Setting up your design business and uncovering your values

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Tell you our values? Not right now. We’re still figuring out who we are.
From the very outset, Bow&Arrow co-founder Natasha Chetiyawardarna was pressed by people asking her: “What are your values?” The outside world was intrigued by what Bow&Arrow was doing as a creative business. Her answer was diplomatic but straightforward: “This is not our focus right now. We’re not doing that, or having that conversation.”

Why did she respond this way? Natasha was very clear that she wanted their culture to evolve: “It felt fake for us to do a big fanfare, considering that at that time, it was just [co-founder] Ben [Slater] and I, it didn’t feel right.”

Natasha wanted to work out who they were going to be with the people they were going to be working alongside. They didn’t have those people on board and so, for practical reasons, it was just too early to tell: “We didn’t know because we couldn’t know. And we were really focused on the work.”

It’s the right time. What is it that we are asking ourselves?
For Natasha, the right time to think about values was when the consultancy had enough people and when it felt right, which came at two years in. In the first two years their business was a bit like an infant, learning to walk – they were unconsciously becoming who they are.

“After two years we had a tangible and energetic culture we were proud of. But we couldn’t quite define it. We needed to ask ourselves: ‘What does it mean to be part of it?’” says Natasha.

The questions they then asked themselves were:

  • So what is this business we are part of?
  • How are we talking about it?
  • How are we talking about it to ourselves?

A key outcome for them was a shared belief that “every day we thrive on the impossible, inspiring ourselves and others to grow and be fearless.”

What are we not asking ourselves?
A key point here was that other people (clients, suppliers, stakeholders) were not important at this early stage. They were not asking: “How should we appear to other people?” They were asking themselves about how they should behave with each other. The outcome of the conversation was “for us all”. As Natasha says: “It was a discussion that defined us and how we talk to each other. Because it is our relationship to each other and how we understand it, that affects the quality of our work.”

Getting to the heart of the business/getting to our values.
The next step was to get the whole team together for a day. During this session they asked themselves the following questions:

  • What do we enjoy about working together?
  • What makes us special?

They worked with a coach, Robert Montgomery who facilitated the day and brought them all together. Natasha says: “Rob helped us to not get too stuck in our language. His input structured the session and pointed out to us how similar we were.”

What we did on the day
“We didn’t set this up as a ‘values’ day.” explains Natasha. “We asked some simple questions to get us to a clearer picture of who we are and where we want to go. “

The team was split into groups and they did two exercises:

Exercise 1. Visualisation: This was about drawing pictures and questions were

  • What does achieving the impossible mean to us?
  • What makes us thrive?

Exercise 2. Articulation: They wrote about what makes them special, who they are and how they work together.

Each group then presented their ideas back to the team and they found that they were all really similar. They decided as a group that as they were so fired up and excited by what they had discussed, that these should be their values. “A real sense of pride came out of this. For us and what we were collectively coming together to achieve.” says Natasha.

What happened next?
Bow&Arrow’s mission and values came out of that day. Natasha and Ben and the management team worked on the behaviours and asked themselves – what do we mean by this? What would be an example of the values? They also developed this into a book, an internal guide to the business, for the people by the people, known as The Bible.

How you can do this at your business
Let’s say you want to replicate this process at your business. Here are some of the key things that Bow & Arrow did that made the process work for them:

  1. Work from “feelings” to “words” and not the other way around.
    Don’t start with a list of words, even though it’s tempting to start here, because you set an impossible task. What matters to you is already inside you – not on a sheet of paper, so start with feelings. What do you feel? What matters to you about what you are doing here? When do you feel most alive? Out of that rich content will come the experiences from which the words will follow.
  2. Be clear about why you’re doing this exercise.
    What’s the point? Bow & Arrow wanted to talk about where they wanted to go. To get to a clear answer it was useful to talk about who they are first. Who you are determines where you go.
  3. Agreement comes built-in.
    The session ends with an agreement on what the values are. Bow & Arrow were all in agreement to use these values and ideas going forward. And why wouldn’t they be? They’d created them after all.
  4. Make it about clean questions and honest answers.
    Clean questions lead to clean answers. And clean answers are the most useful because they are clear and truthful. Clean questions ask someone’s view in terms of their own view and not in relation to something or someone else. For example the question: “What do you enjoy about working here?” is a clean question because the answer is the answer, pure and simple. It is what you and you alone think. It does not include an answer to any other question such as: “What do I enjoy that my clients would appreciate? Or what does my boss want to hear? Or what would win us the next pitch? Or what matches the website?”

If this all sounds great but you’re thinking, “I can’t afford the time to do this.” Or asking “What is the return on investment for this?” then that’s understandable.

The answer is that getting to a clear set of values does two things for you:

1 – It makes you time.

2 – It makes you money.

If you’d like more time and more money, watch out for the final piece in this series. Coming soon.

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