How to develop values worth having and avoid ones that are utterly useless like Professional, Innovative and Integrity

BY Julian Gorham

I was on the London Underground the other day. Rather, I was trying to get on the London Underground at Clapham Common and, finding this harder to negotiate than a Greek bailout, I noticed the usual rolling acres of standing room in the middle of the carriage.

Shouting “Move up please, everyone” (or words to that effect) had no effect whatsoever, so I resorted to a shove the England rugby front row would be proud of. The result? I got into the train, but hostility was my only travelling companion.

It occurred to me that getting people to behave properly in real life is difficult.

When it comes to getting people in organisations to behave a certain way, it’s almost impossible. And you have to engage with them positively.

Here’s our definition of a brand. How people perceive an organisation comprises the following:


Your personality and how you express it through look and feel and tone of voice.


How you act and behave. The relationships you form and the experiences people have of you.


What you do and how you do it. Ultimately the value you deliver.

We talk about a brand as reputation. And we talk about values (I’ve also heard them called attributes or commitments) being key to organising that reputation.

Lots of businesses try to organise their business strategy into something they can use to drive the business forward using values: What they usually end up with is lots of words that confuse rather than convey meaning. One perfectly respectable company (a FTSE 250 at that), proudly said to me recently that at one time it had 10. 10? I can’t remember the names of 10 good friends let alone remember 10 values. And as for making sense of them and doing something with them!

How we get to values

At Gather, we get to values the same way lots of brand consultancies do: by talking to stakeholders up and down the organisation.

Where we really get under the bonnet of a business is in the quality of conversations we try to have. The process is key: We develop a discussion guide that asks specifically crafted questions around reputation, sector, positioning and vision. But also critical is the experience of the person asking the questions, because the task is to interpret what people say and understand its relative importance in the context of everything you’ve already heard (including on projects for other clients). Employees on the sales side of a business for example are always particularly vocal about their situation and often see themselves at the centre or cutting edge: You’ve got to know what to do with what you hear.

We usually find that after between 15 and 20 interviews, we start to see common threads or themes emerging. More interviews, across a broader range of stakeholders – and even competitors – serve to validate or invalidate ideas about positioning and values.

From pages of written up interviews, what we deliver to a client is one sheet of paper comprising positioning statement, values and a Single Organising Idea (the spirit of the organisation captured in a two or three word creative idea). The opportunity is for organisations to achieve fierce clarity at the centre by reducing the number of words around a business to every essential part. The values, because they are clear, can then be used in a practical way – as a benchmark for both behaviours and communications.

What we deliver to clients is not a marketing tool. It is business strategy in intensified and usable form – and when done well (with rigour and creativity) it becomes the single most important strategic reference point for everyone in the business.

Our Tips for Developing Values Worth Having

Three or four, no more!

The human brain grasps only so much – and trying to remember more than three or four values is hard. Busy people avoid things that are hard. So make things easy. Three or four values, no more. If you need more, you probably have values that overlap (or there’s a legacy one – possibly the favourite of the board member who thought of it).

Are they drawn from evidence or out of a hat?

The best values are based on the truth of an organisation. You can’t just decide to be what you are not. Every organisation has to build on its most positive attributes. Can you see the value residing in parts of the organisation today? Can it be made true for the whole of the business – and would that make a positive contribution to shaping the organisation to deliver its ideal positioning?

Are they the right kind of words?

Choose your words carefully – they should be very particular in meaning, distinct and of themselves. Professional, Innovative, Integrity? Professional is generic and something of a ‘hygiene factor’ – what’s the opposite? Amateur! Innovative? Another generic – everyone loves the Innovation or Innovative word. Better to dig into it and get something more meaningful – Expert for example. And as for Integrity. Isn’t that something that should be deduced rather than declared? A bit like Professional, if my business has no Integrity I have no business, surely!

Do they inspire action?

Values might look pretty on a website and give the impression that your organisation has standards it lives by. But the real point of values is that they drive action. You’d better make sure, then, that the three or four words you choose are capable of inspiring multiple actions relevant to your stakeholders. That’s why you’ve done all those interviews: To find the ideas that connect the business with the people in whose hands success or failure lies.

Do they help you to deliver your positioning?

Thanks to all those stakeholder interviews, and almost certainly some competitor analysis, your organisation has a clear idea of where it is heading – the ideal position it will represent in people’s minds in two or three years’ time. Everything you say and do should be working towards this goal. The values are the means by which the organisation can get there. They are the link between where you are now and where you aspire to be.

Do they work as a set?

As a set are your values complete? Partly this is presentational: Are they expressed to look like a set? For example, Ingenious Connection and Drive are not so good. Ingenious, Connected and Driven are more thought-through and better. Someone once said of Mozart’s music that if you changed one note there would be diminishment. Values certainly aren’t Mozart, but diminishment is a useful way of judging whether the set of words you have is the right one. Looking into the organisation, does this set of words allow it to say and do absolutely everything it needs and wants to do as a business, now and in the future, whilst building a reputation for something that is defined? Is the set of words the best possible set in terms of being most useful to growing the business.

Do they enable meaningful connection to all stakeholders?

Looking out at stakeholders, does the set of words you have chosen help you reach out to all of them meaningfully – not just with what you say, but with you do – the experience they will have of you? If there are stakeholders the set doesn’t work for then you have the wrong set of words. Once aspect of this meaningful connection is to think about communication channels. Digital is now so key to reaching most stakeholders that certain words may be better than others at inspiring ideas that work as a digital experience. Yet another thing to think about.

Can they work in more than one language, if necessary?

Creating values for internationally located companies has its own challenges. Understanding cultural nuances is important, but once the words are right in English it should be possible to translate them into other languages. There will inevitably be compromises, but your ideas about values should be robust enough to withstand the slings and arrows that will inevitably be thrown at them – and this is just one.

Are they differentiating?

A tricky one this. I suspect it is more important that the values are useful to the organisation as a set than that each one is stunningly original. Given all we have said up until now, there is a limited lexicon that can be used and a lot of words that end up as values simply aren’t right for the task. What should be differentiating is your overall positioning – the place your values get you to versus your competitors.

What next?

Of course, developing a set of values is just the start. A business strategy takes two or three years to push through an organisation and out into the world and that takes focus, hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of constant change. But the one thing that shouldn’t change in that time is the values themselves. The right ones, in our experience, are not a straitjacket: Rather, they are a remarkably effective springboard to success. Little wonder then, that driving the values through an organisation and out into the world is increasingly seen as a major part of the CEO role. Who knows? There might even be a CEO riding on the London Underground thinking about values right now?