David Allison Opens Minds and Hearts to Valuegraphics

Jason McRobbie

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In a world without prior metrics for values, David’s work within The Valuegraphics Project has opened a lot of eyes to what lies at heart of business—people. We sit down to discuss why the metrics we have been using via demographics and psychographics not only prove a poor measure of human motivation, but keep us divided—and how valuegraphics can lead us to a better future for people and business worldwide.

Key Takeaways:

  • In order for leaders to succeed in today’s market, they need to understand their people better than ever.
  • What has been lacking from our people-metrics is the means of measuring that which defines us most as people—values.
  • Finding common values across the planet is what has guided the initiative and success of the Valuegraphics Project, and its research division in helping leaders meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, while boosting recruitment and retention.

“I saw mysteries around me. I saw senior citizens who were bungee jumping and rock climbing. I saw Gen Z buying vinyl and listening to Led Zeppelin. I saw some of my wealthiest friends shopping at Costco. Other friends getting by paycheque to paycheque, one of them saves every penny to get a new Prada bag each year,” said David Allison, CEO of Valuegraphics Research Company and founder of the Valuegraphics Project. “These were not the ways we are supposed to be behaving according to demographics.”

For David, the past eight years have been a data-driven exploration of something we all know deep down—above all else, people are people.

“No matter what you are doing in an organization, whether you are focused on people and culture, or marketing, or you are part of the C-Suite team, you have to understand people—and people are about their values. So if you don’t understand their values, you don’t understand your people and your business is likely going to fail,” said David.

As for what defines us as people, David—in his past life as a successful real estate marketer—used to think he knew and was paid highly for that knowledge by answering the clients’ ultimate question, ‘Who are we doing this for?’

Crafting pitch perfect ‘Bob and Sally’ sales profiles, which led time and again to pre-sold success for real estate development projects the world over, David was nonetheless floored every time he met the actual buyers at post-launch events. Despite a smattering of Bobs and Sallys, over 85 per cent of the units sold completely outside the pitch profile.

“I would look around and think, ‘Who the heck are all these people?’ How did they get here? I didn’t target them,” said David, who, while grateful for the success, was plagued by the disparity. “Eighty to 85 per cent of our spend was going up in smoke.”

“That sent me down a rabbit hole of behavioural science and why people decide to do things,” said David. “This is where it connects back to the world of people and culture. How do people decide to join one company versus another? How do people decide to be engaged in one place versus another? How do people decide—anything?”

Answering that question became David’s driving initiative.

“Psychology, sociology and neurology: scientists from these disciplines all fight like cats and dogs about most things, but agree on one core fundamental principle—what we value determines what we do,” said David. “If you want to dig into it from a neurological perspective, there is a little piece in your prefrontal cortex called the insula. The insula’s job is to pick between door A and door B in every instance of our life, whether we are buying a chocolate bar or choosing a career—and it only uses one set of filters. Those are your values.”

He tackled a library’s worth of reading to glean that invaluable gem.

Looking for the means to apply those values to decision-making, David went looking for credible metric sources—and wound up with six vice-presidents and a box of donuts instead.

“Here’s how companies decide on values today.You take six vice presidents and lock them in a boardroom with a box of donuts and say, ‘Don’t come out until you know what our values are.’ So the same thing always happens. ‘We believe in collaboration, right?’ ‘Yes!’ So up that goes on the wall behind reception. ‘And we better be about sustainability,’ so that goes up. And the CEO just got back from a conference on diversity, so there you have it—those are our values. Done! Tick!” said David, who praises the merits of collaboration, sustainability and diversity as strongly as he disagrees with the donut process.

That critical gap in data led to The Valuegraphics Project, David’s journey of discovery that identified the 56 core human values for the population of planet earth through analysis of 750,000 surveys in a random stratified statistically representative sample across 180 countries in 153 languages with an accuracy of +/- 3.5% and a level of confidence of 95%.

That said, it was a few years into that journey that a journalist posed a question to him after hours in a bar that led to a request, tears and a revelation.

Repeatedly asked ‘Why are you doing this?’ and giving his best explanation of valuegraphics’ importance, David had missed the emphasis on the word in the middle. When he finally cottoned on to what he was actually being asked, he looked at the journalist and said “hold my drink” as he was more shaken than the martini.

“I’d never really connected those dots before. I’ve never used that line before either, but there I was suddenly sobbing. I realized that this is what I am here for,” said David. “It made me realize that the work we do with organizations is really just a trojan horse. They have the largest megaphones on the planet, and if I can help them become values-driven then maybe by the time I am done here the whole world will be values-driven.

“My calling, if you will, is to use the language of business, what I know about commerce, my abilities as a storyteller—all of these skills—to try and get the world to stop using divisive ways of looking at one another—and to start thinking about what can unify us and bring us together. And those are our values.”

He offers a tale of two companies to illustrate the impact of values—two great examples. 

“Twitter has Elon coming in and messing with everybody’s values—the employees, the vendors the advertisers. The place is in meltdown because he isn’t respecting anybody’s values but his own. Now, he may be a genius and who knows where this will end, but at the moment it looks like a dumpster fire—and it’s because values are not being respected at all,” said David.

