How to rule out rules?
Having rules is safe.
Rules create consistent
Rules maintain predictability
Not having rules is dangerous.
Rules mask individuality
Rules stifle creativity
Rules kill vitality
In my opinion, rules are a weak leader’s first line of defense. Every time something goes wrong, weak leaders create new rules to prevent failures. Writing rules is a backward-facing attempt at solving past problems. Let’s get real about rules.
Don’t jettison rules if:
- You “play” in a highly regulated space.
- You have high turn over
- Process and Procedures are legal necessities
- Procedures establish consistency
Jettison rules if:
- Everyone understands and embraces organizational values, mission, and vision.
- Ownership is high.
- Deliverables are clearly defined, understood, and agreed to.
- Accountability is a positive concept that’s engrained in organizational culture.
Organizations that rely on rules suggest weak leadership, organizational confusion, poor communication, and disengaged employees. Rules drain joy, quench motivation, stifle creativity, and choke productivity. Worse yet, rules create the wrong kind of work.
Organizations that rely on rules are top heavy monsters with midlevel managers dedicated to enforcement and paper pushing. Rather than enabling and motivating they drain vitality.
Finally, rule-making organizations promote rule keepers who then create more rules.
Note: I’m not suggestion organizations do away with all rules. Organizations devoid of rules are in chaos. I am suggesting many organizations rely too heavily on restrictive rules that alleviate leaders of their responsibilities.
What is dangerous about living with fewer rules?
How could organizations move toward fewer rules?
Your post immediately reminded me of when employees say to their customers, “That’s our policy.” This always suggests to me that the leadership of the organization has done a poor job explaining policy, and is “over-ruled” so to speak, in that it does not encourage employees to think.
I agree with your balance of the need for rules, and the necessity of knowing when not to over-emphasize them. Many leaders and organizations would benefit from reading this post. It would also scare the living daylights out of most HR departments! LOL!
Great expression: “over-ruled.” KaChing
Thanks for leaving an illustration of the down side of rules.
Have a great week,
I have yet to see an environment that has a “rules mentality” come up with innovative ideas or processes. Reminds me of one of the employment contracts I was looking at for one of my candidates last year. By the time I finished reading it, I was wondering if she would still be eager to join the organisation as instead of positioning a “welcome” approach, it was a whole lot of policies regarding what you can’t do. Talk about first impressions that can be a turn off.
Thanks for jumping into the conversation. A good illustration is alike a window in a house. It lets the light in.
Interesting questions today, Dan. Whether we call them “rules” or “policies” how we enforce them says a lot about the culture of an organization. In the best organizations they exist as guides, helping the team and the culture stay on course by setting expections for both the leader and the team. Some are based on law, while others are based on mutually agreed direction and goals. Law based rules have less flexibility while directional ones may have more give as the organization bends and grows together.
What’s dangerous about living with fewer rules?
The danger is assuming that you don’t need the rules to guide you or the team. Assuming everyone “knows”what is acceptable or expected can be a dangerous assumption when everyone doesn’t.
How could organizations move toward fewer rules?
Here communication is key. For the non-law-based rules, well communicated direction (and boundries) can point the way while providing flexibility and room for creativity. But, keep in mind, the less rules/policies you have in place, the more consistently and frequently you need to communicate if you are to keep the team on course.
Thanks for sharing your insights.
The good side of rules is they can, if they aren’t oppressive, create safe “play grounds” where people play freely.
Your comment demonstrates your breadth of experience. I’m so glad you dropped in.
Thanks for always making us feel welcome Dan, and with a minimum of ‘rules.’ Your comment reply might be a good lead in for a future post. “What DOES it take to create a safe play ground?”
Have a great week!
I like it Joan…guidelines for safe plan in the sandbox…hmmm, wonder how many of those may actually apply!
