Category Archives: The Role of Rules

The rules by which we roll

Let’s describe “an organization” as a collection of people with some degree of shared purpose (what we are doing) interacting within norms of some similarity (how we do things).

The “how we do things” can be dictated by formal policies, guiding language and/or understood norms. Each workplace context, in my experience, is different, so a brilliant element from one context does not guarantee success in another. So questions like “what if Disney ran your hospital?” make me cringe, as would an efforts to replicate Google’s success by adopting its famed policy of mandating one day per week to work on things unrelated to your job.

By their very nature, “rules” tend to have “exceptions,” which brings additional complexity, as does the ability and willingness to enforce the rules. There are also predictable negative responses to overt rules and guidelines. For illustrative purposes, and to take a break from conceptual discussions, let’s look at a tangible example of one “rule” and its impact: the off-leash dog park. If this environment were a workplace, the misalignment between this stated rule and the observed behaviours would create a poisonous culture.IMG_20160417_114450

NOTE: At the risk of stating the obvious, the “off-leash” part of these particular parks suggests that it is OK to have your dog “off leash” in this area, and “against the rules” to have dogs “off leash” in other areas.

1 – “There are so many rules; no one follows them all.”

If there is a rule that no one follows, let’s call it a bad rule. Well meaning people don’t follow “bad rules” because it is nonsensical and enforcement is sporadic at best. (e.g. keep the dog on leash when the bylaw officer is around). The logic of some rules can conger up Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic questioning of the California motorcycle helmet law intended to protect a brain whose judgement was so poor as to ride at high speeds with no protection whatsoever.

So, if the “off-leash” rule is a good rule, let’s explain some of the underlying logic: this creates designated space creates where people can’t complain about the dogs being off leash. If you don’t like being around dogs that are off leash, don’t go in there. As both a dog owner and a parkland runner, that is the exact reason why I choose not to run in the off leash areas. Make sense?

In a workplace context, efforts to demonstrate compliance can create vast numbers of rules and regulations. In the practice of collaboration, an over-developed need to reduce culpability risk can take away from the positive effect of good rules. If you have a good rule, it would be a useful practice to provide the rationale and/or be ready to answer “why?” should it arise. (On the latter point, the guidance “Ask Why?” has been forever sullied by its association with Enron.)

2 – “I am aware of the rule, but it doesn’t apply to me.”

There are competing ways to explain this one with differing levels of empathy toward the infractor. Aaron James, in his book “Assholes: A theory” suggests that one quick way to identify his study subject is to listen for “do you know who I am?” as a response to any assertion of rules and norms. The quip implies that if you did know, you would know that I constitute an exception to the rule. I have witnessed interactions on December 26th taking place across a counter with bold signage, “No Returns on Boxing Day.” To my chagrin, as one who appreciates good rules, the manager made “an exception” further reinforcing the attitude that the rule applies to those who don’t have the nerve (or lack of shame) to push back.

There is a less entitled mindset that, in the context of the off-leash park, will say, “Those off-leash parks are for dogs who are poorly behaved when they are off leash. My dog is fine to be off leash anywhere because he/she/it would never misbehave and hurt or startle someone.”

So back to the underlying logic: can we say that, in general, we don’t want dogs hurting or startling other people? Hurting is after the fact, which makes it tough and invokes another set of rules for dogs who have bitten. Startling can be in the eye of the beholder (e.g. don’t worry, he’s friendly offers little assurance), so, if you are easily startled, don’t go in off-leash area. Does that make sense?

3 – “I understand the rule. I just don’t like being told what to do.”

Even good rules have an uphill battle. David Rock’s SCARF model reveals that we have an uncontrolled neuro-biological resistance to anything that threatens out Autonomy (e.g. my ability to determine what is right for me). External rules are a direct assault on this, which makes any attempt to provide constraints on behaviour an uphill battle. We all have different levels of self-imposed guidelines of what we will and will not do, so if we are shaping our own behaviour, this resistance can be reduced.

Some nuanced discussion can align some underlying self-regulators with external constraints. So, the speed limit on the highway is not about a number, it is about driving safely. The sign on the post of the off-leash area is not about a boundary, but about what people can expect in different public spaces. Shoring up this space also takes the pressure off enforcement because you are doing the “right thing” for your own reasons.