“On the other hand, look at Patagonia, a fascinating case. After a very long period of trial and error, they figured out the values of their audience. With trial and error over the decades, they got to a point where they are really good at this,” David continued. “Then along comes their CEO and says, ’I am going to give the company to the planet. I don’t need any more money, so take the company and save the planet.’ That’s the single biggest, values-driven mic drop in the history of commerce.“

What valuegraphics can bring to the table even in the case of paragon companies such as Patagonia, David pointed out, is the ability to eclipse decades of trial and error with game-changing revelations in the blink of an eye.

“We can tell you today what the values of your organization are all about, what the values of your workforce are all about. We can tell you today which values will work for all of your stakeholders,” said David. “Organizations have always been able to get there by iterating. Your organization can certainly become values-driven and  purpose-led through trial and error, or we can take you there today.”

Having since authored two books, his latest, The Death of Demographics: Valuegraphic Marketing for a Values-Driven World, breaks those value categories out, while illustrating how they can be used with intent within any industry.

“The traditional tools we use to know our people are demographics and psychographics and what we are adding to the three-legged stool of audience insights is valuegraphics. Demographics are still necessary because if you run a company that needs rocket scientists, you can’t be hiring brain surgeons,” said David. “The trouble is we’re asking demographics to do too much. We call them a descriptive insight because they describe a group of people—but that’s it! They don’t tell us a thing about who they are, just what they are.”

As for psychographics, David summarizes then as everything that has already happened: “Emotions, behaviours, preferences, dislikes, beliefs: all of that is in one big bucket called psychographics. And it all comes from the exact same place—the past. Psychographics are strictly historical. “

As per the three-legged stool, this is where valuegraphics brings true balance and foresight. ’What we are really trying to do is get people to change their beliefs and reactions to the world and one another and valuegraphics brings that predictive element of insights that has been missing,” David explained.

“Organizations think this is some kind of crazy values-revolution we are living through right now, but humans have always been driven by values. That said, I am thrilled more and more are talking about values and if they want to think it is a brand new thing, then cool, we’ll call it the values revolution,” said David with a laugh.

As for which values speak to the heart of the tech industry, David grins and promises a full reveal at his upcoming keynote at Tech Talent North—before dropping a counterintuitive bomb for those seeking top talent in tech.

“We profiled hard-to-find tech talent—people with titles like AI architects and cloud engineers—the unicorns of the tech industry. said David. “One value we found for that particular profile that indexed off the chart important compared to everybody else was the value of ambition.”

As for how to apply that knowledge, that’s where David puts forward a hiring approach that would never emerge from six VPs and a box of donuts.

“If we know this group of people, more than anyone else, is driven to find anything that fuels their ambition, then I think when you are making an offer or when you are trying to figure out how to engage and retain, you should address the elephant in the room,” said David.

“You might say, ‘Listen, we know you’re crazy ambitious and we know you’re not looking to join us to hang out and be friends for life. We know that if we are going to keep you around, we are going to have to help you with that ambition of yours. So we’re offering the money and perks that everyone else is going to give you, but you know what else we are going to do? We want to train you for the next jump on the ladder you are climbing,” said David. “We hope you decide to stay, but we want you to think of us as an organization that’s going to help you fuel that ambition.”

While admitting the above is counterintuitive and a crapshoot, David stands by the power of values like ambition to help companies win the war for talent. “Sure, you are admitting that the person is likely going to leave, but if you know that, why not use it to your advantage? ”

What he’s fascinated with right now is how valuegraphics helps solve a business ideology turned conundrum born in the 70s—stakeholder capitalism. “Even then, there were smart leaders saying, ‘Business isn’t just about the money and the shareholders alone, but five stakeholder groups who need to be considered:shareholders, customers, vendors, employees and the communities in which a company operates,’” David said. “The reason this idea of multiple stakeholders keeps falling out of favor has always been a fatal flaw—how to make it work.”

“The answer, of course, is that if you know what everyone’s values are—across all stakeholder groups—you can see where they overlap and find a North Star metric,” said David. “That’s the secret. People aren’t customers, vendors, employees or shareholders. People are people. If you just understand what they all hold in their hearts, you can drive an organization in a way that benefits everyone.”

Given the divisive nature that defines demographics, he is heartened by what valuegraphics might contribute to organizational and individual healing alike, providing a strong humanizing factor to the most committed of equity, inclusion and diversity efforts.

As for how that might come about, David pointed to the most commonly shared value worldwide.

“One of the most important values around the world—regardless of demographic niche—is family. So if we can frame conversations of diversity, equity and inclusion in a way that shows how it is impacting this ultra-important, unifying value, we can have conversations standing on common ground. ‘Why is this impacting your family more than mine? That leads to ‘I get it. I care about family too.’ We know that’s not right because it resonates with us,” said David. “I can’t think of anything more important in any field of human endeavour right now than to fully understand each other.

“As Lee Iaccoca said, ‘Business is nothing more than a bunch of human relationships.’ If we just make this simple shift to change the way we look at people, we can change the world.