Policies, Procedures, and Rules - Oh My!

About two years ago Dave Snowden, a highly respected modern agile thinker among other things,  wrote this blog post deriding SAFe as the "infantilism of management." I was reminded of this recently when thinking about all the other things companies do that put unneeded emphasis on compliance and rule following. Namely, the various rules and policies commonplace in traditional companies. When I say policy, I'm talking about the typical laundry list of rules put in writing regarding a specific business situation. This rule-making activity flies in the face of modern management thinking, yet they seem to be the only tools in the toolbelt for most companies, and thus they proliferate. In doing so, they relegate the role of managers to compliance czar, and threaten the foundation for a vulnerability-based-trust relationship with your employees.

In today's age of the professional knowledge worker, what use do we have for such policies and rules? And what does that mean for the role of a manager? 

Policies are the Wrong Vehicle. 

Imagine for a second we could write a perfect policy. 100% accurate rule-set mapping all known inputs to desired outputs. "If you apply for vacation under these circumstances, then it will be approved." "If you expense the following items, you will get reimbursed." Sound familiar? Corporations attempt this all the time. There are two problems with this, other than it obviously being impossible to do (I'll ignore that little fact).

One: We are using comprehension to attempt to create clarity, and this doesn't work. Snowden would say this is a "false linear model." Something advertisers have had figured out for a long time is that when it comes to influencing people's behavior, and that's exactly what we're after in management, Cohesive Trumps Comprehensive. A cohesive message leads to confidence in its underlying truth. A comprehensive message leads to analysis/questioning of the underlying truths. 

Example: If we want our employees to work hard and use time-off wisely, state exactly that and no more. It's a short cohesive message. By being cohesive, we'll create clarity. We might also create some really rich discussion about complex situations and be able to handle them as a manager in the context of the actual event, a very mature management situation. Alternatively, if we want employees to ponder/worry/water-cooler-chat about why the PTO policy states whatever it states, then list out all the various ways in which taking time off is appropriate: vacation, sick, holiday, death, baby, etc. By being comprehensive, we've almost certainly reduced clarity, and induced questions as to what our (the management) reasons are behind each element of the policy. What if I have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take a trip but I've run out of PTO days? What if my dog dies, and I don't have kids, so this pet was everything to my family? The policy doesn't discuss days that my religion requires I don't work, I wonder what will happen now? I don't think the answer is universally "yes, take time off." As a manager we should have the opportunity to address these things in context of the situation, and even struggle with what the right answer is. This is our very hard job.

Two: We are trying to tackle a complex problem with a simple solution. By definition, a perfect policy would be the answer to a simple problem, and the company is not paying us to solve simple problems. Which brings me to this:

Policies are the Wrong Priority.

If we as managers are spending our time working on policies, we are not focused on the most valuable thing. In the context of complex work, there are certainly complex problems that require our attention. Making even 1% progress on these really hard issues is more valuable than creating a 100% perfect policy. Yet we see management spending an inordinate amount of time and effort creating and tweaking rule-sets. This is the zero-risk fallacy running amok and causing us to spend our time on non-issues and near-meaningless things. 

Example: The amount of abuse that would result in having no written vacation policy, is so miniscule compared to A) the amount of value it would bring to our employment brand and 2) using the time we otherwise would have spent on a formal vacation policy to make a dent in our geographical scaling issue or supply chain bottleneck or any other number of wicked complex problems. 


Management is hard. There are complex organizational problems with non-trivial and non-obvious solutions that we have to tackle daily. Rule-sets and policies attempt to make our jobs easier, but actually infantilize the role of management. They are simply the wrong vehicle for what we are trying to accomplish. Also, we should be absolutely terrified of working on the wrong things, and I can't imagine an organization that doesn't have bigger problems to solve. 

Today's knowledge worker is called upon to solve equally complex domain problems. We thrive on autonomy and creative space. Rule-sets and policies are wrong/incomplete at best and ulterior-motive-induction-bombs at worse.


Interestingly, this is not all that "modern." My views here are not "radical" or "agile" or "only applicable in narrow situations like trendy startups." In 1944, the CIA published The Simple Sabotage Field Manual, part of which is directed at how to sabotage corporations as an inside-man. The language is a bit dated, and it's incredibly simple as the name suggests leaving room for interpretation. It's clear though that even back then we'd agree that policies can be sabotaging: "multiplying rules" and "worrying about the policy of a higher echelon" and "demand written orders."

We've known this for 75 years, time to update our organizational operating systems.