Developing Business Core Values

Developing Business Core Values

Business core values are the activities essential to the success of the organization. In healthy organizations, people share a clear understanding of what these core values are and how they are measured. This tool helps people identify and develop core values. It is best used in conjunction with the “Six Rings Model: Integrated Strategic Planning.”

Vocabulary of Values

Articulating values is difficult for several reasons.

First, people are often confused by the word “values.”

In a planning context, a value is what we hold to be important, rather than, for example, the price we put on something.

Second, people are surrounded by different value systems.

Including their own, their culture’s, and their organization’s. Sorting out these different systems of values can be confusing. For example, as individuals we value dignity and freedom. An organization values things such as profits and customers.

Third, there are two types of business values, yet people fail to distinguish between them:

  1. Core values. Core values are all-important. They cannot be compromised. They are considered essential to the organization’s well-being and sustainability. They typically do not change. One test of a core value is whether asserting it 100% is essential to the success of the organization. For example, having competitive prices is usually a core value.
  2. Key values. Key values are important, but they compete with core values and with each other. For example, some environmental values can compete with core values. Because they compete, key values need to be rationed in some way for the organization to succeed.

Values are also difficult to define precisely.

What is quality? What is customer service? Yet in order for the values to be useful, the meanings must be clear. We’ve found that it helps if people define the values in terms of measurable results. How do we measure customer service? How do we measure quality? How do we measure ethical behavior?

Focusing on measurable results has three benefits:

  1. It helps refine the definition of the value (and eliminate overlapping values)
  2. It helps you decide whether the value is core or key
  3. It enables you to measure success in upholding the value


Each member of the planning team should answer the following questions in advance. Hint: Be sure to think carefully about the organization’s values – not your own personal values.

1. What are the core values of the organization? These are the things it cannot compromise without putting the company in jeopardy. Looking at the important decisions made in the last two years by your organization, what core values drove those decisions? (List both the core values and the decisions that illustrate them.)

2. For each core value, attach a metric to it. For example, if competitive rates is a core value, then show how you would measure your success in upholding that value (if you aren’t measuring it, or don’t know how to measure it, then indicate so).

3. What are the key values of the organization? These are other important values which, while not being essential, are very important to the organization. Looking at the day-to-day decisions made by the organization, what key values drive the decision-making?

4. For each key value, attach a metric to it. For example, if good corporate citizenship is a key value, then show how you measure whether you are upholding that value (if you aren’t measuring it, or don’t know how to measure it, then indicate so).

5. List your aspirational values: Additional values you would like to see in place.

6. List values in your organization you would like to see eliminated.

7. Finally, draw up the full list of values you would like the organization to operate under, along with the norms. (Norms are typically communicated as “we statements” and can be quantified e.g. “We will never let our credit rating fall below AA.”)

Discussion Guide

Once each planning team member has completed the exercise, use the following questions to guide your discussion.

1. Share your responses to each question. Discuss the areas of overlap and disagreement, but do not attempt to resolve the differences.

2. Identify the common core values and use those as a starting point. Check with each member of the group. Are they prepared to manage their work – and other people’s work – on the basis of those core values?

3. Look at the where people differ on their core values. Discuss the metrics and decide whether it would be useful to add more core values.

4. Repeat the process with the key values.

5. For each core and key value, write down the norm associated with it. The norm should be in the form of a “we statement.” It should capture the relevant metric you will use to define whether the value is being upheld.

6. Ask each other whether there are any aspirational values – or values you would like to see eliminated. Discuss and refine.

7. Tell stories to each other about how past decisions would have been made using the new set of core and key values. Record the stories and use them as examples when communicating the new set of values to the rest of the organization.

Follow Up

Make sure you communicate these values often, in various ways, throughout the organization. Explicitly use them in your decision-making. Engage in regular discussions about how the values are – and are not – being met. Make sure the values are posted prominently.

To speak with an LRI strategic planning consultant about how we can help your organization identify and develop its core values, call (800) 598-7662 or contact us online.

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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