Thursday, September 19, 2013

Overcoming Inertia: Changing the Rules

Overcoming Inertia: There is perhaps no single facet of any organization where inertia is greatest – where you stare more clearly into the face of the problem – then in the process of dealing with ‘the Rules.’

Every organization has them; from the most basic three man fishing club to the US government rules are the daily guidance that ensures everyone acts ‘according to the wishes of the organization.’  Rules (and regulations and policies and all the other categories) are the guidance, the minutia, that keeps every person and every office and every department, every ship, airplane, fleet and army, acting in the ‘right way.’  The old saw from the military that there is ‘a right way, a wrong way and an Army way’ is accurate: there is, there must be, an Army way.  And to succeed in the Army you must do things the Army way.

But if you want to change the Army (or your fishing club), you really must change the rules.  And the larger and more complex the organization, the larger and more complex are the rules.  More to the point, if you are trying to change your organization, but you do not change the rules, and certain rules in particular - rules that govern selection and promotion of people, standards of performance, standards of behavior, rules that truly guide the people in how they act and who they are - then all the other rules can be changed and you will have little long-term impact on the organization.  You can grind through dozens of strategies, vision statements, guiding principles, ‘town halls’ to talk about change, slide presentations, pages and pages of social media releases and all the rest; it won’t matter if you don’t change the rules.

On the other hand, change how the organization defines its people – its real rules - and you will affect substantial change.

As a general rule for changing any organization, and overcoming organizational inertia, the following rules – at a minimum - should be changed:

Hiring and Firing rules: as mentioned earlier, the power to hire and fire and promote needs to be taken out of the hands of ‘the organization’ (also known as the Personnel Department or Human Resources, etc.) and placed in the hands of the leadership – so that those who hire and promote, etc., are clearly known, and when they succeed it is evident and when they fail to promote the right people it is also evident.

Paperwork and Reports: Reporting requirements should be constantly monitored, eliminating those reports that are redundant or do not clearly support ‘the  mission.’

Ethics and Standards: These must be kept to an absolute minimum.  There is a large and complex society that already defines morals, ethics and standards.  There are also a wide range of professional organizations (the ABA, the AMA, the FAA, etc., etc., etc.) that define behavior.  Do you really need another layer?  Only if you intend to set substantially higher standards should there be any effort in this direction.

Culture: the rules that act as the ‘grease’ to the organization; (young and small organizations try to avoid these rules (though they are present), older and larger ones generate them by the score).  Many of these rules are unwritten, but in as the organization matures, they become more and more important in defining the organization.  Before you attempt any change, you need to understand these particular rules, and you need to have an understanding of which ones need to be addressed if you are to change the organization.
In the final analysis, in any organization the Rules need to be changed if you hope to have a meaningful impact.  You may find many rules are protected by law or contract or corporate governance agreements – some of this is good, some of this are signs of nothing more than institutional inertia.  One way to start this process is to begin with the simplest rules: periodic reports – which ones are needed, which aren’t?  Procedures for dealing with customers or filling orders, work schedules, etc., etc.  Take a hard look at your organization’s rules on the ‘little things: schedules, report formats (not the reports themselves, just the formats), appearances (titles on doorways, types of stationery, etc.), everything should be considered.  Begin with the trivial and items not focused on in the major goals of the organization and work ‘up’ from there.


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