Rules should define the space, not fill it

John Kay's column in the Financial Times today chimes with a quote that struck me recently:

"Rules are good. They define the edges of things"

It made me think, specifically, about how rules are used in different domains of Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. In the Simple (Known) domain, rules dominate – things are completely predictable, as long as the environment doesn't change. In the Complicated (Knowable) domain, order still predominates – and the temptation of experts and managers will always be to build edifices of rules.

In the Complex domain, however, things should be different. I've tended to say that rules are not applicable here, but on reflection, that's in part a reflection on my own tendency to push back against them. What the quote above illuminated for me is that there is a place for them – in setting boundaries. Rules have a positive role to define the space in which actions can take place – making some things out of bounds.

The problem is that in an attempt to control what goes on in a complex space, the temptation – particularly for those with a background in a Complicated discipline – is to fill the space with rules. Which doesn't work – as John Kay points out in his article, using the faintly ridiculous (but uncomfortably familiar) example of office dress codes.

People will always stretch the limits of whatever specific rules are implied, and in doing so violate the spirit of the regulation as they adhere to its letter

We had a similar problem at IBM Greenock in the 1990s – dress-down Fridays were becoming the rage in many other parts of the technology industry. But we were manufacturing and engineering – dyed-in-the-wool old school management. Too difficult and contentious a decision to take from the Site Director's office, a survey went out (to managers only) asking about whether we should have dress-down days. In the comms team, we were gearing up to announce the results (a resounding no) when Lou Gerstner – IBM Chairman and CEO – appears in a Wall Street Journal front page article "IBM's not a strict dress code place anymore – we're more relaxed". Cue much gnashing of teeth in Greenock.

When we finally announced that dress-down was now an option, the tone of the communication was distinctly "…if you feel you must." And was accompanied by a clear set of guidelines to go with it. This was the start of my waistcoat phase – in part because nowhere was it directly proscribed.

As Kay goes on:

In the regulation of business affairs, from dress codes to rules on takeovers, it is always tempting to try to translate general principles – do not expose major financial institutions to excessive risks, treat customers fairly, refrain from anti-competitive behaviour, set reasonable prices – into specific rules. But the world is rarely sufficiently clear and certain for this to be possible, and if it seems so today it will have ceased to be so tomorrow. There will be many people who will stretch the limits of whatever specific rules are implied, and in doing so violate the spirit of the regulation as they adhere to its letter.

Rules, despite my resistance, have their place. Replacing common sense with rules, however, implies a lack of trust and a desire to control in areas where trust is essential and influence the better tool.