More on safety, rules and unintended consequences

Photo by ianmunroe


One of the questions people often ask me after they watch my No More Rules presentation concerns the issues of rules around safety. The logic goes something like this: even if we agree with you that rules are bad, sometimes, in the sake of safety, we have to make so many rules, after all, it saves people lives.

This is a worthy point that I don’t explain well enough in the presentation itself and is worth an additional short explanation.

Even in the presentation itself I emphasize that I don’t think all rules are bad. Rules are a legitimate way to regulate behavior. The point I am trying to make is two folded. First,when we do choose rules, there is a problem with the way we make them – they focus on limiting instead on unlimiting. Second, our overuse of rules is a problem.

Rules that are unlimiting, that create value, that protect are great rules. Like the rule that demands that every person in the operating room state his name in the beginning of the operation so there will be better communication. Because this is a rule that actually saves lives. It is a great rule.

There is a danger in the accumulation of rules. Richard Hackman, in Leading Teams, talks about the effects of over regulating the cockpit environment:

All the well-intentioned additions to procedure manuals, together with all the automated devices that have been introduced into cockpits and all the management directives intended to promote efficiency or passenger service, may be having what policy analysts call perverse effects…. It is certainly true that too much latitude for flight crews can result in a poorly disciplined cockpit in which members are unable to predict who is going to take what action next. But it also is true that too much standardization, even in the interest of safety, sometimes can perversely result in crews monitoring systems and executing procedures less attentively and deliberately than would be ideal – especially when, as usually is the case, the flight is routine and everything’s seems to be proceeding normally.

When you use too much rules, people forgo judgment!

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard the writers describe an example. They tell how a department manager in General Motors succeeded in making the Injury rate in this department drop 21 percent from previous levels (which was already one of the best in plants doing similar work). How?

Poppe threw out the old complicated policy and boiled down the new safety policy to two specific behaviors… that’s it.

Less rules, but rules that are tailored to the situation.

In the case of safety, many times the best way to create a safer environment is to use only design and not rules at all. It just take more time, effort and thinking. It is much easier to make a rule. But it is not necessarily the most effective way. In another part of Switch, the authors describe a machine that only operates if you press buttons with both your hands. That way you can’t endanger your hands even if you wanted to. No rules. Design!

Think about baby proofing an apartment – instead of telling the kid not to touch the obvious things, we create a safer environment. And when he does touch something (and he will, because we can’t think of anything), we need to make sure he learns a general lesson from that. If we only spend time telling him what he cannot do, how will he be able to develop judgment?

Rules are not bad by themselves. Rules are bad when used in the wrong places and in the wrong way. And they are especially bad when used in an excessive manner like we see in some of the dominant business practices in our society. It is true for safety as it is true for sales as it is true for any other field.

So again, let’s stop with the rules.



Artificial Equality

Photo by Gapingvoid


One of my favorite bloggers, Hugh MacLeod, from Gapingvoid, has started a series of posts where he designs business cards for people he admires. He designs a card for them and puts it on his blog explaining a little bit about that person and why the card represents him. The picture above is from his latest cards for Web 2.0 Guru Chris Brogan.

The card reminded me of a powerful lesson I keep being reminded of again and again. This is what I wrote in my e-book:

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, as I know so well. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. Earlier I mentioned Ken Robinson‘s inspiring speech regarding creativity and education. In it he says that standard and equal education for everyone is not necessarily good because it “misses” people’s strengths. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

MacLeod’s cartoon and this quote connected very strongly with something I read a few days ago in Richard Hackman’s book, Leading Teams. In many sections of the book he describes the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a Grammy Award-winning classical music chamber orchestra based in New York City, known for its collaborative leadership style, in which the musicians, not a conductor, interpret the score. This is what, among other things, Hackman writes about Orpheus:

Members are not treated as equal because in fact that they are not equals: each individual brings special talents and interests to the ensemble and also has some areas of relative disinterest and lesser strengths. Orpheus members recognize that fact and exploit it relentlessly in the interest of collective excellence. The orchestra’s willingness to acknowledge, to respect, and to exploit the individual differences among its members is one of its greatest strengths as a self managing team.

The equality ethos, while not bad or wrong by itself has its limitations. The problem is, it is so entrenched into our thinking, that we export it to areas of life that it has no place in. Have you ever been part of team that needed to make a presentation and the members insisted that everybody speak during the presentation? Nobody asks whether this makes sense or whether this actually hurts the effectiveness of the presentation. No! We are all equal in this team. we all have to participate! That is just a simple example, but it demonstrates how, in places where we don’t have to, we are willing to sacrifice performance for artificial equality.

Are you sacrificing performance for artificial equality?