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How We Created Our Company Values From Scratch

Apr 8, 2015 7 min readOpen

Can you explain what your company stands for in just a few words? Can you quickly sum up how you and your teammates work together, and what it’s like to get things done at your organization?

If you can’t, you’re not alone. Creating a deliberate company culture is an exciting (and oftentimes ongoing) challenge, and it begins with your company values.

In the UserTesting marketing department, we knew we were going to grow, and we hoped to set a great example for our new team members and maintain our integrity along the way.

We wanted to establish our values as a team and figure out what really matters to us. These are the steps we took to create our values—and how you can do the same thing at your company.

How the UserTesting marketing department created their company values

The exercise: How we created our values

We started out with a baseline: some guidelines that our Director of Marketing had developed a few years ago and shared with the team. They were pretty informal, and we referred to them occasionally. But we felt like they needed to be refined.

For example, one of our guidelines was, “We go out of our way to be nice to people and build authentic relationships.” So far, it’s been easy for us to be nice—almost to a fault.

What we really needed was a reminder that we can be nice to people while still giving honest feedback and holding each other accountable. We wanted a set of values that would challenge us to grow.

So we agreed that we would only officially write down the team culture and values if everyone on the team contributed and everyone bought into it 100%.

The whole exercise of creating our team culture took about four hours, broken into three sessions: brainstorming, deciding, and finalizing. Since this project was so important to our team, we wanted to take our time and get it right.

Part 1: Brainstorming with sticky notes

To start, we blocked off an hour and a half for an all-team brainstorm.

First, everyone took a yellow sticky note and a green sticky note.

  • On the yellow paper, we each wrote three words that described our current culture (for better or worse).
  • On the green paper, we each wrote three words that described our ideal team culture.

We placed them all up on the easel; yellow notes on the left and green on the right. We put dash marks next to the most common words and circled anything surprising.

using sticky notes to discuss company values

We acknowledged that this was a safe space to explain our suggestions and even drift off topic a bit if needed.

Then we had a hearty, friendly debate about the words we chose. Is “friendly” really a trait we want to have? Are we afraid to hold each other accountable because we’re too focused on being friendly? Is it more important to be hardworking or efficient?

We worked with the understanding that we didn’t have to make a final decision right away. After the session was over, we had an idea of where we were going with this, but we hadn’t finalized anything.

Part 2: Revisiting and editing

A couple of days later, after we had all had time to think on our brainstorming session, we sat down for an hour to make a decision. We revisited all of the traits we had written down. Which ones could be combined? Which ones were really important? Again, we had some fun, vigorous discussions over what stayed and what got cut.

At the end of that session, we had groups of words that belonged together, along with a bunch of notes on what those words meant to us. (Does having fun mean the same thing as being passionate? Should innovative belong with testing, reflecting, and improving, or should it stand alone? Can we hold each other accountable to high standards while still being supportive?)

Creating company values on the whiteboard

Part 3: Finalizing

In the last step, I took all of our words and notes and wrote them up into a one-page document.

I got feedback from everyone on the team, and, after a couple of rounds of edits (it took about an hour and a half, all told), we had a finished product.

Finally, as an homage to the famous copywriter John Caples, we slapped a catchy title on it.

The values: Here’s what we came up with

They Laughed At Our Marketing Culture

But When They Saw How It Worked! —

1. We hold ourselves and each other accountable.

  • We have high standards, and we help each other achieve them.
  • We set clear and specific commitments, and we meet them.

2. We communicate clearly and effectively.

  • It’s better to over-communicate than to make assumptions.
  • This applies to deadlines, expectations, feedback, and everything else—within our team, with the rest of our company, and with people at other companies.

3. We give and receive feedback early and often.

  • Feedback makes us all better, no matter how great your first draft is. If you created it, then you can’t publish it. Well, you can, but you have to have other people look it over first. :)
  • We don’t hold back from asking questions and suggesting improvements

4. We plan ahead and work proactively.

  • We set ambitious, exciting, and realistic goals for our own projects, and we lead our team to meet (or exceed) them on time!
  • Even though we get a ton of stuff done every day, we take breaks to think about the big picture: Why are we doing this? How will this help us meet our goals? What can we improve? (Sometimes we ask “Why?” over and over again to make sure we really understand the big picture!)

5. We’re supportive and collaborative.

  • We do everything we can to help the company and the team meet our goals.
  • We never say, “That’s not my problem.” You are responsible for helping the company and the team succeed!

6. We have fun and work hard.

  • We’re passionate about the work we do. We celebrate the team’s successes together.
  • We don’t just do work to fill the time. The things we accomplish are valuable to our company, our users, and our community—and we’re proud of that!

7. We test, learn, and improve.

  • We’re always looking for new things to learn and try. We’re open to bold new ideas if we can test them and learn from them.
  • At the end of a project, we reflect on what worked and what didn’t: What should we start doing, stop doing, and keep doing for similar projects in the future?

The change: How our values have helped our team

Now that we’ve written down our team culture, it’s become easier for us to determine how our work aligns with our values.

For example, if I catch myself trying to save time by powering through a project without getting feedback early, I’ll remind myself that that’s not how our team works.

We all make a point of congratulating each other anytime we do an awesome job with one of these things. It’s really common to hear “Thanks for the super clear feedback; now I know exactly what I need to change!” or “I want to shout out to Stef for doing a really great job with the latest project. She kept us all thinking critically about the big picture!” in our office.

We also came up with some silly memory tricks that we use as shorthand when we need to encourage each other to follow one of the guidelines. It keeps the mood light, and it gives us a fun little inside joke to share.

For example, we wrote down “Tuff ‘n Fair” to remind ourselves to hold each other accountable when we need to. If I miss a deadline and someone on the team says, “Hannah, I need to be Tuff ‘n Fair with you. Why don’t you have a final draft ready?”, I’ll understand that they’re doing the right thing for the team; not picking on me.

We’ve welcomed three new team members since we wrote down our team values, and we make it a standard part of their training process. We block off 30 minutes on each new hire’s second day to explain the seven values and teach him or her what to expect from the team.

We explain that this was something we all participated in creating, so they won’t think of it as arbitrary rules that came out of thin air.

So far, we’ve gotten a great response. The new team members have been thankful that we all value each other enough to make our culture a priority, and they’re excited to be a part of it.

Want to try this values exercise at your company?

Please feel free to modify or outright steal these ideas if your team could use something like this!

If you do give it a try, I’d encourage you to learn from our experience. Here are a few tips:

Break up the exercise into a few sessions over the course of a couple of days. After the first brainstorming session, we were pretty mentally exhausted. We needed some time to consider our ideas before deciding on anything.

Reassure team members that they’re in a safe space. The healthy debate and freedom to propose new ideas and debate them out is what made the whole thing work. If we had just picked the first seven values that came to mind, we wouldn’t have learned anything.

Find a way to make it stick. There’s no point in spending time on your values if they don’t make an impact on your day-to-day work. Congratulate team members when they uphold your team culture, and help your teammates improve when you see an opportunity. Hold yourself and your team accountable to what you created.

Has your team ever formally discussed your culture and values? How did you go about it? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

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