Distillations in this newsletter: The difference between core values and ‘what we care about’; John Cutler’s ‘Strategy = Insights^Conviction’; Two years of Strategy Distilled – free 88-page pdf compilation


A monthly concoction of insight, learning and things you might have missed for anyone who works on strategy, works with strategy or just loves strategy.

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This month …

  • The difference between core values and ‘what we care about’
  • A strategy snippet you might have missed: Strategy = Insights^Conviction
  • Strategy Distilled – free pdf compilation: The first two years of Strategy Distilled compiled into an 88-page pdf – free to subscribers.

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The difference between core values and ‘what we care about’

Having just published Core Values three months ago, my attention is easily grabbed by anything new on the subject of ‘values’. So Nir Eyal’s post on ‘20 common values and why people can’t agree on more’ was an instant must-read, especially since, as the author of the excellent ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’, Nir’s writings are always well-considered and thought-provoking. The main point he makes in his post is that there is an important distinction between one’s core values and the things we care about. To emphasise this point, he refers to survey results that fail to make this distinction. Indeed, they define core values as ‘the things we care about’ and, as a result, they end up with core values such as freedom of speech, leisure, financial security. These are not bad things, says Nir, but they are not core values. He goes on to explain:

“What we care about changes every day – every minute, even – and that’s why it’s hard to agree on a list of common values. When your kid is throwing a tantrum, you care about getting some peace and quiet. When you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with an empty fuel tank, you care about whether there’s a gas station nearby. But these things are not your values”.

He then suggests that ‘values are more forward-thinking than simply reactions to the immediate moment. They are attributes of the person you want to be’. He then proposes a simple test: ‘if someone can take it away from you, then it’s not one of your values’.

This is great stuff. Deep insight with a practical way to apply it. There’s only one problem. Having read and re-read his post, I have ended up questioning both of his main points. Here’s why.

1. “What we care about changes every day …But these things are not your values”.
Of course, some of ‘what we care about’ changes every day. But not all of it. Some of what I care about is enduring. When I was a kid, I had boundless curiosity to explore new ideas, new ways of seeing the world and delving deep into things I didn’t understand or didn’t agree with. Decades later, this hasn’t changed. Indeed, I would say that the things I value in an enduring way are a great way to define my core values. It is their very endurance over a prolonged period in the past that makes it useful for me to recognise them as my core values – because they are likely to continue to shape my perceptions, my decisions and my actions into the future.

Conversely, but also challenging this point of Nir’s, our core values can also change in a short period of time, for example as a result of a profound event in our lives. The birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, surviving a threat to life or simply gaining new knowledge could all lead us to reassess our core values at a deep level, whether it be finding spirituality, committing to altruism or sustainability, or being more, or less, risk-averse. The fact that core values can be changed by profound life-experiences is another of their defining features.

2. “If someone can take it away from you, then it’s not one of your values”.
Nir’s test suggests that ‘values’ are immutable – they can’t be taken from you, unlike ‘things we value’. While the ability to express your values may be taken away from you, the value itself cannot. If you are in prison, you can still value freedom; if you are in a recession, you can still value financial security. Indeed, part of the reason we have core values is to remind us to continue making progress towards a better version of ourselves that either we haven’t yet achieved or haven’t managed to maintain consistently. As Schwartz (1994) says, a core value “is a belief that pertains to desirable end states or modes of conduct that transcend specific situations.”

Given that a value is a principle or belief that guides your decisions and actions (taken from my Core Values book p8), by this definition your values exist inside your head. The only way to lose a value is if you yourself change your mind – this is not a value being ‘taken from me’.

So, Nir Eyal’s post is truly thought-provoking. It has prompted me to think more deeply about different aspects of core values than I had previously, at the end of which I have come to a different definition of core values:

Core values are a recognition of things we value deeply in an enduring way or are a result of profound life experiences.

Finally, it is worth noting that Nir Eyal’s post focuses on the core values we have as individuals. The core values I wrote about in my book were the organisational core values that shape strategy. The main points above, relate, in my view, to both and, in Part 3 of the book, I discuss in some detail how to move from the values of individuals within an organisation to a set of explicit organisational core values.


A strategy snippet you might have missed

Strategy = Insights^Conviction
John Cutler published a post a couple of weeks back with this intriguing title, proposing that strategy equals insights raised to the power of the convictions with which you hold these insights. Whilst the title made me pause and contemplate for several minutes (insights to the power of conviction, not just insights plus conviction), he went on to suggest nine reasons (paraphrased below) why your strategy is not as simple or as obvious as it might seem to others. This, I thought, was a fascinating counterpoint to the pressure that exists in many organisations to have a strategy that is different or distinctive from everyone else’s. Maybe, as John Cutler implies, it would be better to have a strategy that seems simple and obvious, but recognise, using these nine arguments below, that it is actually not nearly as simple or obvious as it might first appear.

  1. We have unique insights that led us to this strategy.
  2. It may look simple or obvious to you, but it is plotting a new course for us, and we have conviction this is the right course for us.
  3. Our strategy may seem obvious but doing it will probably still be really hard.
  4. We will develop our own unique twist on how we get it done (tooling, capabilities, partnerships, etc.).
  5. Our timing and sequencing will be unique (we’ll do it earlier or later than expected).
  6. Different elements of our strategy will interact and support each other.
  7. It is our existing strengths that make the seemingly obvious thing possible.
  8. Emerging trends transform the expected into something much more impactful/relevant.
  9. We said NO to a whole bunch of interesting possibilities to clear the way for this one strategic direction.

Related to John Cutler’s title above, David Perell writes that “strategies for success are power laws”. Both seem to be suggesting the exponential impact that strategy can have on an organisation. Interesting!


Strategy Distilled – FREE pdf compilation

In case you missed it, I recently published a compilation of all my articles and ‘strategy snippets’ from the first two years of my Strategy Distilled newsletter. This 88-page pdf contains 24 articles and 53 ‘snippets’, all with links to source material, covering all aspects of strategy, from ‘how to think big in strategy’ and strategy innovation to strategy metrics and the role of values.


  • How strategy actually works
  • Separating strategy from strategic planning
  • The case for strategy scoping
  • Justifying stakeholder consultation in strategy development
  • Managing innovation within strategy
  • Can Ikigai reveal the four deficiencies of strategy?
  • Leading and lagging indicators as strategy metrics


  • Google’s ‘Simplicity Sprint’
  • How risky is innovation in your organisation?
  • McKinsey’s Seven Step Problem-Solving Process
  • Connecting strategy and culture
  • What the Beatles can teach us about strategy
  • What kind of strategist are you?

The pdf is FREE to subscribers – download your copy now. If you think ‘Strategy Distilled’ would be of value to friends and colleagues, get them to sign up here and they will be sent the compilation straight away.


Goal Atlas gives you structured processes and tools to ensure strategy is adopted and impactful across your organisation. Get in touch if you think we might be able to help.


If you enjoyed reading this newsletter, don’t forget to forward it to friends or colleagues who might also find it of interest.

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Discover the content of past issues of Strategy Distilled.

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