Blog post

Activate your Company Values with Red and Yellow cards.

By Dave Aron | March 16, 2019 | 3 Comments

Company strategy should be encoded in a set of principles. Company culture should be articulated in a set of values. But how do we stop those values just being ‘posterware’, stuck up on a wall somewhere, never remembered, referred to or used? This is an issue I discussed this week with the founder of a startup that I am mentoring. Here’s one idea, one culture hack, that can make values more real:

Imagine your company has ten articulated values. For example, one might be about trusting employees to do the right thing, rather than policing them. Another might be about trying to minimize environmental impact. The hack is to borrow the ideas of a yellow card (warning) and red card (penalty) from the refereeing of sports such as football. Imaging making a pack of twenty cards for each staff member. One yellow card for each value and one red card for each value. Each card has the value written on it.

Every employee is allowed to hold up a card when they feel a value is being slightly (yellow) or heavily (red) violated. When that happens, the issue/event/project in question is temporarily paused, and raised to the functional head/ responsible owner in the case of a yellow card, or to the C-level (CEO etc.) in the case of a red card. Staff could be allowed to use them as often as they like, or usage could be limited, e.g. to one card per employee per quarter, in order to manage disruption levels. The use of cards should be reviewed periodically, maybe quarterly, to ensure they were well understood, appropriately used and creating more value than disruption.

The idea of this is to empower staff, and make culture real, without creating too much bureacracy. What do you think? Fancy having a go?

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  • Ash Pal says:

    Good reminder Dave. New ways of getting feedback safely are always valuable. I’ve been using this technique for 15 years. The art is to ask the questions in a way that is not self-serving (false confirmation) and to be ready for the follow-up questions. I use a green card as well—sometimes things are really fine and sometimes you need to challenge complacency.

    • Dave Aron says:

      Great response Ash. Colleagues have also pointed out to me that having positive signals as well as these ‘warning’ cards is helpful.

  • Interesting idea. I’ve also been wrestling with the best way to give guiding principles and values legs within organizations.

    For projects, the best I’ve come up with is including a review of major project decisions using the guiding principles / values lens in the formal “PMO Gating” process.

    It doesn’t work as well for operations but can be included in monthly or quarterly business reviews to course correct as needed.

    At the end of the day, I’m not sure the mechanism itself matters. If you have executive alignment and support for the values/guiding principles and a culture of employee advocacy, decisions that are going against established principles/values will bubble up to the surface.