What if company values were more than just corporate jargon?

When we started defining Colonel Duck’s values in 2017, my initial reaction was cynical. I felt it would be a waste of time and serve only to churn out the same turgid, clichéd corporate jargon you read on so many websites. We had attempted many times to distill what we do as a company to a set of cohesive values. Each time we ended up with something vaguely interesting, but meaningless. Reflecting, in 2020, defining our values and creating our “pillars” is largely the reason we are still operating. So what made the difference?

In 2018, we faced our most difficult year as a company. We had made the decision at the end of 2017 to move away from working with one of our biggest clients. And when I say “one of our biggest clients”, I mean a client that had provided over 80% of our turnover for the previous three years. We were, fair to say, facing a crisis that wipes out so many SMEs, and could have quite easily done the same to us. As daft and as obvious as it seems writing it now: the difference was we knew who we were and what we needed to do.

It is very easy to make something sound complicated; what is difficult is to be clear.

When I founded Colonel Duck in 2012, our work was mostly based around my skill at the time, which was video production. The issue from the start was we never clearly defined what we did, to our customers. We instead tried to either talk about what we wanted to be, or tried to be different for the sake of being different. We defined our work as “creative digital media” before labelling ourselves as a “change company”. Neither of these definitions were meaningful without a lengthy explanation. Consequently they were often misinterpreted. I failed to recognise at the time that people won’t continue using a service that is 1) obtuse, and 2) a dream (what we wanted to be, not what we were). The worst part of this was I thought that it was good that nobody fully understood what we did. I thought this made us different, and by being different this meant that we were somehow better than other agencies. In hindsight, I recognise now that it is very easy to make something sound complicated; what is difficult is to be clear.

An example of one of Colonel Duck’s promotional posts from early 2015, which was difficult to understand.

We listened to our clients and our team telling us honestly what they thought of us.

We survived our first few years because we cared about what we did. The passion was always there, if misdirected. We built a strong relationship with one client, but continued making the same mistakes with our approach to business development. The realisation that we needed to change did not come in one key defining moment. Call it experience, maturity or a sobering of the senses, but eventually it dawned on me that we needed to listen more to our clients and listen more to our employees (our team). What made the difference to defining Colonel Duck’s values in 2017 was our approach; we listened to our clients and our team telling us honestly what they thought of us.

We were told by our clients that the reason they kept working with us was because of our flexibility, and our determination to never give up on finding a solution to a problem. The processes that we follow to develop software or create content allow for an iterative approach. We believe that everyone is entitled to change their mind and not feel like they are going to be punished for it. Where we were falling short was that even our best clients did not have the foggiest idea of the extent of our services. The feedback from our team, internally, identified a similar theme.

To address this, the biggest area that we needed to improve was our communication. Specifically, we needed to keep it simple and make it easy. Asking the right questions, at the right time, to both our clients and our team, put us in the advantageous position of having 50 short comments about specific things we did well, and areas that we needed to improve. As part of a whole team exercise, we sorted these comments into groups and then defined what these groups stood for together. Sharing the result with our clients allowed us to refine what we had into six pillars.

As part of a whole team exercise, we refined the comments from our clients and our team into six pillars

Once you truly understand the reason ‘why’ you are doing something, working out ‘what’ to do and ‘how’ to do it naturally follows.

Knowing this in 2018 made all the difference when it came to facing down our most difficult challenge; we needed to start working with new clients. Before we could, our hurdle was needing to explain to them why they should work with us. To do this, we needed to clearly explain what we did as a company. Because we had gone through the process of defining our pillars in 2017, and crucially listened to our clients and our team, this did not feel like we were having to reinvent ourselves. Going into 2018 we understood our raison d’être. Anyone who is familiar with Simon Sinek will recognise that once you truly understand the reason “why” you are doing something, working out “what” to do and “how” to do it naturally follows. Because we knew what we all believed in, we had worked out what really mattered. We were then able to easily (and simply!) define ourselves as a company: we are a software and creative agency. What makes us different is our flexible approach when producing videos, animations and building software.

I started Colonel Duck because I wanted to build an agency to provide a service that would make a difference. Many companies and entrepreneurs feel the same when starting out. They probably want to care, but the reality is that many of them clearly struggle with the same cynicism that I had. Take Google, for example; a multinational organisation that is staggeringly difficult to reach out to and states to their uses that they “don’t have a complaint procedure which you can follow at this time”. Perhaps they don’t want to listen because they don’t feel like they have to. What I have learnt over the past couple of years is that however stable, or big, you think you are, it is easy to fall out of touch when you stop listening.

Colonel Duck’s six ‘pillars’ are the values that we derived by listening to our clients and our team.

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