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Why we waited more than three years before creating Dovetail’s values

5 minute read - 1 June 2021

Founders usually create company values and build an intentional culture around them from the outset. It’s a straightforward approach—if leadership automatically buy into company values, they can lead by example and instill them into the rest of the team. The risk of designing by committee—setting values from the ground up—is that leadership may not agree or believe in them. The values effectively become shelf-ware—released but unused.

It makes sense, but still, we took a different approach. Our founders, Benjamin and Brad, made a conscious decision to wait before creating values so they would accurately reflect Dovetail’s existing culture rather than be ambitious, forced, top-down founder values. They wanted the values to be impactful and utilized daily by the team. Over the past six months, with the company doubling in size and moving into our new office, we all felt the time was right.

We wanted to celebrate the wonderful, quirky, and sometimes weird aspects of our culture and make the implicit values we have explicit.

Why we think values are important

We’re growing the team quickly, and values help build a shared understanding and keep everyone aligned as we expand. Our values should help us make decisions, whether that’s about our product and prioritizing what to build, thinking about how we scale and operate, or how we organize day-to-day work. We also want our values to determine the people we hire. Our values should highlight to candidates the unique ways we operate and what makes our culture different. On the flip side, our values should allow us to assess whether a candidate is the right cultural add for our team.

How we created them

It was plain for everyone who was part of the company when we already had values. They were intangible and implicit, but they were definitely there. What we needed to do was distill them and write them down. As there was already an understanding among the team about what we stood for, it made sense to go down the path of blending both team-created and founder-created values. It was essential to bring everyone along for the journey. 

Some members of the team had expressed skepticism around the concept of values. Previous experiences had shown them that well-intentioned values could be “weaponized” in bad faith. We wanted to make sure that everyone took part in their creation to feel ownership over them. Finally, we believe the best ideas are the result of highly collaborative cross-functional work, so of course, we jammed our values as a team.

Getting the balance right between founder input and grassroots creation can be difficult, but luckily, I think we nailed it (and yes, that is one of our values).

1. Company-wide workshop

We ran a full-day team event with a fully packed agenda. The outcomes we wanted from the day were to:

  • Build an understanding of what values are.

  • Have vulnerable and open discussions about our culture.

  • Draft a set of values or words and phrases that the founders can reflect upon.

We invited incredible external speakers, including Robyn Dunn, who helped create Atlassian’s values, and Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp. The pair helped steer the team in understanding why values are important, what can make a good value, and the difference between a value and a behavior. (FYI—behavior is a value in action).

At the time, we were 18 people, so we split the team into three groups. This was an ideal size for workshops to ensure everyone could have input. In each group, we also wanted a blend of people who had been at the company a while, a mix of outspoken and reserved team members, and enough diversity to accommodate various perspectives and experiences.

We ran the individual workshops intending to present back a set of values representing Dovetail currently or what we should be aspiring to be. We wanted the conversations to be constructive, inclusive, and fueled by specific examples of people who liked or disliked their past work culture.

Questions used to steer the conversation included:

  • What’s important to us?

  • What will help guide us when we are facing a difficult decision?

  • What are the things we like about what we do at Dovetail and how we do it?

  • What parts of Dovetail are we proud of?

  • If you can think of a significant decision you had to make that ultimately didn’t sit well in your mind, what’s the source of that, and what could you have changed that would clear things up?

  • We’re young. Is this something we’ll still believe in five years? Ten years?

  • Is this something we are willing to hire on and also fire on?

  • Is this something we can apply to customer relationships? Or internal development? Or product development? Or all of the above?

Each group then presented back their values to the rest of the team. We knew the team already had a solid shared understanding of who we were at Dovetail, but we were still surprised to see how similar the themes and language were across all the groups. Together, we massaged the wording to craft the first set of Dovetail values. A big thank you to our friend Isabella Rich for facilitating this session.

2. Founder wordsmithing

Benjamin and Brad took the outputs of the company-wide workshop and spent a morning working through and defining the five values. Instead of only a single statement, they created an explanation of how the value should be used. By providing extra guidance on the meaning behind each value, we were better able to reflect the ideas put forward by the team and ensure our values are used appropriately down the track.

Bringing the values to life

The power of design and illustration is core to our brand. Our in-house illustrator Lisa took on the challenge of bringing the new values to life as part of a two-day Hackathon. She designed the five posters, printed them, and got them framed for our new office, all within 30 hours. I think you’ll agree they capture our brand and reflect the uniqueness of the values.

Drum roll, please...here are the Dovetail values:

Seek to understand—and then solve—real customer problems. Earn and keep customer love through transparency, authenticity, and results. Watch competitors, but obsess over customers.
Seek to understand—and then solve—real customer problems. Earn and keep customer love through transparency, authenticity, and results. Watch competitors, but obsess over customers.
First impressions matter. Sweat the details, don't sacrifice on quality, and create an awesome experience at every touchpoint whether it's support, our interview process, or the product.
First impressions matter. Sweat the details, don't sacrifice on quality, and create an awesome experience at every touchpoint whether it's support, our interview process, or the product.
Be authentic, humble, and empathetic to others. Remember the human behind the work. Operate collaboratively — rally on problems as a team, and celebrate wins together.
Be authentic, humble, and empathetic to others. Remember the human behind the work. Operate collaboratively — rally on problems as a team, and celebrate wins together.
Trust others and assume they have good intentions, but feel free to ask ‘why’ to build your own context and understanding. Share information freely.
Trust others and assume they have good intentions, but feel free to ask ‘why’ to build your own context and understanding. Share information freely.
Keep the speed up by taking calculated and pragmatic risks. Only agonize over irreversible decisions. Act like an owner, be reliable, and follow through – if you say you'll do something, do it.
Keep the speed up by taking calculated and pragmatic risks. Only agonize over irreversible decisions. Act like an owner, be reliable, and follow through – if you say you'll do something, do it.

Fun fact: As part of our most recent Hackathon, one of our product designers, Jodie, took our values to the next level. She created an Instagram AR filter for our value posters and a "which Dovetail value are you" game. Check out our Instagram to play the game, or take out your phone now and use the AR filter on the value cards above!

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