Do We Need Rules, Agreements, or Guideposts?

I like some rules, such as the rules around driving. I like to know that people will stop at stop signs and for red lights. I like to know the other drivers will go on green. Driving rules help everyone coordinate their actions. Rules around driving are simple and straightforward. They work. (Even in Massachusetts.)

Too many organizations have rules because they want control points. Someone made a mistake once—and now the company has rules. Too often, the rules govern way too much specific behavior.

The rules work to prevent some “bad” behaviors. The rules might be simple, but they constrain us in ways that prevent innovation or resilience.

I suspect we don’t differentiate between rules, working agreements, and guideposts (ways to think about how to make decisions).

A rule is “People in the same hierarchy can’t fraternize.” Well, you and I both know that people will break that rule. People date their work colleagues, regardless of whether they are in the same hierarchy. What’s the point of that rule? (Save the company’s tush—and it doesn’t do that well enough.)

I happen to like working agreements that say, “We end each meeting at 10 minutes before the hour, so everyone has a shot of getting to the next meeting and start that meeting on time.” Notice how the agreement isn’t to start the meeting on time? It’s about ending the previous work so people can start the meeting on time. (I internalize this guideline by giving myself a rule about a 10-minute warning for the next meeting.)

One client recently changed their rules about financial expenditures. Instead of having a rule about every single expense, they categorized expenses as office supplies, books and other learning, conferences and travel.

They created “standard” lists of office supplies and asked people to request different supplies through central purchasing. If purchasing couldn’t get it in time, that was fine the first time. Then, the requestor and the purchasing person needed to discuss the needs. That might sound like a rule. But, the purchasing people wanted to offer better support to the teams. Once they understood the needs, they could negotiate better prices. And, make sure the supplies were available.

Notice that anyone could buy almost anything once. Maybe even more often, once they discussed the expenditure with purchasing.

The company gave everyone a book allowance of $100. (I thought that was low, but it’s how they started.) After several months, people asked about online classes. The company looked into costs and gave teams more money. Many of the teams wanted to learn together, so that worked.

The company created a “conference” account for everyone who wanted one. (Not everyone did.) The company started with $2000 in the accounts and asked people to manage the money wisely. People could ask for more.

This company created guideposts and agreements, not rules. When you create guideposts and agreements, you extend trust to people.

I’m one of those people who want more and more adaptability, resilience and innovation. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to change in the face of rigid rules. But agreements and guideposts? Discussions? Yup, I can live with that—happily.

That’s the question this week: Do we need rules, agreements, or guideposts?

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