Going Distributed: First, define your values Going Distributed: First, define your values Apr. 19th, 2016 Todd Ross Nienkerk

Going Distributed: First, define your values

April 19th, 2016

Becoming a distributed company is a fundamental change. It’s not just a small adjustment in the way you work—it’s more than a proposal, more than an idea; it’s a commitment to an entirely new way of working. And it might not go well. It might fail. You might need four walls and a ceiling, after all.

But it might go great. It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.

There are a lot of things to consider—and a lot of steps to take—when moving your team to a fully distributed model. But it all starts with what you value.

Reward experimentation, transparency, and communication

Any change to the way you do business has to start with your company’s values. Your values aren’t just a memo to pass around the office once a year, they are the touchstones you return to when facing challenges and changes. I’m not here to judge your values; your values are unique to you and your team. However, when it comes to moving to a fully distributed team, your company values need to reward experimentation, transparency, and communication.

That’s not to say you write a Team Values document with the headers Experiment! Communicate! Transparais! or anything as blunt as that (English doesn’t even have a motivational verb for “transparency”). In fact, the notion of “experiment” (or “communicate” or “transparify“) would be useless by itself. Experiment with what? By whom? To what ends? Instead, you should find these core principles reflected in what you already value as a company. As an example, let’s consider the stated values of Four Kitchens and how each develops from the scaffolding of experimentation, transparency, and communication. Mind you, while these are principles that building a distributed team requires, they’d still be our values even if we were keeping the office. Having solid values is the foundation that everything else is built on, regardless of how you structure your company. These are ours.

Four Kitchens’ company values: The Way of the Web Chef

Be transparent, generous, and humble

Be forthcoming and timely with information, good or bad. Learn and teach. Celebrate success in all its forms. Give credit where credit’s due.

What does it mean to value transparency? It means this: Tell people what you’re working on. Let people know when you’ve done something awesome—or screwed something up. Don’t try to hide your mistakes, but learn from them.

You can also see how this value builds on the ideal of communication. Crediting your fellow team members and coworkers isn’t just about clearing up who did what work, it’s about making sure the whole team knows. If someone on your project really nailed their velocity last sprint, then let people know. When you openly (transparently) celebrate your team, good things happen.

Take the initiative and own the outcome

Come up with great ideas and implement them. Be accountable for the success or failure of your ideas.

We’re a company that wants our co-workers to take things into their own hands and accept the positive and negative outcomes for doing so. Sure, sometimes you’ve gotta take a risk, but you also have to let your team know what you’re up to and why. When you experiment—whether you succeed or fail—it’s going to affect your teammates’ workflow just as much as yours.

Empathize

Create solutions with people’s needs and contexts in mind.

Here’s where we really get to the nitty-gritty of how our company values apply to distributed work in ways we hadn’t expected. We’ve always wanted our Web Chefs to empathize with our clients’ and each other’s needs, but after we became a distributed company, empathy came to mean so much more. Those of us still in the physical office had to empathize with the new remote team members in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. There’s a blizzard in Minnesota, so Joe may be a few minutes late to our scrum call. There’s a power outage in Southern California, so Matt needs to hand off his work before his phone battery dies. There’s a new Web Chef who’s awesome, but they’re traveling, and the hotel’s terrible wifi is making her video call impossible. Everything that anyone else might encounter or experience is now a consideration for us all. We went from Four Kitchens to the Four Musketeers, really. All for one, and one for all.

Always improve

Embrace change and iterate; constantly refine our processes and tools; openly suggest, discuss, and implement changes.

And we’re always improving because of it. Feedback—both positive and negative—isn’t just a comment card that gets filed away with an HR person. Feedback is a critical process that drives us forward. Maybe we’ll fail on this move to being a fully distributed company. And that’s okay. We’ve changed before, and we’ll change again. Experimentation, communication, and transparency are the lifeblood that supports every single one of our values.

Embrace open source

Even the way we approach backend web development relates to the ideals of communication, transparency, and experimentation. Open-source code is by definition more transparent than proprietary code. Open-source libraries and repositories exist as a line of communication. And the open-source movement will always be at the forefront of web technology: Open source is experimentation made visible.

##…And then there’s trust
Trust. It’s not listed in our company values document, it’s not one of the foundational principles this post is about, and it’s written nowhere in Four Kitchens’ mission statement, hiring agreements, or client contracts. Is trust even important?

I think of trust not as a value or a principle of Four Kitchens, but as the oxygen we breath. I usually don’t think “trust” is worth mentioning because it’s implicit in everything. Trust is the foundation’s foundation. But let me commit this word to writing at least once:

Your values, your principles, your goals, your mission statements, your ideals are nothing—NOTHING—without trust. Your company isn’t yours alone—it’s your company, AND your engineers’ company AND your operations officer’s company AND your marketing manager’s company AND your project managers’ company, AND, AND, AND. And if you want to make those “ANDs” work, especially when you’re a fully distributed team, everything has to start with trust.


So, what’s the first step in becoming a fully distributed company? Define your values.

  • Reward transparency
  • Encourage experimentation
  • Foster communication
  • Build everything on trust

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