June 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm #102256
Got this in my Partnership Pipeline? Thoughts?
Federal Employees Shouldn’t Be Slaves to Rules
By Steve Kelman
I teach an executive education class in which we discuss the pros and cons of designing organizations that rely heavily
on rules, as opposed to those in which frontline employees are
empowered to make decisions about the best course of action. Rules do
have virtues, particularly for wielding control and easing coordination
across organizational units. They can also represent a useful
codification of knowledge so people don’t need to reinvent the
wheel. However, they can create problems because people often become
psychologically dependent on them — a disease that organizational
theorists call “rule worship.”
During a recent discussion of those issues, one class participant said
he often heard employees claim that the rules required them to behave
in certain ways. But when they were pressed to cite the rules in
question, the employees were unable to point to any rule with the
alleged requirements. I then asked the class, made up of GS-15 federal
managers and their military equivalents, how many of them had
experienced the same situation. Nearly every one of the 70-odd
participants raised his or her hand. I was taken aback by just how
prevalent it was.
That perception is a problem. Organizational scholar Henry Mintzberg
has written that rules are intended to specify a minimum standard of
acceptable performance. But in organizations with many rules, employees
can easily get the signal that following the rules is their entire job.
After they’ve followed the rules, they don’t need to do
I saw that attitude in action when I first started working on
procurement issues in the government in 1993. Agencies were still
mostly buying commercial software in shrink-wrapped individual packages
when large companies were saving money by buying enterprise licenses.
Why was the government doing that? Because nobody wanted to break the
rules. The software was bid openly and competitively, and the
government got the lowest price anybody paid for shrink-wrapped
software. But that wasn’t an intelligent business practice, and
no one seemed to see it as part of their job to go beyond the rules and
ask if that buying strategy made sense.
Supervisors and managers who work for organizations that are very
rule-bound — which describes many agencies — need to take
steps to counteract employee perceptions that their jobs consist only
of following the rules.
June 5, 2010 at 6:59 pm #102260
Tough to make generalizations, but I can imagine the chaos if one didn’t obey the rules. Having said that I get very frustrated when the reply to the question “why do we do this this way?” is “because of the rules”.
I try to live my professional life, the best I can, by the advice I got from one of my first supervisors “rules are made to be changed”. Early on in my career I learned that if you wanted to change the rules, a simple request was NOT going to get it done and that you had better be willing to not only explain/justify the change but be willing to pay a “price”, in some cases, if the request was disapproved.
Been a rather long time since I was employed by anything other than a federal government organization BUT my contacts with people in the private sector, and my memory tend to indicate that the government has NO corner on this issue
June 7, 2010 at 1:20 am #102258
@Henry — My most memorable rule changing experience came in the mid 80s as a young Congressional staffer. The boss wanted the Corps of Engineers and the EPA to conduct a joint study of hydrology in our area and tasked me with coordinating the effort, arranging meetings and drafting legislation. At one point we had a Major General from the Corps in the office explaining why our request could not be accommodated. He kept quoting rules and regulations and we kept nodding and replying, “how do we deal with that?” The General got more and more frustrated and finally blurted: “You don’t understand! It would take an act of Congress to supersede these regulations!” There was dead silence and then my boss picked up the name plate on his desk, looked at it, turned to the General and said “I sort of assumed it would. That is why we’re having this meeting. Can you give us the information we need to draft that legislation?” A light went off in the General’s face, he became very helpful and we attached the legislation to a bill that became law later in the year. We were never able to get the project funded but still, I learned that rules truly are meant to be changed.
Later, while working as a full time National Guard Recruiter, I helped several recruits get enlistment waivers. Many of them required 2 star signatures and one went to the Secretary of the Army (waived a prior felony). Tough work, but I learned rules can always be waived by the proper authority.
I put those two lessons together and have come to believe that while it may take work to change or waive the rules; these two options eliminate any excuse for breaking them.
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