If there were short take-aways from this discussion, how about these:

  • If you can impact the “rules” in your organization, shine a light on good rules and stamp out bad ones.
  • In drawing distinctions between good and bad rules, try to look at the underlying logic of what we are trying to encourage, discourage or prevent.
  • If you are stuck with bad rules (especially if they are sporadically enforced), find the underlying self-regulator and use that as your own rule. If you are “called out,” at least you are prepared for your side of the “why?” conversation.
All the best creating and shaping the rules by which you roll.

Thirteen Days – The Measure of Success Review

“..You just don’t get it Admiral, do you?.” (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Admiral George Madsen)

  • Finding new protocols
  • Negotiating without dealing directly
  • Remembering what is really important

Background:

This movie relives the 13 days that transpired in the fall of 1962 when President JFK was dealing with the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. There is a great deal of fascinating political history surrounding this story, but I will over simplify the situation by identifying a few key dynamics of the day:

  1. The newly elected Kennedy administration (not quite 2 years into his first term), did not have full support of Congress and the leadership in the Pentagon. (Some feared too much appeasement.)
  2. Earlier in the administration, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion caused some in the military to feel the need to bolster or repair their image.
  3. The Cold War was in full swing.

This unfolding story is a textbook case study in multi-party negotiations. Kennedy has an inner circle that includes his brother Bobby and long-time friend and advisory, Kenny O’Donnell. Through the political drama that is playing out on international and intra-government levels, they have to calculate what moves to make (and which not to) in order to keep on track and, more importantly, send the correct signals to stakeholders to protect and not sour/strain important relationships.

Spoiler Alert: They avoid starting WWIII (but you knew that).

Direction:

There are a million different agendas at play in this movie, including those mentioned above that stem from embarrassment and outrage following the very public failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. There is a natural reaction for people want to prove themselves again or create situations to further expose the weaknesses of others. It is safe to say that not everyone wants JFK to succeed in this situation or, to be more nuanced, to be seen to have succeeded.

The one area that absolutely everyone can get behind is “avoid a nuclear war.” This is powerful and comes up again and again, sometimes as a threat (e.g. if you do that, you will force us/them into a war) and sometimes as a shared interest (e.g. none of us wants that to happen, right?).

It is hard to understand “how we are doing” when it comes to global peace, but the metaphoric journey is to advance the political agenda without triggering an international crisis. In the workplace, the downside may be less steep, but this provides a good lesson in dealing with “enemies” who share a common overarching goal of ours.

Set-up – Rules and Constraints:

One of the most interesting exchanges for me was that about the interpretation of the “rules of engagement” when a Soviet warship had breached the “blockade” (which was actually called a “quarantine” because technically a “blockade” is an “act of war”). The historic escalation protocol according to the Navy rules of engagement would have been to hail the ship, then fire blanks across the bow, then fire real artillery to disable the rudder before finally boarding the enemy ship.

JFK’s specific instruction of “no firing” without Presidential consent created some confusion as to whether or not firing a blank was actually “firing.” Conversations over specificity of wording to this level tend to try my patience, but this is a legitimate distinction to draw. The exchange between the Defense Secretary and the highest ranking naval officer is a fascinating look at how overt conflict is part of the fabric in navigating the waters of collaboration. (Pun intended, BTW.)

Set-up – Measures and Metrics:

The “result” that seems to define success in this context is: “have we started a nuclear war yet?” We are often in situations where the only obvious indicators are events or occurrences. This tends to be part of the territory for anyone operating with a “prevention” agenda. Have we been audited? Have we had a bad safety incident? Have key employees quit yet? Have we gone out of business yet?

A level down from that ultimate measure are two overt examples that fit in this area:

  • Were we fired on? In an effort to quell an overly reactive orientation from the military, JFK’s top aide persuades a pilot to hide the fact that they were indeed fired on. Hiding this evidence helps stay true to the “no war” objective while dodging the “retaliate when fired upon” rule that appears to be in place.
  • Have we cut any deals? As the situation intensifies, one creative solution that emerges is to trade the Soviet removal of missiles in Cuba for the US removal of missiles in Turkey. The quid pro quo of this is endearing, but if it were to happen, it can’t be seen to have been a deal, especially under threat.

