Death by treacle, and how to avoid it

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:

Do not stir your tea with a spoon

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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4 responses to “Death by treacle, and how to avoid it”

  1. DA says:

    Rules are good – necessary, in fact. It’s probably the only way to maintain balance (notice how I avoided using ‘order’) as the entropy of a company/society increases.
    I’m not sure if you’re referring strictly to “bylaws”, that address the behavior of individuals in the work place, or if you’re including bona-fide business/technology rules as well.
    I’ll assume it’s the latter (since you mentioned expenses, and I consider that in a different category from “demonstrate proper manners”). The truth is that, in a growing company, the rate of assimilation of new employees is too high to maintain the ol’ garage atmosphere and mentality. You’d be wasting too much time trying to solve many problems, in multiple instances each, the “hard way” – by discussing. Rules are the effective solution, albeit with a slight negative impact of psychological nature: some will be shaking their head wondering where all the fun has gone. I say that’s an acceptable cost for keeping a healthy business atmosphere – people must understand professionalism is expected at the work place.
    A few examples:
    – at a previous job, a football table and a gaming console were set up in a lounge area, within earshot of offices. If you think people were considerate and played only after x o’clock while keeping the noise down, you’d be mistaken, and hence a rule to that effect had to be posted on the walls;
    – (skipping over examples similar with yours, related to common courtesy at the workplace), at my present company a branching strategy (with rules) was set up, to ease code management, to prevent loss of fixes and so on. The strategy was a significant departure from previous practice, and was evangelized for quite some time prior to introduction. We’d like to think it was well explained, to team leads and individual devs alike. All agreed, on paper, and we moved to implementation. After many months since its introduction, there are still blatant violations, mostly done for the sake of convenience (ie it takes a few extra seconds to merge properly vs doing unhealthy hacks). Sure, there are solutions and we’re looking into them, but it takes time to roll them out. It has certainly changed my opinion of relying on the power of persuasion when it comes to technical issues, and I believe it’s a problem inherent with growing companies. Specialization of staff must happen, so that not everyone is doing the same task in their own manner.
    The point is that, if left unguarded, the problematic few can either cause the most severe of problems, or waste all of your time in pointless discussions. Rules are meant to help with the fluidization of workflow, don’t assume they’re necessarily creating a tar pit.

  2. Andy Brice says:

    > 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.
    Just to be awkward:

  3. DA,
    I agree that you need *some* rules, but I think there’s a tendency to generate rules without thinking about the result.
    In your examples above, I’d argue that you need to address the problematic few directly rather than create rules which will impact the decent many but which the problematic few will probably ignore anyway.
    With the football table example, I’d have a word with the people who were being antisocial, or avoid the issue by moving it to somewhere where they wouldn’t disturb people.
    I think written rules are different from informal ‘codes’. ‘Codes’ are part of the culture. They’re part of the culture, they’re not written down, and they’re enforced from within, by peer pressure. Written rules are from the top and are written down.
    Having a rule ‘if you play football then you must keep the noise down’ is different to creating a culture with a code of not being antisocial.
    – Neil

  4. leymoo says:

    There are certain issues that are very difficult to confront eg considerate use of the bathroom and toilets, and a blanket rule is better than individually embarrassing the person, as it solves the issue without the shame.
    The problem with general rules eg “be considerate” is that there are as many interpretations of this as there are people, thus causing misunderstandings.
    I actually work in a place with a lot less treacle than I’m used to, and it’s excellent. People also treat each other with common decency as well, and things are generally more efficient. But I am aware that only works for certain work cultures, and in certain workplaces the signs are needed… unfortunately.