Your points about when to jettison and when not are excellent. When ownership and metrics are well defined, jettison the rules. I agree to the points. Too many rules actually weaken the system. It also weaken trust among people. For example when you always monitor the arrival time of employess, you create fear and unresponsive culture. On the other hand, when you do not monitor the attendence or arrival time, then people feel free to communicate and express their opinions.
The danger about living with few rules depend upon the people. People with high intergrity, morality and ethics are comfortable with few rules. On the other hand, people who blame, criticize, talk more do less, spread rumors, look busy, need more rules to control them. In the culture where few rules exist, these people will worsen the situation. Similarly people in the first category with many rules perhaps can not give their best performance and output.
Organisations can move forward with fewer rules by changing its philosophy. Philosophy determines policy and organisational structure. Structure follow strategy. Philosophy also determines the people. Better the philosophy, better the people, when better are the people, fewer rules required to control them. They are self motivted, inspired and people of integrity, eithcis and accountability.
The other way to live with fewer rules in to reduce hierarchy. Lesser the level, fewer the problems and internal competition and lesser the internal competition for position and power, more will be creativity and performance.
Your wisdom shines through. Thank you.
While reading your comment I thought about the importance of hiring the right people. Or, as Collins puts it, getting the right people on the bus.
Thanks for taking time to add value.
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Love it. When you really think it through, you find that ALL rules are based on fear. Not always gripping, shaking in your boots fear, but fear that, without the rule, something undesirable will happen.
Interesting that, in spite of rules:
Undesireable things still happen.
Innovation (surprise) still happens.
Some people remain inner-driven, or develop an inner drive, is spite of, but not because of, rules.
Like you, I would never suggest that organizations get rid of rules, or that we summarily dispose of all our societal rules tomorrow. I DO believe that it helps to keep in mind that rules compensate for loss of true inner connection, diminished self-accountability, and little or no sense of ownership.
Believe me, I know how far out that will read for some, and of course I don’t think I’ll ever see a world (in my lifetime) that doesn’t require rules. For me, the opinion that a rule is a “make up for,” and not a true solution, is but an awareness that aligns with my sober look at my own level of inner-connectedness and ownership: a constant reminder, if you will.
Thanks for writing about this, and as far as the real world (now) is concerned, I like your test for need of rules. )
It’s a pleasure reading your comment. Your passion shines through and I respect that.
I’ll add that immature people need more rules than mature people need. (I thought of that while reading your comment)
I’ll also suggest there is an inverse relationship between love and rules. The more love the less a need for rules.
Best to you,
Thanks Dan, on your “love” point, I couldn’t agree more. Plus, the more connected we are to our inner selves, the more connected we are with others as well, and it becomes more natural to do the appropriate thing, without considering equations or rules. In such cases, it’s not as if we are deliberately ignoring rules; it’s more like they are background that might agree or not, but they aren’t what’s driving our choices.
Fun topic and discussion… 🙂
This is a very challenging post. Rules govern almost every facet of our society and like you mention without any at all we could be walking around in chaos. The larger the organization the more rules there are and as you mentioned some for legal reasons, others to create equanimity amongst the stakeholders and basically a framework to provide guidance. Hopefully the rules stipulate situations that relate to tactics, to strategies, to goals and eventually to MVV. That being said hopefully there is enough “gray” in those rules that does not stifle creativity and allow innovation to surface. Ultimately leaders should be constantly reviewing the particular incidents and deciding whether true breaches have occurred and whether serious ramifications need to be addressed. For the most part in our organization which is 1500 strong, the rules are provided as a template for staff to navigate and interpret and on a daily basis actions are reviewed and unless egregious are sanctioned because leadership is committed to constant improvement and in our dynamic environment where change is the only constant, rules can be more of a hindrance than anything else. I can count on one hand in my twenty one years with our organization where violations of any particular rule led to termination, more often than not, these breaches have led to further revisions and usually tacking on more gray to be compliant with HR and OSHA requirements. The only times I have allowed a “write up” for a staff member has been when patient harm has occurred or potentially could have occurred. We live in a litigous world and unfortnately that reality needs to be balanced with fostering growth and learning. Like I said at the beginning this is a very challenging post. Thanks, AD
I read your post with mixed thoughts. I’m a firm believer in having strong policies that give employees – of ALL levels — templates to follow in most situations. If each person has to think ‘what do I do next’ for every situation, it slows down productivity. The key is to make sure the staff knows why the policies exist, so they know when it’s logical/compassionate/pertinent to step outside the policies.