In Sum:

Although the international diplomacy and threat of mass devastation may not be part of your regular workplace collaborations, there is a lot to be learned here about flexing some of the areas of the system (e.g. assumed “rules” and indicators) to keep focussed on the success that everyone can get behind. “World peace” can rank pretty high on the noble cause scale, but reminding people of a larger agenda can be very effective in enabling creativity and managing unavoidable conflict.

Early warning signs

Corporate culture is at once pervasive and invisible. Anyone who has worked in more than one organization (or suffered through a merger) can attest to palpable differences between how/if we celebrate birthdays, how/if we deal with poor performers and a million other particularities in the given context, all of which are clearly understood to all involved. Itemizing such particularities could be work for another day, but let’s focus on what is “good” and “desired” in a corporate culture.

Such discussions always involve some disagreements.

As an example to illustrate the type of disagreement, let me share the following:

I once had a colleague from L.A. and we got to chatting, as people do, about the weather. Having spent most of my life in the stretch of Canada that runs from Montréal to Toronto, I have had my dose of harsh winters (and they seem to be worse as I get older). A Canadian seeing the weather in southern California is like a municipal links golfer looking through the fence at Augusta National. How shocking to hear her proclaim that the weather in her native land was “… boring. It’s just the same all the time, day after day.”

This same variance in personal preference will be found in any commentary on preferred work environments. Too much conflict/not enough conflict; too many rules/not enough clarity; too much bureaucracy/not enough rigour; too formal/too informal; too unforgiving/too lenient, etc.

Some of these oversimplified critiques help to illustrate important areas that need to be balanced; two of these relate to conflict and ambiguity. I have recently had my drawn attention to “signage,” whose role should be to reduce ambiguity (by stating a practice) and, by logical connection, to reduce conflict (because the rule is now clear).

Have look at this one on “Fridge Etiquette” (click to enlarge):

IMG_20150417_083010

Can such a sign be an indication of an underlying corporate culture or work environment? Here is a quick analysis of the “rules” depicted:

  • Rules 1 & 2: Doubtless that an unclaimed mouldy sandwich brought this issue to the forefront.
  • Rule 3: How many late-comers to the fridge encountered insufficient capacity before this was enacted? (“Look at all those lunch bags taking up all that room! This isn’t right and something has to be done!”)
  • Rule 4: Ah yes, stockpiling. My guess is that someone went to Costco on the way to work and tried to put 48 single serve yoghurts in the fridge (maybe only for a few hours).
  • Rule 5: How many spills were left unattended and for how long?
  • Rule 6: What was the extent of the lunch thievery or was this a preventative measure?

Rules can be fantastic at reducing ambiguity, but only if everyone follows them. Compliance necessitates a dance between the practicality of the rule and its enforcement. For example, one might question the practicality of asking people to disassemble a packed lunch bag and remove only the items that will pose a Health and Safety threat if left unrefridgerated for 3 hours.

Diagnosing a corporate culture takes time and perspective. This can make it hard to do from the inside. A look at “signage” can be a quick place to start to get the pulse of how as a group we use this means to try to reduce ambiguity and conflict.

To fully unleash the power of the Internet, I offer a standing invite to share signs you have seen or look at everyday. Good, bad, ugly, etc.

Aligning for Performance – Where to start

The Lululemon stories coming out this week illustrate, if nothing else, that running a successful business is a complicated endeavour. There are a number of interests to balance, and something always has to give. Determining what exactly what should “give” and how exactly to implement that decision introduces an interplay between three dimensions of an organization:

  1. Overall Direction
  2. Measures and Metrics
  3. Rules and Norms

To have a serious look at “performance,” each of these is necessary though no one dimension logically prevails. The result of the interplay is very tangible to those operating in and around the environment. Employees actually live it, and investors, suppliers and other stakeholders are deeply affected by it.

From an organizational development perspective, these dimensions offer distinctly different lenses through which to analyze and evaluate performance. They can also inform opportunities for on-course corrections that can pre-empt a larger “realignment” or “change project.” Here is a quick explanation of what you could see through each lens.

