as we've witnessed at (among others) Belgian Department of Social Security.

When the rules and protocols that dictate employees how to do their job are gone, employees are encouraged to use their own judgement to make the right decisions. This is where values come into play. Values are used to guide behavior and they help employees to distinguish right from wrong.

Walk the talk

One of the biggest pitfalls when it comes to values is that they become nothing but empty words. Empty words that are not used in daily organizational life and therefore serve no purpose whatsoever. It might look fancy in the company's annual report, but amounts to nothing but lip service.

Zingerman's are maybe one of the best examples we encountered last year who live their organizational values in a constructive and meaningful way.

Ari: "Whether you talk about “values”, “ethics”, or what we at Zingerman’s call “guiding principles”, the key is to be clear about what your values are and thoughtfully address the role they play in your work. At Zingerman’s, our Guiding Principles define how we’re going to behave and interact with those around us as we work towards our long-term vision and mission. In other words, the Guiding Principles are not why we’re here or what we do; they’re the framework for how we’re going to relate to others around us while we work. Put simply, our commitments to these principles is a way of affirming that, for us, as for many others, the ends don’t justify the means.

Although I believe strongly that ours are great for us, I would never argue that they’re right for others. What's really essential is that everyone you work with be clear on what your principles are and agrees to live them during their tenure in your organization." (an excerpt from Ari's book Building a Great Business).

Lately, during workshops and presentations we often get asked by people how they can live up to their organizational values better; how they can actually walk the talk. Therefore, we share some practical insights into how pioneering organizations ensure their values are lived throughout the entire organization.

1. Make values part of your hiring process

Organizations with clear values attract like minded people. When you manage to recruit people based on a cultural fit, there is a much bigger chance to get the right people on the bus. Be sure to use your core values as part of your recruitment process for potential new employees. It will help you recruit the right people with the right mindset.

Ari: "If we’re up front about our principles we’re more likely to attract people with a similar set of values. A solid set of well-implemented guiding principles makes a very big difference for us in recruiting like-minded staff members, we don’t advertise the principles.

*If others are aware of our principles, it’s because we’ve actually lived up to our own standards, not because we’re telling them what they should do. *Prospective team members need to know about our standards and understand that they’ll be expected to live them and teach them. If there isn’t alignment between our organizational values and the applicant’s, then the working relationship isn’t going to be successful, regardless of how impressive the person’s resume may be."

At Spotify, they like the saying "we hire for talent and train for skills". Meaning that the cultural interview is the cornerstone of their recruitment process. This is because, over time, they found it pretty difficult to turn a highly skilled candidate down in a late stage of the process just because of a misfit with their culture. Only recently they realized that a proper culture fit was of bigger importance than they initially expected and decided to promote the culture interview to the start of the process.

2. Make values part of daily decision making

As mentioned before, most of the pioneering organizations don't make decisions based on fixed rules. Instead, they use their core values to guide decision making. Anja van der Horst, Director of Operations of the Dutch municipality Hollands Kroon, turned this philosophy into a beautifully rebellious quote: “Organizing is quite simple. Just get rid of the rules".

Core values should provide employees with the necessary guidance to make decisions that are in line with the organization. At Hollands Kroon, the clear values (trust, courage, enthusiasm, contact, respect) help them to do exactly this.

Ari: "Guiding principles form a framework within which we can more effectively make day-to-day decisions. Decisions in business are rarely black and white. A clear ethical framework makes our decision-making more consistent and effective in the midst of uncertainty and change – which in turn helps the organization develop in a positive and progressive way." 

3. Let leadership teach the values

At Zingerman's, we personally witnessed how Ari lectured their guiding principles to new employees during an intensive on-boarding session. During those introductory classes Ari (or co-founder Paul Saginaw) explain the mission and values of Zingerman's in order to teach the new recruits why and how the guiding principles can help them in the daily job. But that's not all. Ari teaches the guiding principles by demonstrating them in everything he does. He truly walks the talk.

Ari: "Without question the act of getting up in front of our peers, partners, and staff to teach the principles has made it far more likely that we’re going to live them. If nothing else, it’s embarrassing to talk about our values and then not live them. At Zingerman’s I review our principles every two weeks or so when I teach the orientation or new staff. And we bring them up in every class we do, too, whether it’s about cheese maturing, management, training, or trimming pastrami."

4. Award people on demonstrating values

In London, at multi-channel broadcasting company UKTV, awards are handed out to employees that performed exceptionally well. But at UKTV ‘exceptionally well’ does mean something different. Where traditionally employees are awarded for results (like highest sales or most successful project) at UKTV awards are handed out to employees that have demonstrated the company values in an exceptional way.

Ari: "What message would we send if we were to say, “we work as a team” in our principles, but then have all our bonus programs based on individual performance? Conversely, it’s imperative that we formally and informally recognize employees who exemplify our values in their work."

Liberation starts

The above mentioned practices are relatively simple and practical ways to weave values into day-to-day organizational life. The various pioneers proved in their efforts that these practices do not only bust bureaucracy but also greatly increased autonomy, engagement, and productivity.

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