Deodorant | 4 Ideas to Take the Stink Out of Bad Laws & Policies | Pt. 2

This is the second and final part in quick series called 'Deodorant'. I hope with these simple ideas we can serve our organizations more effectively by recognizing that laws and policies don't have to stink. They can be written in a way that inspires and empowers people and defines the culture of your organization.

We've all experienced the affect of crazy laws and policies in our nation and business. Where I live most of the main roads are wide, four lanes with an additional turn lane, yet the speed limit is only 35 mph. It keeps city revenue high and traffic moving at a leisurely pace, but on most mornings when it's just me and the open road 35 mph becomes that admirable suggestion I consider as my speedometer creeps past 46 or 47. By law I'm set for failure.

Laws & policies - they're not the sexy salesmen that bring the rain or the brilliant engineer that invents the next disruptive, billion dollar technology. They are the guiding principles that define our culture and set the standard for how we do what we do. They don't often stand in the spotlight, but when written well they permeate every corner of our organization and become that intangible edge that separates Apple from Microsoft, Disney from Universal, and the Unites States of America from, well...everyone else.

I love to play games. I love to win. I also have a rebellious streak that loves to push the limits of the status quo. 'No' activates my gut reaction to find a way around the rules. Limitations, like speed limits, tempt me to see how far and fast I can go before someone tries to stop me. When playing games with my family I have as much fun trying to cheat without getting caught as I do trying to win. My gaming battle cry, "Win if you can, lose if you must...always cheat!"

I'll bet you're the same way. Instead of living up to the spirit of the policy we live down to the letter of the law. We learn to use laws and policies to our best advantage and look for loopholes that give us the edge. It's why laws and policies need to be written well. They define the limits of our tolerance and the essence of our culture. They show us the shadows and shine the light on behaviors we appreciate.

Last time we said laws and policies should:

  1. Protect the innocent - the naive, ignorant, & those unable to protect themselves
  2. Punish the guilty - those who hurt someone else or the organization
  3. Manage the irresponsible - how we manage mistakes, the untrained or incompetent
  4. Promote a behavior - defines a culture, a worldview, our virtues, beliefs and practices

This time we'll see four principles and one technique that can make our laws and policies a force for good rather than the frustrating bureaucracy they often become.

It's impossible to write laws or policies to govern every situation. So don't try. Make it simple. In the Jewish tradition when God decided to write law He only needed 10 and those are far from wordy -  "Don't steal. Don't murder. Honor your father and mother." Have you read the Constitution of the United States? It's strikingly simple in its language, yet the spirit of our nation is found within that document and we've become the most prosperous people in history. With both of these examples it's only after time passes and people feel the need to add to the original, to narrowly define what the meaning of 'is' is, that laws and policies get complicated, convoluted, and maddening. Start with laws and policies that are simple and resist the urge to try to control people with words on paper.

Complexity is the enemy of clarity and motivation. If you want people to live up to the spirit of your culture rather than down to the letter of the law, write policy in a way that is easy to understand, recognize, and repeat. As often as possible use words that empower responsibility rather than limit action. If I can't understand it, I won't do it; more than that, if I don't understand I have every excuse to do it my own way.

A law or policy that can't or will never be enforced is wasted energy. Don't bother to write it down or train people to follow it because they won't. They'll do what they think is best and feel guilty or clever. Either way, with every minor rebellion they become more disconnected from the spirit of your organization.

There's a local grocer and restaurant chain in my area I do business with for one reason only - they produce a remarkable product. Other than that my every experience with them is unpleasant. Around the corner is Chick-fil-A. Their food is good, but in the end it's just another chicken sandwich. What sets them apart is my experience with them. It's always exceptional. Their employees are thoughtful and well-trained, their store spotless, their environment friendly. I say, "Thank you." They say, "My pleasure." I like their food. I love their culture. If the grocer around the corner would adopt a few of these principles, they would own the milk and ice cream market nationwide.

Your laws and policies reinforce your culture. They define the behaviors you value or discourage. If you expect excellence write excellent policy.

THE TECHNIQUE | Cast in, Call Out
When laws and policies are written well they become the standard we aspire to achieve rather than the rules we try to break. As leaders and managers we can use these laws and policies to cast in and call out. We cast in character - the vision of who we are, the behaviors we intend to practice. We call out correction back to the heart. Rather than point to an arbitrary rule designed to limit possibilities we remind people of who they are, who they are trying to become, and what we're attempting to accomplish together. It sounds like this, "Surely you won't continue doing that, not because of a rule we've made, but because doing that doesn't fit with who I know you to be and what I know you want us to accomplish together."

Laws and policies. They don't have to stink. They can be the standard that empowers responsibility.

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