Why Minimize Rules?

My view of management is that you don’t control behavior with rules, but instead shape behavior through values. You do need some rules, but the principle is to minimize the number of rules you have, and not to default to “making a new rule” when you encounter a problem.

(I distinguish rules and principles, by the way — principles are enduring and guiding; rules are particular applications which are context-specific. And, I am a big fan of standards that capture the essence of what really makes certain things tick, although the standards need to be open to revision.)

Anyway, why minimize rules? There are lots of reasons, and it would be interesting at some point to go into detail. At this point, here are two reasons:

  1. A reliance on rules tends to dehumanize, treating employees as potential problems to be controlled rather than adults who are responsible stewards. A default, “what can it hurt” approach to rule-making seems to assume that the manager always knows best, which is not the reality in our knowledge economy. By definition, a knowledge worker is one who knows more about his job than his manager.
  2. The tools that eliminate risk often eliminate action.

This approach also syncs with how I think society best functions. “He who governs least, governs best.” That is true in government and management.

So often, the multiplication of laws (in government) and rules (in management) is more about enhancing the power of the ruler (or manager) than serving the person.

November 19, 2009 | Filed Under Management | 3 Comments 

Comments

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  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul

    “you don’t control behavior with rules, but instead shape behavior through values”

    What if the values include following the rules?

    Just thinking…

  • http://staffaction.blogspot.com staffaction

    great points, Matt. This reminds me of the Hayekian idea of dispersed knowledge. Just as incredible amounts of knowledge are dispersed through society and yet somehow we don’t need a massive supercomputer and dictator to “pull it all together”. In the same way, if we rely on the knowledge each person has in an organization, more value will be added than if top-down rules are formulated to “pull it all together. Of course, the other crucial piece to the puzzle is intensive knowledge sharing. With this (and the unifying vision) the organization could be quite a mess with everyone doing their own thing.

    Paul – values are more broad than specific things like “following the rules”. In fact, that’s more of a rule than a value. Values are the shared vision everyone is striving for and the general principles that guide their work.

    Think of the difference between “controlling” and “shaping” in terms of management that either sets many specific rules in place (control) vs. setting the tone for action and encouraging an atmosphere of mentorship and personal growth (shaping).