Innovation Blog

How to Design Company Guiding Principles


Company culture is often like one of those time-lapses of a forest where a year is compressed into a few seconds. The plants sprout, bloom, and grow in a herky-jerky way. Woodland creatures zoom in and out of view. The culture is there, the details are a little chaotic, and that the end of the day there’s growth.

Focusing Passion for Good

Guiding principles, core values, and more broadly, company culture are important for two reasons:

Making Decisions: Culture is a compass. When operating in a fast-paced environment, everyone has to make decisions. Often times we have to make those decisions without a lot of time or information. Knowing a basic set of principles keep us from veering too far off the path. That is, guiding principles help us act in a way that furthers MassChallenge’s mission.

Attracting and Retaining Talent: Sharing values with your company is a major motivator for top talent. People want to work somewhere that reflects how they want to live their life. It’s a balance of working somewhere that challenges you (productively) and reaffirms you (also, productively). In other words, people want to work at a place where they can grow, and where they belong.

Steps to Define Guiding Principles

How you might create or recreate guiding principles will have to do with the existing culture. We’re collaborators at MassChallenge so our process needed to include a big working group and lots of transparency. It might not be right for your company, but this is how we did it.

The quick version was something like this:

  1. Form a working group
  2. Examine best practices of other companies
  3. Brainstorm new guiding principles
  4. Collect company-wide input
  5. Revise & reflect that input
  6. Announce the final product

Form a working group

A small team of three of us led the project. We were looking for about 10-15 additional employees to join us to take on work and bring ideas to the table.

We asked all employees if they wanted to join via an employee survey and were clear about the rough time commitment. Employees knew that they’d have opportunities to step up and drive parts of the process (but the minimum was to contribute in working group discussions).

We ensured the group was inclusive of our employee base – representations from different departments, levels, offices, and demographics.

Examine best practices

We looked at a big range of companies who have done culture work well. There are a lot of resources out there. ZapposNetflix, Hubspot were three that came up in conversations.

Based on our research, we agreed that we were looking to create new guiding principles that met the following criteria:

  • Inclusive: applicable to everyone in the company
  • Aspirational: reflect the best of where we were going as a culture
  • Foundational: Build from where our culture is now
  • Actionable & help make day-to-day decisions
  • Memorable: list of ~5 short phrases
  • Unique (ish. At least, not totally generic)
  • Fuels the mission

Structure brainstorming sessions

Turns out we (as humans) create more ideas separately than we do together. That is, if four people are brainstorming, they’ll get a high quantity of ideas if they all go make separate lists and then combine as opposed to whiteboarding together from the start.

The best brainstorms create space for individual ideas, and then a venue for building – discussion, combination, all the “yes, and” stuff that we know and love about creative group work. Like most brainstorms, we got really far, but not quite to the finish line with our draft. We had a few folks from the working group agree to finish the work on behalf of the group and get it ready for wider feedback.

Collect Company-wide input

After we prepared the draft, we offered two feedback sessions to the whole company where employees could hear members of the working group talk about their favorites from the brainstorm.

  • Attendees could ask questions, offer support, tweaks, criticisms, or brand new ideas.
  • The meeting concluded with a survey to get more comprehensive, quantitative feedback on the draft.
  • The followup from the feedback required another round of brainstorming and another round of smaller group effort to get it over the finish line.
  • The three of us project leads (including an executive sponsor) took the final recommendation to the executive committee and secured their approval.

Announce the final product

We communicated the new and improved guiding principles at a compay-wide meeting. As with the input session, members of the work group spoke to their favorites on the list. From there we worked with teams, like our People Strategy team, ensure all the relevant internal documents were updated, they found their way onto the website and new job descriptions, and were part of the end-of-year review process

Where MassChallenge Ended Up

We landed on five guiding principles that reflect our values and help us further our mission at MassChallenge:

1. Put Community First

Our global community is made up of a wide range of entrepreneurs, experts, corporate innovators, investors, students, MC staff and others with shared interests and goals. As stewards of that community, we prioritize a high level of customer service to create value, foster active engagement, and ensure long term success. We bring people together to create a critical mass and know our collaboration is driving innovation and solving massive challenges around the world.

2. Own It

At the end of the day, nothing gets done if someone doesn’t feel ownership over the outcome. We bring our whole selves to the table to promote discussion, drive transparency, and trust our team to hold to commitments made. We are quick to celebrate wins and learn from (and admit to) failures and take pride and responsibility in delivering on the mission on behalf of the entire company.  Ideas are plentiful while execution is hard, so we roll up our sleeves, take initiative, and own the outcomes.

3. Love the Problem

We practice this classic entrepreneurial advice – by actively listening to the customer and community we fall in love with the problem, not the solution. We don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results; this requires creativity, resourcefulness, collaboration, and humility. By falling in love with the problem, we open our eyes to an array of possible solutions that benefit our community.

4. Build for Impact

To build for the future, we focus on our foundation and continue to think big and bold to accelerate innovation across ecosystems. An initiative in Israel can affect outcomes in Texas or Switzerland, just as one department or program can build off the progress of another. With a global mindset, we execute from the same playbook to grow our collective processes and drive lasting impact.

5. Connect and Collaborate

To connect the moment with the mission, we look to cross-pollinate ideas and actions across programs, borders, and backgrounds because we know great work has many fingerprints. We find ways to have fun, complement one another, and find strength in numbers through active collaboration and teamwork. We prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion and always make space whether across the lunch table or an ocean.

Next Steps: Communication to Action

Communicating company values and acting by them are two different, but related things:

1. Proactively communicating and referencing company guiding principles, even if they are aspirational, can be a rallying cry that brings people together. Guiding principles can reward good behavior and provide a framework for feedback. When communicated well, these principles don’t just live on a poster in the office or on the careers section of the website but are part of the dialogue when it comes to performance, decision-making, and collaboration.

2. As those principles are communicated more, everyone can see how these pithy statements apply to their actual work. It’s an ongoing process – guiding principles aren’t just rolled out once and remembered. Regular communication helps ensure that the principles actually are reflective of the organization and not just PR campaign.

This next communication and action phase will be a continued journey, and I’m sure we’ll make enough mistakes and make enough changes to warrant another blog – stay tuned!

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