What leg-braces, a bus station and the Challenger tragedy can teach us about rules


I have been writing about rules for a few weeks now and how the abundance of rules is destroying our practical wisdom. We saw and example for that a few days ago. TSA officers made a 4-year-old wearing leg braces to take of his metal leg-braces (although he can’t walk with them) in an airport security check. Now, he can’t walk without them, so his mother wanted to help him walk through the machine, but the officers told her that he must walk alone.

Now, I have a lot of respect for the people who work in jobs that require security. They see thousands of cases everyday and most of them are not terrorists. But the mere chance that one of the will be is enough. They follow the rules because those rules are meant to protect us. But these rules, they have limitations. And those people should know what they are.

The same goes for the guards who watched a 15-year-old girl being beaten by other teenagers in the bus station and did not intervene because their orders were: “observe and report”. So they called the cops. Really? You have to see it to believe it:

When you see that, you know something is wrong with the way we use rules. We are losing something.

I was reading an article by Diane Vaughan called the Trickle-down Effect: Policy Decisions, Risky Work, and the Challenger Tragedy for a case I am working on. I think one of the quotes there is relevant here:

A particularly challenging administrative problem that we can extract from the Challenger tragedy is to instill a rule-following mentality that will assure coordination and control in a crisis, and at the same time teach people to “drop their tools:” to recognize the situation for which no rules exist and for which the existing rule does not apply.

That is a big challenge. Because rules, when used like they are used in this kind of situation are norm killers. Are practical wisdom killers. It is so hard to go back from a rule following mentality to a practical wisdom one. Because when you follow rules, your ability to recognize what to do when there are no rules diminishes. The only solution, and it is a long-term solution, is to reduce the amount of rules that we use. Is to rely more on trust and wisdom and human judgment. Not in everything. Maybe not in security checks. But a lot more than we do now in many more areas.

I don’t really think we have a choice.


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