Dimension #1 – Overall Direction (balancing inspiration with reality; clarity with rigidity)

Done well
  • There is alignment toward an overarching purpose.
  • We all know why we are here.
  • We have an obvious shared interest and our conflict is about how to get there not where to go.
Overdone 
  • Attachment to “core values” grows rigid such that an unrealistic zeal drives activity.
  • People are quick to become indignant when others suggest that we would ever compromise or question the direction that has been set.
  • There is talk of “sacred cows.”
Underdone
  • Lack of consistent focus makes it hard for people to assign priority.
  • Lower levels of management feel compelled to check with upper levels.
  • Management shows reluctance to exercise judgement because decision-making criteria is unclear.
Dimension #2 – Measures and Metrics (balancing art and science; means and ends)
Done well
  • There are appropriate and trackable indicators of performance at individual, team and organizational levels.
  • Discussions around performance, including performance reviews, have some objective and tangible criteria.
  • With negative changes in measures and metrics, discussions turn to “what can we do to affect this outcome?”
Overdone 
  • Emphasis on “making the numbers” leads to situations akin to “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”
  • Rampant gaming of the system to make “my numbers,” with complete disregard for overall impact.
  • No concept of “taking one for the team” because there is no opportunity to provide a context or expectation of reciprocity.
Underdone
  • There is no meaningful indication of results and outcomes.
  • Well-intentioned people often feel that although much gets done, little may have been accomplished.
  • There is little perceived connection to and control over end-results (positive or negative)


Dimension #3 – Rules and norms (balancing constraints with restrictions; formal with informal)
Done well
  • There are a few key parameters that people maintain (and don’t need to look at the website for guidance).
  • These are supported in formal policy (e.g. vision, mission and values).
  • There is a “spirit” of the rules not fully captured by the “letter” of the formal statements
Overdone 
  • Decision-making may be stifled because everything is prescribed and no judgment is required.
  • Rationale for doing something is often replaced with explanation of rules, guidelines and norms that prescribe behaviour (more “we/you can’t” than “why couldn’t we?”)
  • People look for air-cover from a policy or from “so-and-so said we have to do it this way” to justify actions/decisions.
Underdone
  • The walls of the office have signs like: “DO NOT LEAVE FOOD IN THE OFFICE FRIDGE OVERNIGHT.“ & “DO NOT LET THIS DOOR SLAM.”
  • The funnel of “policies in progress” is always full.
  • Existing policies are routinely reworked to be clearer. (e.g. Coffee cream is exempt from “Food left in Fridge” policy.)
What now/what next?

An analysis of this nature has to sift through competing perceptions of the situation. If the goal is to improve performance, the first step should be to better understand it. The interplay of these dimensions is similar to the combination of individual life philosophy, personal goals, and code of conduct that form a human being. Some degree of misalignment is inevitable, but very often it is manageable. Large misalignments and inconsistencies will become obvious over time and become more difficult to manage and to hide.

Using these dimensions as a periodic diagnostic within an organization can bring insight to where to focus time and energy to proactively affect future performance. This can also help to prevent large crises that require swift and sudden change.

 

Do the right thing vs. Don’t do anything wrong

There is a fantastic “smartest-guy-in-the-room” scene from the movie Apollo 13. U.S. astronauts are stranded in space aboard a damaged spacecraft; chaotic discussion ensues until “John” emerges, confident and clean-cut, to point the way: It’s about power. Without power nothing else works. Conserve power and they have a chance.

Fast forward through the great scene where they construct an air filter using only on-board materials (Relax, they had duct tape). Failure was not an option and the mission succeeds. The astronauts return to Earth.

Such scenes can be heartwarming in that the person who knew what they were talking about (the expert) was able to convince important people (boss and group) to do right thing, and the result was success. In the context of an obvious crisis, the “right thing” becomes clear. In many instances, such disagreements as whether or not we even have a crisis (e.g. climate change) make it very difficult to have the “right-thing” discussion, let alone how we will judge success.

This week at Ryerson University, I attended an event that explored this idea of “doing right thing,” and also waded into who are the “right people” to be doing it, namely leaders in government and in corporations. The entire talk is here.

Here are some of my high points:

Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page described his role, which struck me as similar to “John” in the Apollo 13 clip. It was his job to generate good information for decision makers. He did not have the luxury of operating in an obvious crisis, which is the lot of anyone doing 75-year financial projections. His overriding mission (e.g. success) was: “we want to have a prosperous country.”

Note: In his commentary, Sheldon Levy aptly names such a clear focus a personal “North Star.”

