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The Killer Rule

In my last blog I talked about how alignment can help resolving the dilemma of the necessity and the fallibility of rules and procedures. Every conscientious leader wrestles with the problem of how to leave employees free to do what they deem good for the organisation, whilst 'running a tight ship' that is as efficient as possible, wasting minimal resources and time. For the latter objective, a clear set of rules and procedures is necessary, but they will regularly interfere with the former.

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), understood very well how a manual of rules can start to lead its own life. He was also aware that the rules cannot cover all eventualities. Having been pressed by others for a long time, he eventually wrote the Constitutions, but stated in the introduction that the rules should never have absolute power; 'Man always comes first.' In a situation where a better, more humane solution appears to be countering the Constitutions, this more humane solution must always be chosen.

In my opinion this is how all rule books should start: ‘Here are the rules of the game. At all times keep in mind what the game is really about. If you do, it may mean that you will act against the rules -- and rightly so.' There is no game without rules, nor is there a game without healthy interpretation of the rules.

When I discussed this with a leader of a big organisation undergoing serious change, he liked it enough to add the following rule to the new set they had just defined: “If a situation warrants an action which you deem necessary but goes against the rules we have defined: Go ahead and act, but inform us afterwards.”

Isn’t that great? Looks like the best of both worlds. Of course, it might not always turn out beneficially, but following the rules blindly doesn’t offer any guarantees either. The important thing is that as a group, you’ll be more flexible to adapt to changing circumstances, and will be able to learn and improve when discussing why you deviated from the rules.

Adapting and improving, that’s what it is about if you wish to survive and thrive as an individual, species or organisation.

How can we ensure that different individuals with different competencies and insights collaborate towards a shared objective, a goal that could not be reached alone? How do we adapt continuously to changing environments? Viewing your organisation as a living organism is definitely closer to the truth -- and more effective -- than the old machine metaphor where all the cogs have to interlock and be synchronised. I believe an organisation IS a living organism, it's just different from what we are used to see in biology.

Let’s discuss that in the next blog.


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