The discussion of a universal need for “simple rules” produces waves of irritation and complaint—a kind of collective nausea.
People are frustrated by what they experience as a quagmire of rules that limit their creativity and, more fundamentally, their ability to do their jobs properly. Very significantly, this frustration is shared by people outside of organizations who regularly interact with them—customers, consumers, and citizens.
An abiding characteristic of modern societies is that, as individuals, we are forced to deal with increasingly faceless organizations bound by rule systems that are stunningly apathetic to our needs. This is true of people’s interactions with energy companies, transport networks, telecom businesses, and the many state agencies with which we are obliged to do business.
As organizations and the leaders in them face these challenges, they need to ask themselves where they are in the growth cycle:
- Are they exciting, vibrant but small start-ups who as yet can get by with minimal rule systems?
- Are they growth businesses just beginning to come to terms with internationalizing and the increasing demand to structure more predictably their organizations? Or,
- Are they giant global corporations who have gradually allowed rule accretion to make them increasingly sclerotic?
Each of these contexts provide different challenges. It’s vital to know where you’re starting from.
Leaders concerned with how organizations are structured to get things done—and the rules associated with that process—must think about how to structure labor and organizational design, which always comes down to two fundamental issues: division and integration. How do you divide things up, and how do you join them together?
Note that there is never simply a “right” structure for organizations—they are either appropriate or inappropriate, depending on elements such as the nature of the task, the technology, the environment, and regulation. These contingencies dictate the degree of complexity in the organization, with the goal being a company that is only as complex as it needs to be and no more.
The authentic organization keeps things simple—as far as possible. It develops rules that allow systematization without bureaucratization.
Our distinction between these two phenomena is clear. When organizations systematize, people know what the rules are for; when they bureaucratize, the rules seems to have no function. These rules, in effect, become the conditions for freedom. They protect what is good in the organization rather than undermine it.
6 things to do to simplify the rules
1) When things go wrong, resist the temptation to invent another rule.
Where you can, try trust first, and accept that this may not always produce what you want. Rules may look like a quick fix, but they can inspire a “low trust” downward spiral that typically creates more problems.
2) Don’t ask others to do things that you wouldn’t do yourself.
You are unlikely to engender respect for the rules—or for yourself—if you repeatedly create exceptions for yourself or for others. If you have rules, believe in them!
3) Check how the rules affect all stakeholders.
Rules affect not just employees and regulators, but also customers and the wider society. Next time you introduce a new rule, be sure to examine the impact it might have on customers, consumers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.
4) Organizations should be as complex as they need to be—but not more.
Some businesses, like innovative pharmaceutical companies, are intrinsically complex. The people who get to the top of organizations often get there because they are good at complexity. But paradoxically, once they get there, they must strive for simplicity.
5) Explain the purpose of the requirements.
People are much more likely to follow them when they understand their raison d’être.
6) Be prepared to reexamine your underlying business processes.
By looking carefully at the details that constitute every way your organization does business, you can eliminate unnecessary complexity.
Characteristics of rules that people can value
So what kind of rules do people like? Or to put it another way, what rules would be regarded as sensible rather than stupid – enabling, rather than constraining? The overwhelming evidence is that people value rules with the following characteristics.
- Fairness – the rules are applied equally to everyone.
- Clarity – the rules are as simple and clear as possible.
- Discretion – the rules allow for appropriate exercise of discretion.
- Agreement – the rules are widely shared and their purpose is clear.
- Workability – the rules can be followed and enforced.
- Authority – the rules are based on the legitimate exercise of authority.
Building better workplaces is not an alternative to, but rather a means for, responding to the new challenges of capitalism, for building productivity, unleashing creativity, and winning. Leaders and organizations must manage the tensions and trade-offs involved building dreams. In building and clarifying, organizations exhibit six leadership attributes:
- Difference – let people be themselves
- Radical honesty – communicate what’s really going on
- Extra value – magnify people’s strengths
- Authenticity – stand for something real
- Meaning – create satisfying work
- Simple Rules – reduce the clutter and make things clear
Where will you start in building dreams and simplifying the rules?
Adapted from Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, November 2015) by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. Book cover courtesy of the authors.
LeadBIG is excited to have professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones sharing their insights on simplifying the rules with our readers today. Rob Goffee is Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School. Gareth Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School. Goffee and Jones consult to the boards of several global companies and are coauthors of Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, Clever, and Why Should Anyone Work Here, all published by Harvard Business Review Press.