While an organization may not need the rules, the organization doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and many of the rules are put in place because the outside world doesn’t understand or buy in to the values of the organization.
I headed an agency that had to deal with people making tuition payments. Invariably, several families asked the bookkeeping staff to make exceptions for them in paying on time, making reduced payments, not paying, not charging the credit card fees, etc. Initially, the staff wanted to make allowances for everyone, and anguished over each family’s situation. Finally, we educated the staff that making allowances for everyone who asked jeopardized the agency’s ability to pay staff, pay the teachers, and ultimately educate the students. Having policies in place made it easier for staff to be firm with families.
At the same time, the policy also said that the staff could refer families to the tuition assistance committee for relief — so the staff’s compassion could be channeled to helping the families get the assistance they needed.
Other rules dealt with how and who could handle payments. This was for the protection of the staff. Misplaced money (or money that outsiders said had been paid but we couldn’t find it) necessitated institution of rules on how money needed to be handled.
I know that having rules as a CYA sounds like a cop-out, but it can be a very real necessity when dealing with outsiders who don’t share the values, understanding and commitment of the agency.
Wow – I just reread what I wrote, and realize that last paragraph sounds awfully insular, exclusive or defensive. Rather than ‘outsiders who don’t share the values, understanding and commitment of the agency,’ perhaps there’s a better way to say it.
“The staff of a nonprofit agency work hard to serve the public; they deserve to have the protection of policies and rules when they are dealing with individuals who may have values or priorities that differ from the agency.”
When an organization is dependent upon rules typically there are so many rules no one tends to follow them and the rules creators, out of frustration, create more rules to demonstrate their power and no one follows these rules either. This is a very dangerous precedent to set because litigation lawyers love organizations with lots of rules. Injuries that occur in organizations with lots of rules are a litigators dream come true.
Indeed, there is a balance to be met, but the “business” of creating rules is often driven by rule addicts who believe there never can be enough rules.
Rules are important to establish a general order. What often happens is a lack of rules so that the managers and their internal «friends» can act with total freedom. So I think what is the basis, the routine, must be properly formalized, with rules. Then there are work processes and production, and there, if we have many rules, we lose creativity and innovation.
I lead a team of graphic designers and had to lay down rules with regard to situations of production schedules, product quality and ethical issue. The rest is up to me leaving the field open to innovation and cooperation of the team. In this area it is impossible to have a good performance with strict rules.
What’s dangerous about living with fewer rules?
How could organizations move toward fewer rules?
It is sort of fun coming to this comment after so many others as each of them has such unique and useful insights. I have always been an individual who was a “rule follower” and playing by the rules is the currency that, to a large degree, got me through elementary, middle and high school. In college I faced some true instances of my tendency to be a rule follower directly confronting situations where flexibility would have been logical … instances where rules did not protect or simplify.
Lo and behold I gave birth to two children whose natural tendencies do not lean toward “rule following” as their primary way of approaching the world! As a parent, and as a professional seeing how quickly the world is changing, I see the need to balance, in my parenting, my inclination to “follow the rules” and my desire for my kids to be able to push on the boundaries a bit more than I did — when my daughter was younger, I used to say, “she’s going to make a great CEO someday if we survive her childhood.” When an acquaintance of mine looked at me askance because I was letting my son roll down a hill, I had to make a split second decision whether to indulge her concerns or let him go (he wasn’t hurting anyone, wasn’t in danger (except of getting dirty), was just enjoying the sensation of being a kid rolling down a hill). I let him “roll.” I think as adults and organizations we lose sight of the joy that can be found when “ownership is high.” Maybe we should all find a hill of our own to roll down!
