For New Years — Identifying and Utilizing the Legalistic v-Meme — Good Scaffolding

UAV and Ryan.jpg

Ryan Woods and our African Painted Dog-Chasing UAV, Summer 2015

One of the big challenges that confront managers attempting to transform their organizations to more synergistic, creative enterprises is understanding the role of rules.  How do you manage some modest level of hierarchy in a more empathetic, free-thinking organization?  It’s not easy.  And as friend Jake Leachman pointed out, it’s important to differentiate rules from values (regardless how much some folks will scream.)  Values are more fuzzy, definitionally, where as rules — well, they’re the rules.

I’ll tell you from personal experience, though — you need rules.  Rules serve as constraints from total creativity, and while that might sound restrictive, it will actually encourage creativity and synergy if done right.

Let’s consider how that works, from a historical perspective.  Back when I was in college (dinosaurs were still ambling the streets, and leopard skin tunics were the hot number) friends of mine were working on developing some of the first consumer/commercial Ethernet products.  There were a plethora of algorithms for networking — I can remember, as a young boy, dreaming of Apollo token ring workstations strung together in a row — but what it really meant was that nothing could work together unless it was built under the same roof.

Along came the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) movement, started in 1977, where the International Organization for Standardization laid out a general plan for various network layers, drafted by Hubert Zimmerman.  Though the TCP/IP Internet protocol ended up being the one primarily implemented for construction, the OSI turned into more of a semantic model that still guides networking today.  It pointed the creativity of an entire cutting-edge community toward developing the Internet we have today.  Appropriate standardization — one of the key aspects of the Legalistic v-Meme — is one of the primary drivers in creating a nervous system for our planet.

How do we decide what to standardize and what not to standardize?  Certainly there is some level of application dependence on the answer.  Framing the question appropriately is, however, important.  One of the ways I like to approach the problem is by considering a language analogy, originally introduced to my thinking through the Computer Graphics text by Foley and Van Dam.  The authors split up processing for computer graphics along a four part hierarchy:

  1.  Lexical — fundamental elements used to build phrases (words, phonemes, letters, etc.)
  2. Syntactic — rules used to string lexical elements together, but not responsible for larger meaning.
  3. Semantic — Rules for constructing paragraphs out of sentences, learned methods of expressing thoughts, etc.
  4. Conceptual — High level heuristics that deliver large, sweeping points that characterize a general argument.

Product variability, as well as reliability is going to dictate how many rules you’re going to have in how many places.  Naturally, more rules means more constrained designs.  If you want breakthrough thinking, you’re obviously not going to constrain concepts, or larger paradigms.  Think electricity — hydropower, natural gas combustion turbines, wind, solar, batteries and fuel cells are all valid conceptual level approaches.  But if you need a certain compactness, or a particular energy density, or you need to build on technology already generated by your experts, then some rules are going to be in order.

How can we perceive rules, and have a meaningful discussion about their place, and generation?  Here are some thoughts that require a little 2nd Tier reflection:

  1.  Consider rules from the v-Memes above and below.  What’s the percentage of effect of a rule on improving performance (the v-Meme above) vs. the % of effect on increasing/decreasing control?  Have the discussion in a grounded group.
  2. What’s the process for creation or changing of rules?  Rules only enfranchise your employees if there are meaningful ways to change them if they no longer apply.
  3. Recognize that rules are, fundamentally, belief structures.  They are the result of data and circumstances integrated over a number of instances.  Historical records of why rules came into being can be very helpful in managing, expanding, or deleting them.
  4. Avoid making rules for the first exception in behavior that comes along.  The rule is likely to be a weak rule, and have unintended consequences.
  5. Once you get a certain body of rules, practice timely deletion.  Don’t just leave archaic rules on the books.  Historical reflection helps here.
  6. Rules cost money.  Cost/benefit analyses of rules is always a good idea.  This concept goes along well with #4.
  7. Remember that rules have their fundamental limitation –Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.  The short version of understanding this famous proof is that there will always be spaces outside of rules, no matter how hard you try.

Finally, remember that rules, for good or bad, decrease agency and responsibility.  That’s what rules do!  Consider the impact on the creative direction of your workforce.  And remember — psychopaths, often the people for whom rules are intended to control, are the best ones in using rules to game the system.  There’s no substitute for real guiding principles in any operation.

Takeaway:  Just like the Performance v-Meme post, I’ve created a slide with tons o’ behavior to help you identify your own (and others) legalistic predilections.  Enjoy!


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