The Value of Living by Your Company Values
When you are a company of 1,000+ remote team members who live in over 60+ countries around the world and work on an open source project that is used by more than 100,000 organizations—and has attracted a community of more than 2,200 contributors—you need a really strong foundation to hold everything together.
At GitLab, that foundation is our values.
We started out with thirteen values, but it was difficult to remember them all, and values need to be memorable if people are going to integrate them into their daily lives. So, we condensed the list and created sub-values that all roll up under a simple acronym: CREDIT—Collaboration, Results, Efficiency, Diversity & Inclusion, Iteration and Transparency.
Like everything else we do (and like the first value in CREDIT suggests), we are always open to suggestions on how to improve on this set of values; but for now, they are serving our organization very well.
We put a lot of thought into choosing our core values and articulating them in great detail. And then, of course—holding true to the “T” in CREDIT—we transparently share them openly with the rest of the world.
A lot of companies tend to choose values that are so ubiquitous and obvious that they start to lose their meaning. The trick to strong values is taking the time to define them in as much detail as you can. It’s not enough to say you value collaboration, you need to explain why you value that and how your commitment to collaboration is expressed in the way you work.
Of course, it’s also critical to pick the right values. We tried to select values that reflected our organization and our mission fully and accurately. Transparency, for instance, is a very big part of the GitLab brand, but it wouldn’t be a good fit for—say—Apple. Apple is all about secrets and surprises, about keeping things under wraps and then delighting the world. Transparency wouldn’t make any sense for them. Neither would iteration, which is another of our most important values. Apple is focused on constant perfection in products that are light years ahead of everyone else’s. They would never release anything that was still a work in progress.
Clearly, however, Apple has their own core value set that works very well for them. Which just goes to prove that different organizations can be equally effective, even if they are operating based on differing values.
I’d like to offer a closer look at two of our most important and most unique values — transparency and iteration. These are sometimes challenging even for our GitLab team members, but they are critical to our success.
Transparency – More than Just Being an Open Book
Transparency is something we’re known for. We’re very public about how we operate the company, even publishing our handbook online, that contains more than 3,000 pages about everything that happens within our organization, including compensation, jobs, families, marketing, sales, infrastructure and so on.
Our definition of transparency goes beyond sharing information openly. It also includes the concept of directness, which in turn covers what we call “channeling our inner Ben Horowitz” by being both straightforward and kind. It also encompasses permission to question anyone and anything. That’s not to say that we encourage chaos — there is a process for putting any change in motion — but overall the idea is to create a culture in which people feel free to surface issues, have constructive disagreements and be generally proactive.
Maintaining this kind of environment and activity requires constant tending. We’re always pushing (and defining) the boundaries around transparency. It’s one of the values that often comes up in interviews. I recently spoke with a candidate who pushed back on applying transparency in a specific situation using the logic that sharing certain information might confuse people. She was right. It might confuse people, but that isn’t going to stop us from sticking to our value. We believe that the way to reduce confusion is to share more information and more explanation, but that’s not the default for the rest of the world; so we’re always having to reinforce the impact of our values to help people understand.
Transparency also comes with a lot of responsibility, including some administrative duties. For example, whenever someone changes a process, they need to document that change in the handbook immediately. Understanding the close connection between changing the actual process and changing the handbook does not come naturally to most people. Those are the kinds of things that we need to work on every day. Transparency doesn’t just happen. It takes commitment and work. As we say in the handbook, transparency is only a value if you do it even when it is hard.
Iteration – Because Velocity Is the Name of the Game
While transparency has its challenges, I’d say that iteration is the hardest value for people to understand and practice. It’s the most counterintuitive thing to learn and internalize. But, like transparency, it’s a crucial part of GitLab’s culture and success. We ship more new features each month than many of our competitors ship in a whole year. Our goal is to ship an enormous amount of value to our customers, which is a good thing, but the process of achieving this goal can be very painful and even a bit shameful.
The only way to deliver as much as we do as quickly and consistently as we do is to constrain ourselves. This means that we’re often having to reduce scope in order to hit the deadline. This is where the shame comes in. It’s not fun to ship something you’re not very proud of—something that works, is secure, and is high quality, but is such a small unit of functionality that it hardly seems worth mentioning.
This continuous, rapid iteration gives us the opportunity to be constantly improving everything we build. By refining and optimizing with each new iteration, month after month, we’re able to get to something useful much more rapidly than if we were aiming for perfection the first time out of the gate.
Still, it can be hard. One example of how painful it can get is the issue we created for ourselves by building GitLab on our Gitolite technology, which is thousands of lines of Perl code to manage access to repositories. We made that choice because we were focused on having authentic functionality on top, but then every single change to permissions in GitLab had to go to one central git repo. This meant that certain GitLab customers who had thousands of people on the platform had to buy special servers that were quite expensive; and we had to buy special SSD drives to improve the speed of making changes to that repository in order to avoid an additional bottleneck.
It’s important to make a clear distinction between iteration and experimentation. We don’t experiment a lot at GitLab because experimentation focuses too much on getting to perfect while compromising your velocity. Experimentation is like having three different ways to get from Point A to Point B, and you walk each route carefully and intentionally to see which one is the best. Iteration, on the other hand, is more like walking in the general direction of your intended destination and adjusting your course as you go. You may need to make multiple course corrections along the way, but you’ll still get to your destination faster than if you tried three different routes from start to finish. The risk is that your customers can see that you’re not walking in a straight line. You might look a little intoxicated. But they’ll be happier in the end because you’ll be able to deliver value more quickly.
Company Values – Choose Wisely and Make Them Matter
Our values are the backbone of our organization. They are the words and ideas that define who we are, how we behave and why we do what we do. Our values help us make choices that are aligned with our culture and our overall vision and mission. And our values help us attract and identify the people who will make excellent additions to our team.
If you want to build a strong organization, take the time to figure out your core values. Name the beliefs that you want as the underlying infrastructure of your company. Talk about them. Iterate on them. Get really clear on exactly what they are and what they mean. Write them down and share them. Most importantly, live by them. Incorporate them into your processes and the way you interact with each other. Use them as a gut check on big and small decisions. Your company values shouldn’t be just a plaque tacked up on the wall or an inspirational poster in HR. They should be part of the living fabric of your organization. That’s when you’ll really reap the benefits.
Greg Storey, InVision’s Senior Director of Executive Programs, on standups and standing, evening escape plans and killing elephants.