RecoveringFed writes on Why We Don’t Need no Stinking Rules

This is a repost from my blog

If you recall my post early on regarding the lessons I learned from 25 years as a CIA manager, I was able to recall 16. (And I also promised to flesh out most of them in individual posts–still planning on it.) But I ran across this useful piece yesterday on how the controls imposed by managers create unnecessary complexity in organizations: by Ron Ashkenas over at the Harvard Business Review site. And it reminded me of yet another lesson–#17–Management by rule-making is almost always a mistake.

I wanted to write on this right away because it’s an issue that particularly afflicts the federal government. Most of my adult life the news media have been perched on poles, like vultures in the Texas Hill country, waiting to catch reports of the federal government doing something exquisitely stupid–which unfortunately is not a rare occurence, we are humans after all–so they can publicize it and mock it and therefore jack up advertisement rates. Of course, nothing much works for the news media these days to jack up advertisement rates, but the bloggers and social network outlets have taken up the slack just fine, thank you. Leaving aside for now whether this constant focus on the negative is productive or fair, the fact the federal government is everyone’s favorite GOTCHA doll contributes to its tendency to react to mistakes by making new rules–Ashkenas uses the Transportation Security Administration as his first example in his piece. And as these rules add up, “the accumulation of these “reactive” controls often creates complexity, confusion, and unnecessary cost.”

The public focus on government mistakes and the call from them and from Congress to do something about it is one of the dynamics that contribute to management by nonproductive rule-making. But there are others.

  • The role of ideology in setting government policies. When a policymaker has an ideological belief that concept X is essential to the survival of the republic and concept Y will only hasten its destruction, the tendency to create a rule is strong. These ideological debates could be settled by the use of data, but often neither side wants to take the risk.
  • The tendency for government functions to have legal and/or authoritative foundations. Much–but not all–of what government does is not suitable for market solutions–i.e. choices. Society functions perfectly well whether you shop at Walmart or Target, but we have yet to figure out how to run a society where individuals can shop for the legal structure they prefer. So the culture of making rules or authoritative decisions slides over into the process of government itself. Related, many of the appropriate functions of government, like national security, are REALLY important, and organizations that carry out these responsibilities like to ensure absolute conformity in execution.

Conformity in execution is important, but what is even more important is conformity in outcome, and that is where the complexity generated by constant rule-making gets you into trouble. A very smart consultant once told me that if you manage everything like it is an exception, then nothing is an exception. This captures the folly of reacting to every mistake with a new rule. So the next time you are tempted to make a new rule, think hard about the message you’re delivering to your work force. Do you want them to think or do you want them to follow rules? Your choice.

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