I agree…I work for a Fire dept. and it’s very military like…every time something happens; administration’ pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Everything seems to be CYA! Good read Dan…keep up the good work!
Great post Dan.
Being a practitioner of process improvement for many years, I have realized that processes/policies/rules are just tools that provide general guidance. It is very important to let people know that processes are tools to make them more effective. So, how processes are implemented (with what mindset) is very crucial.
I have seen organizations that implement processes with an intent of making their people more effective in their work.
But as mentioned earlier, rules are just a tool – people do the work. They exercise their choice of doing excellent work, walking that extra mile and thinking beyond the rules. Good people leverage processes to their benefit, where as average ones follow them blindly and get trapped by mediocrity.
I am with the rest o’ the crew here, very intriguing posit.
Rules, policies, guidelines, standards, best practices, evidence based practices, evidence informed practices. The written rules and the unwritten rules…which one is actually practiced. Seems unwritten often prevails at least until another rule ‘needs’ to be written. Are most based, as Mark noted, in fear or perhaps in a variation of power, control, and coercion.
When to jettison rules…when they truly stifle creativity and advancement. At the same time, rules can set a springboard for greater creativity. Maybe that is the time that rules need to transition into ‘guidelines’
Rules are based on the past and we all know how quickly processes, interests and options change, resulting in rules and services that are obsolete. (I heard Dan still has 8 track tapes!) 😉
To respond to both questions, rules need to be reviewed on a regular basis…do they hinder or do they protect, do they lead to advancement or entrenchment? Have to be inclined to advocate that ‘less is more’ for health and growth and still, as Al noted, the litigous times we live in push us to more constraints not less.
I think the same. Some rules are of course necessary. Some others, well it’s scary to think you’d need rules for some basic things in a company. It makes me feel that, if one individual needs that kind of rule, maybe he’s in the wrong place anyway.
It’s something like the those “don’t put animals in washing machines” signs you see nowadays. Like, duh.
One sentence that really stood out to me in your post was, “Writing rules is a backward-facing attempt at solving past problems.” About half our work is heavily regulated and half isn’t. I find that while the rules on the regulated side have a purpose, that purpose is not really communicated properly to those entering the profession. The result, blindly following rules without regard to the actual situation at hand. Sometimes I think I spend half my day explaining why the rules exist and the proper way to apply them in a given situation. In the half of our business that is not regulated, our people might not have all the answers, but because they are thinking for themselves, they tend to be working in the right direction.
You hit this one on the nose. Rules are for safety. There are times when it is needed. When there are shared values, high ownership, etc… rules become less important.
The question that jumps to my mind is:
Would rules be helpful in the beginning of an org. or during transitions when values are changing and thus ownership is lower?
If yes, then then the bigger question — how do you get the team members whose personality makes them cling to rules, to move on from the rules as the org. matures?
Very thought provoking post.
In partial response to your question, at the beginning stages, having standards and rules to guide make sense. Once integrated, perhaps then the organization can loosen up or at least review if the rules are still viable. It is much easier to start tight and loosen up than the reverse.
Regarding the personality cling, that has to be one of those individual opportunity moments I am guessing.
And regarding the transitional phase, seems like an excellent time to question all of the rules and then reaffirm which rules and standards keep us sane and on the same path. Would think that they would also be consistent with VMV too.
Rules scare me. I worked for 12 years in an organization with a LOT of rules. Now I work in one with less and it was confusing at first. I also started my own side business without ANY rules to guide me. I feel the most comforatble without the rules now.
This was awesome. Thanks.
I enjoyed this….thanks to everone!!!
Thanks for your rules on rules Dan.
What is a rule?
I’ve always viewed them as something to be used as a guide, not as a decree.
It is forgetting what the rule was created for that makes a rule so frustrating.
What was the purpose?
