Friday, January 23, 2009

Why rules often suck

I was reading the recent issue of The Economist on the plane today, and I was struck by an article titled Law v Common Sense, subtitled Will Barack Obama protect Americans from his fellow lawyers? In it was the following choice text:
The relentless piling of law upon law—the federal register has 70,000 ever-changing pages—does not make for a more just society. When even the most trivial daily interactions are subject to detailed rules, individual judgment is stifled. When rule-makers seek to eliminate small risks, perverse consequences proliferate. Bureaucrats rip up climbing frames for fear that children may fall off and break a leg. So children stay indoors and get fat.

The point of the article is that Obama's likely appointment of Cass Sunstein to the White House could help address some of these issues, perhaps even leading to real (and needed) tort reform.

That got me thinking to business in general, and a recent study that we commissioned from The Economist showing that 70% of people need to work around their company's established processes in order to effectively get their work done (Actually, when I pose that question to a group of successful people, the actual answer is 100%).

Rules are good.  Unless they suck.  When I'm confronted with rules that suck (RTS), I'm often reminded of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which discusses when it is our individual obligation to rise above the rules of society and embrace a higher truth (yes, the subtleties of this particular example are distracting).

Kierkegaard was contemplating the relationship between Abraham and God when God commanded him to do something unthinkable (sacrifice his son).  When we are confronted with RTS we need to understand our equivalent of God.

Since my business is building software, and I think that software lives to serve the customer and make their lives better, Serve the Customer is my guiding principle when I'm confronted with RTS.  If a RTS serves the customer, then it must be for the greater good.  If a RTS prevents me from serving the customer, then I need to figure out some way around it.

RTS are the primary reason we all need to work around policies and practices all of the time.  Many RTS hearken from an increasingly outdated business culture, where command-and-control was the pervasive operational model.  One person decides, everyone else follows.  Rules are critical for large organizations to run effectively, but there is a limit: When processing a Purchase Order costs 10x what you're purchasing, maybe letting people expense it is OK.

The best way to create Rules that Don't Suck (RTDS) is to, where possible, respect the intelligence of the person they are targeted to.  With respect comes trust and understanding, and generally less suckage.  So let's simplify tort law and enterprise business in one fell swoop: just empower people to use their brains and then make them accountable.


  1. So you know me as someone who is trying to eliminate the RTS and the stuff that sucks from the enterprise, but I've been faced with an interesting push-back when wanting to simply empower people and hold them accountable.

    Often times, the cost of an error is greater than the price you can exact on the person who made that error. They can't be held accountable for $1B in market cap, but they can hurt it. In some cases the RTS are there to keep you from hurting more than yourself - like having to have car insurance.

    My argument is typically: A determined person can already extract > $1B in market cap from you today. The RTS aren't preventing that in the least. What's really stopping it is (mostly) good judgment combined with some luck and relative obscurity.

    I agree with the axiom of creating RTDS, but worry that the typical IT middle-mgt bureaucracy has been so successful at fear mongering for so long, that we may never get there.

  2. Joe,

    Totally agree.

    I like your counter-argument, and it feels similar to the issue we both address constantly around social software: we can't use that, we'll lose control. When they've already lost control as soon as they push people to work outside their tools.

    I think we can get there, with the will and the passion. Or, put more succinctly, Yes we can ;)

  3. Many "rules that suck" are ridiculous attempts to categorize everything that might happen.

    For example, travel expense policies are an easy target -- they should be replaced by good reporting, analytics, and public rankings -- "Hmm... Why does these people only buy their tickets 2 days before each journey?" "Why does it cost this team twice as much, on average, to fly between the US and Europe?"