Tag Archives: rule-making

red concave bar 1

The Tyranny of Rule-Making

Our ability to write rules far exceeds our ability to live by them.

Anyone employed by a business or institution soon discovers that they “work” in what are often two very different tracks.  The organization presumably provides services  or produces products.  Some of an employee’s efforts go into helping assure that these services are delivered more or less as promised.  But in a big organization this primary goal may require looking through a maze of flow charts and routing procedures that obscure more basic ‘line’ functions.  It’s clear enough what line people do:  purchasing, manufacturing, sales and keeping the books.  They are directly responsible for whether a  customer is satisfied.  But the commitment of staff resources to “supporting” these functions can be a runaway train.  It seems as if our abilities to write new procedures far exceeds our abilities to live by them.

Staff culture in a larger organization ostensibly augments essential line functions.  That’s the idea, at least.  In actual fact they may come to swamp the organization’s morale and efficiency, setting rules and standards that seem to exist for their own sake.  And because organizations have hierarchies, those in charge carry a formal authority that requires others to adapt and obey.  Read this mostly as the submission of “supporting data and materials,” which may take the form of various metrics, progress reports, mission statements, five-year goals, project proposals, staff evaluations, vendor reviews, self-assessments and the like.  And so while even a mid-level employee does things to shape the final product or service on offer, he or she will also need to spend a lot of time learning the organizational labyrinth.  In really big organizations there are even “compliance officers” who do nothing but police arcane procedures. One set of offices gains power by asking  another for paper evidence of their worth.

This kafkaesque thicket is why one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics is still an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.  Professor Donna Strickland said she just didn’t want to bother with the mountains of paper should would have had to produce in order to win a promotion.  Never mind that the University might recognize her talents on its own.

In an ideal organization perhaps no more than two hours a week would be devoted to “process” issues: reports, memoranda, applications,  meetings and the like that the hierarchy needs to keep itself well fed.  Alas, we seem to have developed institutions where final results are hardly noticed by those stuck in middle management distractions and useless cul-de-sacs.


Strictly ancillary administrative functions seem to metastasize into ever larger “support” bureaucracies.

Workplace comedies usually include a healthy level of skepticism about procedures and rules that have become important for their own sake.  Cut off from meaningful improvements in the organization’s work, more employees spend their days finding new ways to be busy and seemingly vital.  The best recent example is the British series W1A (currently available on Netflix), a multi-part mockumentary ostensibly about work life at the B.B.C. Give the great broadcasting organization credit; it opened up its new offices to a group of actors mercilessly engaged in ransacking the company’s organizational life.  The series is filled with meaningless meetings that include staffers with meaningless titles.  There’s the well-paid Director of Better, a Head of Values, a Director of Strategic Governance, an “Ideation Architect”, and many “brand consultants.”   Throughout the series those folks do their best to avoid a uttering a clear opinion or committing to a course of action.  Above all, committee meetings show participants deeply wary of doing anything that could be an excuse to let them go.  Here’s the  genial but clueless Head of Values (Hugh Bonneville)  holding his first meeting of “The Way Ahead” task force group.

What does this all mean? Complexity is not a reliable sign of organizational success.  Once as Chair of an academic department I tried to answer every request for a report or proposal in one page or less.  Other chairs in the school often submitted documents too thick to staple.  Mine arrived as a weightless single sheet.  Who said Professors of Rhetoric are wordy?  I’m sure the Dean thought this was some sort of passive-aggressive gesture, though we were always on good terms.  My larger goal was serious: to remove useless verbiage to focus on what our program could deliver to our students.

red bar

‘Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse’

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-makers measure success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  

I am optimistic by nature.  But that optimism doesn’t extend to organizational life.  As time passes, even very good organizations seem to have natural tendencies to layer their rules and procedures with ever more layers.  Rules and procedures are rarely streamlined.  Instead, they are supplemented.  If policies and guidelines are burdensome now, just wait a few years.  They will be even more numerous.

This tendency is equivalent to the process of ‘lawyering up’ that has happened in many corporations and institutions over the last decades.  As the law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz noted, a common litigation strategy is “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that an organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.  The more the other side is papered, the more it is encumbered by procedures and rules.

I’ve written about this “papering” process before. In hindsight it seems as durable an organizational impulse as any. Even though paper has been replaced by online files, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.” Indeed, our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, evaluators, consultants, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, ethics officers, assistant managers, quality-assurance advisors, contract law specialists and others–some with the kind of obsessive-compulsive tendencies that would be recognized in a mental health facility.

Rules function in part to mystify others into compliance.  It seems their attractiveness comes from the very human need to impose behavioral norms on others. I used to think of a bureaucracy’s love of forms functioned for its own sake.  But it seems more likely that this feature of modern life flows from an interest in exercising power and control.  That need blinds us to the advantages of individual initiative.  “I’ll get the task done on time” has too often been replaced by the question, “What rubric should I follow?”  The quick jump to deference to procedure is a smoother pathway to organizational success.  And who does not like to suggest that their procedures ought to be followed by everybody?

The compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists to reverse the process.

Organizational culture naturally seeks uniformity, which is not always always a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.  And so most of my colleagues spend more of their working time completing forms, documenting their work, submitting to endless reviews, and attending less-than-essential meetings where more procedures can be dreamed up. My campus has 110 active  ‘memorandas of agreement’ that faculty and staff are supposed to follow to the letter. A colleague in health care similarly reports that paperwork from the insurance industry is turning into an endless tsunami of requests for even more documentation.  Who has time for patients?

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.  New procedures stack up like layers of ocean sediment.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the redefinition of professional success as compliance rather than initiative.