What are we trying to achieve?
Who or what are we trying to protect?
Forget the rule, remember the purpose.
I live by purpose not rules. The rules provide me a guide on how to execute my purpose.
Some of the posts here that mention process inspire me reply again, this time to suggest that many business processes feel more like agreements, than rules. Most “healthy” and productive processes are created or evolve in a best attempt to meet a business requirement (e.g., building a widget with consistent quality).
I make a distinction on process based on a constructive fear (in this case, fear of quality variance and unhappy customers), vs. those that feel more like resistance and may even result in perverse incentive (e.g., taking a level of discretionary judgement from all customer service agents because one customer service agent made an error resulting in a lost customer). The latter doesn’t feel or logically present as all that healthy or ultimately productive to me. Oversimplified a bit, I know.
Regarding rules, most companies make a lot of great choices and some absurd ones. The absurd ones get the most play (in attention, grumbling or rebellion) when nobody wants to take another look at their absurdity and explore something that might work better. The good choices are sometimes taken for granted if they aren’t marketed. Rule-making is therefore careful business, indeed. 🙂
I’ve to say that I like your posts, and also your style to get peoples attention 🙂
This concrete post is “touching my nerve” so I’ve to explain why I’m not agree with some points.
“Rules maintain predictability” > I prefer calling it Control.
“Rules mask individuality” > only bad rules or bad professionals do that. Good rules define Responsibilities very clearly.
* “Rules stifle creativity”, not necessarily, here we should define types of rules: some have to be concrete, because creativity is dangerous (imagine a surgeon that decides changing hygienic rules!).
Other areas need creativity, and instead of concrete rules, only main principles and objectives have to orientate the people, is what I call “Directing”
*“Rules kill vitality”, why??, vitality is part of a person, people is vital not rules or objects. Maybe is a fake vitality if can be killed by a rule.
As I said in Twitter, “Leaders act following instinct, ok, but the ideas have to be channelized in the most effective way. Supported by methods.”
Of course that many people use rules to protect themselves, but I don’t call them Leaders at all, are only insecure people.
Of course that some rules are used to cut every possibility of freedom or creativity, but in this case (thinking on the porks of “Animal Farm” of Orwell) are directed by directors of prisons that pretend to save their authority (and not real power).
I’ve never understood why people use the word “Leader” as easily. Many organizations call leaders to people that is managing others. But this is not correct at all.
Are completely different concepts and should be complementary in a healthy organization.
Leaders have real power on people will and Managers have authority granted by rules.
Leaders are born, Managers are formed.
Leaders have charisma, and empathy, they love people and people love them. Also have objectives and main principles very clear that make them push all resources to reach them.
Leaders also can be Managers if they are formed/trained, in this case, have to use rules.
A leader that is not a manager shouldn’t be managing.
Management consist on 4 simple types of activities:
And for doing all 4 types of activities Rules, Methods, Techniques and Best Practices are vital.
Thanks for publishing about these interesting subjects!!
I agree that rules are a weak leader’s first line of defense. A bit like threatening “wait ’til your father gets home”.
Here’s another angle – an example of the voluntary adoption of rules.
Last year, I facilitated a request by a co-operative marketing group to create rules. They weren’t achieving their goals and their meetings were all over the shop. There was no team work and the Chair of the group did not feel he had a mandate to “over-rule” the “out-of-order”. Yes, it was a backward facing attempt to solve past problems. But it worked. The key to their success perhaps was that the rules were developed and agreed by consensus. http://www.xbs.ie/insights/56-insights/184-the-madness-of-meetings
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I, like comments before me, agree with the sentiments in your post.
I’ve worked in an organisation where a new rule was developed the second someone dropped a paperclip was so stifling and demoralising (okay, slight exaggeration, but only slight ;-)). I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
On the flip side, I fear where the mission critical rules are ignored (or jettisoned as you say), as is the case in this post (a case study) I wrote a while back: http://bit.ly/VTDNlb