Values are why you do things (and why you don’t). Vision is the way you want the world to be. Mission is how you make the world that way.
The best values are emergent. Like a common-law rule that emerges from the decisions of judges in dozens of cases, all dealing with different facts, values are the why that unites a company’s actions in all the different situations its employees face. Why tackle this kind of problem rather than another? Why hire, retain, or fire this employee? Why arrange compensation plans this way and not another? How much should be invested in customer support and success? What should the response be to this action by a competitor? The best values are those that emerge from the actions a company takes in all these situations.
Companies can and should think about the values that their actions evince. They should identify, in writing, what they are; having done this, they can help spread those values (especially to new people during rapid growth) and can even tweak them upon reflection. This is like a judge who summarizes dozens of cases into a rule and refines the formulation of the rule in the context of the facts of the case before him, knowing that his restatement will guide future judges deciding similar cases. On one prominent model of judging, what judges do is exactly this, all the way down, in hard cases, to values that sound moral philosophic rather than legal.
Codifying, promoting, and refining emergent values is possible; legislating new ones out of whole cloth is not. You can’t command people to change the why that makes them do or not do certain things; you can only distill, emphasize, and nudge a little bit that why. This is why starting with a group of people and a way of acting that embodies the kind of values you want to end up with is so important in starting a company (or any other group of people).
Last year at Disco, Mike Wilson, who has been with us since the beginning, codified, over a series of conversations and many drafts, our values. They are why we do things: why we enter the markets we do; why we build the products we build; why your interactions with us are the way they are; why the people on the team are who they are. They are our why.
We named these values “The Inventor’s Spirit,” and you can see them listed, for example, on the team page of our website.
The Inventor’s Spirit
Observe sharply. The first thing to do is to look hard at what’s going on. Don’t accept the world the way it is; don’t assume that others have looked hard already.
Spot the issues. Identify the problems, both with the status quo and that a proposed solution is likely to create. The issues are what you are looking hard to find.
Solve problems from first principles. Don’t limit yourself to, or settle for, incremental improvements. Throw away all constraints and think of the way the world should work. Build a proposed solution from first principles, top down, from the way the world should be, instead of bottoms up by a lot of little improvements to the status quo.
Have courage to pursue new and better ways. Often this way of thinking leads you to something radically different from what came before. Don’t be scared by this; embrace it. Magical solutions often require radical change.
Important problems, impactful solutions. If you’re going to go to the trouble of solving problems this way, then you should be solving important problems. Solving important problems from first principles leads to impactful solutions, which is why this place is worth your life’s work.
Ambitious goals, humble methods. We set ambitious goals, like helping the law deliver on its promise of reasoned rule, but we pursue those goals using humble, data-driven methods. Do what is proven to work. Experiment always. Listen to what the world is telling you.
Great people + big problems = great achievements. Great things come from a simple recipe: gather the best people and aim them at the biggest problems with a license to work magic. Working at Disco isn’t easy; we do it because we think the outcomes are worth everything.