Kevin spoke of standing on principle, and I got the sense that he would have been able to defend every single action that he took as contributing to “a prosperous country” or identifying the risk of actions that threatened that pursuit. For him, this was the divide between right and wrong, which appeared to give focus to his role and purpose. This was not about securing his personal career, so there would be no pandering to partisan influences. His calling was higher. He and his team sought out experts to get accurate costing on plans that would cost a lot of money. Things that cost a lot of money have a greater chance of impacting long-term prosperity. The logic is unflappable.

He seemed genuinely surprised at the propensity of elected officials to make decisions without understanding the impact. If a reasonable person faced a policy decision that brought long-term implications (e.g. changes in court sentencing that would see more people serve time in penitentiaries), this reasonable person would want to know how much it cost, wouldn’t they?

It turns out the answer was sometimes, “No,” which is a natural human response.

  • When you take the student loans for education, do you really want to know how long you will be debt-laden?
  • When you buy the membership to the gym, do you really want to know who little you will use it?
  • When you celebrate with a steak dinner, red wine and cheesecake, do you really want to know how long you will have jog to burn it all off?

He also described an environment of fear, which was echoed in Maryantonett Flumian’s comments. She seemed to be asking: “When did ‘do the right thing’ give way to ‘don’t do anything wrong’?” She lamented a shift from internally driven principles and ethics to externally imposed rules and regulations. Will we return to these good old days?

Chris MacDonald at Ryerson curated an exceptional event. These conversations will continue and have as much implication for individuals as they do for the governments, corporations and other organizations that employ people. We look forward to the continued dialogue.

 

The Role of Rules

Last fall at a Business Ethics Speaker Series event, I listened to Daniel Weinstock from McGill University deliver a talk on rules and ethics in sport. It was a fascinating collision of philosophy’s deep thought and a man’s passion for the game of hockey. What emerged to me was the relevance of rules in business and collaboration.

Two of the concepts that Prof. Weinstock examined were, to paraphrase, “rules that no one argues with” and loopholes. As champions of following procedures and sticking to contracts, supply chain professionals should be familiar with both. They may also share the frustration of not being able to enforce rules with the internal rule-breakers and the unintended consequences of new rules.

The Rule is the Rule

In sport, the “rules no one argues with” pertain to safety and to fair play. Although some purists in hockey will fondly recall the flowing locks of Ron Duguay or Guy Lafleur, few could make the case to repeal the helmet rule. Similarly, to stick with hockey, no one argues with the “too many players on the ice” penalty. Both safety and fairness appear to provide a solid base for the presence of a restriction on actions in the form of a rule. No rule, however, is completely bullet proof:

• Safety: Could “no helmets” actually help the concussion situation because people would not hit as hard?
• Fairness: Hockey fans will appreciate the discussion of “fair play” around “The Avery Rule.”

If safety and fairness work most of the time for sports, what constitutes these solid planks in business?

  • Cost savings?
  • Profitability?
  • Customer satisfaction?
  • Sustainability?
  • Doing the right thing?

There is promise here for a 2×2 matrix that plots “ability to quantify” vs. “importance to long-term business success.” Even with such a tool, there are no clear winners. An organization can try to be clear about its stance on what is important. Johnson & Johnson’s credo is one attempt at this clarity.

The wording will never be perfect, but such proclamations can reflect the organizational direction and the industry context. For example, a logistics outsourcing operation could logically place “cost savings” or some form efficiency within the rules that no one expected to argue with. The goal, I think, should be to be somewhat clearer than statements like “we value integrity and honesty” but not as prescriptive as “never ever spend more than you absolutely have to.”

The Rule isn’t Really the Rule

Loopholes are fuzzy in a different way. The shared understanding of these was that such rules enable someone to operate “within the rules” while clearly operating outside the spirit of the game. In an organizational setting, these are called “workarounds.” Your view of the effectiveness of the rule is the thing that separates a “workaround” from “loophole.” In either case, everyone knows they are happening… and some may be very aligned with the long-term success of the business.

The presence of a workaround may provide an area of opportunity to be clearer. Acknowledging the work-around can identify a rule that could change. In some instances, the threat of “re-opening the constitution” may be too great or too troublesome. It may simply provide an opportunity to revisit the “spirit” of our activity. This should be a health discussion that could help mutual understanding.

A Rule for Rules?

Understanding the role of rules is important. We don’t want to prescribe unless something very important (e.g. personal safety) is at risk. For many cases, guidelines can provide people with the freedom to act and use judgment in performing their function. And, no, there is no clear rule for rules.