A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation about how teams successfully scale. One of the approaches I’m a strong proponent of is principles. Principles are a guiding light that describe what’s important to you and crucially, help you make decisions.

Why are principles useful?

I’m a fan of analogies. So, to help us here I’d like you to think about “Jeff”, and the decisions that Jeff should make.

Jeff lives in Manchester, and runs his own small business providing computer consultancy. Jeff has a few decisions to make in his life today.

Decision 1

Jeff’s local authority currently collects his rubbish. They write to Jeff to tell him he now has the choice of paying a private company to collect his rubbish. If he does this, he’ll get a rebate on his tax. There’s a company in Jeff’s local area that will save him £10 a month compared to the local authority charge.

What should Jeff do?

Decision 2

Jeff needs to visit a potential customer in another city. It’ll take about 2 hours to drive, or 3 hours to get the train and then a bus.

What should Jeff do?

Decision 3

Jeff needs a partner with specialist skills to work with on a project that’s just come up. The customer’s keen to start as soon as possible. A major IT company has said they’re available right now for £750 a day, and a small local company has said they’ll be available in a month’s time for £600 a day.

What should Jeff do?

Most likely, if I had a group of people in a room to try and answer these questions, two things would happen. The first is that people would have differences of opinion on what Jeff should do, or they just wouldn’t be able to decide. The second is that there might be quite a heated debate about what the right choices should be – and that debate could go on for a while. The outcome of that is probably a long meeting and then a range of different decisions.

Now, let’s give you some more information about Jeff – more specifically, about Jeff’s values and principles. These are things Jeff believes:

  • Everyone should be treated equally – he’ll support collectively-provided services rather than private services, even if private services are in his own personal interest
  • Humans have a responsibility to look after the planet – he’ll accept inconvenience to minimise his environmental footprint
  • Local communities are important – he’ll choose local businesses over big companies

Now, look back at Jeff’s decisions and think about what would be the right decision for Jeff. It should be both easy and quick to make the decision. And even though you’re reading this alone, you could be pretty confident that the person next to you, or across the room, or in another country, could quickly make the same decision as you.

So hopefully you can see some major practical advantages to having principles – they enable you to consistently, quickly, and independently make coherent decisions that match your values.

An important thing to note is that for Jeff’s decisions there isn’t one clear, right answer. If there’s a clear, right answer, everything’s easy. Principles are so effective exactly because most decisions depend on choosing between options that all have pros and cons, and it’s hard to choose between them.

Eliciting principles

So, now I have you believing in the value of principles (I hope!). But how do you create them?

The key here is that – most likely – either the underlying values or principles already exist to some extent within your team, department, or organization. But they are probably not explicit.

These are not values or principles handed down from on high on a glossy piece of card or a slide deck. These are things people believe to be true. So you need to elicit, synthesise, and refine these into actionable principles.

The first decision to take is the scope of your principles – a team, a product, a department, an organization. You may need them at more than one level: product-level principles can be very powerful for making design decisions, but organization-level principles may be more useful for helping you make cultural or process decisions. To be able to create principles though, you need buy-in from the people who hold implicit values now, so that may set your scope for you.

I highly recommend getting people together in a room to talk about this. Include everyone who could be relevant – actively engage people who may seem to hold different opinions, or those who affect your product from outside the team.

A method like this often works well:

  1. Get people to write down on post-it notes what they believe would make this team/product/organization the best it can possibly be.
  2. As a group, organise these together into themes. This is a great time to discuss why people believe those things and the evidence they have.
  3. Have people dot vote on the themes, voting for the themes they believe are most crucial to success.
  4. Discuss the themes prioritised as most crucial, and check for any substantial disagreement.

After the session (you may need more than one) you’ll have a prioritised list of themes, which you can turn into principles. Again, you’ll need to check back with people in the group to ensure your principles are well-aligned with the intent of the initial suggestions.

You may find, of course, that there is no agreement – or evidence – about what will make your product or organization great. This is already a great outcome: you have surfaced the crucial need to get this figured out.

Writing principles

There are many sorts of principles, but by far my favourite are ones that describe effectively how to choose between two potentially good alternatives. If principles are motherhood-and-apple-pie then they don’t help people make difficult decisions, because those decisions are easy anyway.

It helps if they have a catchy title and are reasonably brief. You want people to be able to remember both the name and what they stand for. Including the opposite thing that you won’t do can be really beneficial too.

Let’s look back at Jeff’s first principle. This isn’t an easy decision – there could be lots of pros and cons for public or privately-provided services in different situations. So, this principle will actively help Jeff easily make lots of small, difficult, nuanced decisions. We might write it like this:

Support public services

Choose collectively-provided services rather than private services wherever possible, even if private services are more convenient or financially beneficial right now.

Updating principles

A potential danger with principles is that they stop being a tool to help you quickly and independently make good coherent decisions, and become “the way we do things”, without people understanding or questioning why.

Periodically – but especially if there’s a big change in the unit that the principles are being applied to – check if these principles are still true. Question them and, if necessary, get people back together to check if your guiding light still holds true.

Principles for scaling

I’ve described why I think shared principles are such a powerful tool for scaling. They make underlying values explicit, and help many individuals to understand those values and make quick, coherent decisions based on them.

Creating good principles is half the battle – the other half being the promotion, explanation, and application of those principles by individuals and teams.