Here’s something that scares me: one day I’ll wake up and realise that Red Gate, the company I’ve helped create, has turned into a treacle-filled bureaucracy. One reason this scares me is the insidious nature of treacle. It doesn’t burst through the levees in a single, predictable and defensible incident. It seeps in over the years, through the cracks in the walls and the gaps in the floors of the structures we build.
So, how to stop death by treacle?
First, don’t create rules for the many based on the sins of the few:
Here, somebody has sinned. Maybe he stirred his tea with a spoon and then put it back with the clean cutlery. Rather than dealing with the individual (‘excuse me – can you use a wooden stirrer please’), ignoring the transgression (is it really such a big deal?) or revisiting the underlying assumptions (maybe there’s a reason he wants to stir his tea with a spoon), somebody decided to legislate and punish the many for the sins of the few.
There are a lot of signs in this particular cafeteria: ‘Do not change diapers in this restaurant’; ‘Do not let your children climb on the furniture’; ‘ No smoking’; ‘Do not eat food brought in from elsewhere’. No individual rule is disastrous. But in their aggregate, the rules change the atmosphere – the culture – of the place.
Creating the rule was easy: a simple matter of scribbling a note on a piece of card. Solving the particular situation would have been harder. It would have meant talking to the customer, explaining the problem, understanding his point of view and risking a confrontation (‘what do you mean, I can’t stir my tea with a frigging spoon?’). Harder, but better.
You’d never have the equivalent of a ‘do not stir your tea with a spoon’ notice at your company, right?
I bet that you do. Have you really never created a general rule when you should have dealt with the difficult, specific problem instead? Have you never created an expenses policy, or a working hours policy, or an internet porn policy, slowly covering the ankles of the many in treacle, when you should have confronted the brutal facts and dealt with the problematic few?
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