John Ellison

Day 12: Clearleft Values Workshop

5 min read

andy budd kicking off the values workshop


The morning of my 12th Day at Clearleft, the office was buzzing. People were back from holiday. A few big client projects were wrapping up, and it seemed like everyone was in the office at once, and each person seemed to be wrapped in conversation.

We kicked off our Friday with an 'all hands on deck' workshop about Clearleft's values. Ellen had been working with Rich along with a few others on generating and clarifying the values that Clearleft held at the core of its identity as a UX design agency.

As the company continued to grow, the founders and executives found increasing importance in making their values explicit so that newcomers could understand why decisions were made and more easily contribute to the culture themselves.

I had been given a sneak-peek of the company's values by James Box on Day 3 because James wanted to capture my outsider perspective. It was pretty clear that Clearleft had a strong relationship with its values and their culture reflected them consistently.


After the Clearleft founders introduced a bit of context to the workshop, Ellen asked everyone to take a pad of sticky notes and write some explicit examples of things they enjoyed about their work at Clearleft that they thought reflected Clearleft's values. We spread out across the office and wrote down everything we could think of.

Then Ellen asked us to gather with the person next to us and go over the values we'd written.

Afterwards, we came together as a group, and the values that Ellen and Rich had settled on were laid out on pages across the table. We were tasked with setting our sticky notes on a corresponding value on the table, and if there were any outliers, we would stick them in the middle.

First round of the values workshop at clearleft

So we all walked around the room and discussed with one another about which explicit examples paired with which values. The sticky notes were growing around some of the values more than others, and after we'd all placed our stickies on the table we looked back at the big picture.

First, we wondered why the value about maintaining a work-life balance had so many stickies compared to the rest.

Ben Sauer suggested that it was as a result of the way Ellen framed the task: to think of explicit examples around the office of things we enjoyed about work. I hadn't even considered the framing of the question.

It made me realize the importance of questions I pose to clients and co-workers alike. I tend to just say the first thing that comes to my head, and I think that is something I need to work on to be a more effective collaborative and facilitating designer.

After going through and discussing all the values, we talked about any incongruities or tension that we had. Most of the topics raised were small notes on word choice and the overlap between a few of the values.

It was phenomenal how Ellen and Rich had arrived at such a concise and accurate set of values for the entire company. Major kudos to them for the hard work that went into such a process—I couldn't imagine the stacks of values they had to sift through to arrive at such a small number.

 second round of the clearleft values workshop


In passing, I mentioned to Andy Budd that most of my understanding of Clearleft's values came from my conversations with him, and that as the company grows, it should be cognizant of their first point of contact with potential employees. If I had spoken to an HR person rather than Andy, I probably would have had a completely different perception of Clearleft and its values.

I never new the importance of expressing and cultivating a value-based culture around an office. I never imagined working in a place where everyone had such strong values about the work they did and why they did it.

It will be interesting to see how Clearleft maintains its value-based identity as it continues to grow.

Purpose Before Values or Vaues Before Purpose?

One question I raised before the workshop commenced was whether there was a written purpose statement from which these values arose. Andy said he felt that purpose and values aren't necessarily the same thing and that for the moment we're just focusing on values.

I found that separation between purpose and values to be a bit difficult to swallow. What value do values have if they aren't emanating from a single central purpose?

I know people mentioned the purpose of Clearleft to be something along the lines of 'make the world a better place through design', but I wanted to know that purpose at the core of my being—I wanted to understand what exactly our efforts were working towards.

Sure you can have a great company with a great culture, but if you're not working towards a single goal of making the world a better place in some way, I'm not sure all the culture is all its cracked up to be.

A good culture and great values make employees happy and are felt upon walking in the door. That is 100% true about Clearleft. I just wonder whether or not there could be something stronger from which these values flow.

But maybe that's just me. I'm quite passionate about the purpose behind my work and I am always looking for meaning in all that I do. Maybe creating great design is enough. Or maybe it's not. The verdict is out on that one for me at least...

What Do You Think?

What role do values play in your company's culture? Does your company have an explicit purpose statement? How do you feel about your companies efforts to cultivate culture in your work place? Any thoughts or stories are more than welcome. Drop me a line or share in the comments below.