Force and Excellence

I read a quote this week that sums up a large part of why policies often fail to achieve their objectives:

Just remember: people tend to resist that which is forced upon them. People tend to support that which they help to create. —Vince Pfaff

Policies fail because they are forced upon people without any input to address their needs and concerns. This is counter to a culture of excellence, a mindset where people are enabled to perform their best and do so because they love what they do.

Policies were born out of a need to prohibit undesired activity. We have names for the desired activities we want instead: best business practices, security controls, change management, and others. These are good things indeed, but it does not change that policies exist to prohibit activity. In the great attempt to stop bad things from happening, policies usually end up just preventing excellence from blooming in their “squish activities first, ask questions later” manner.

Policies are often like a law in a corporation and are enforced by the culture of the organization, if not by the threat of disciplinary action. In any case, if someone has a need counter to a policy and does so by direct violation then he will find just how much force the organization can muster to defend the policy, though it may not come immediately if the violation is swept under the table. If you have oppressive policies in your organization, you can be certain there are violations happening out of sight. One way or another, those violations will cause problems of their own in time.

In a natural state, an individual will strive for excellence. People all have something they are very good at, and they want to do it. People that match their careers up to their desires have an awesome potential. This is why new businesses are able to flourish and even show up the established behemoths. A startup is highly focused and filled with people with lots of passion and drive for the product they make. These people have little, if any, policy to stand in the way of their excellence, and when we see them in the news their excellence has already flowered into something beautiful.

Of course, not all startups succeed, but due to those that do we know it happens. This point is important because if the large corporation that is being challenged was really a center of excellence then the startup should have no chance of ever succeeding. An established company has a customer base already, and presumably some credentials in the field. The established company already has the same focus as the startup—let us say they both make Widgets—and it has a lot more money and resources it can devote to producing those Widgets than the startup. However, as the startup proceeds people notice that the new company’s Widgets are better or more convenient or have whatever it is people want in a Widget. Why did not that innovation come from the established company? The difference in the Widgets is due to the difference in individual excellence displayed by employees at each company. Some people say that luck has something to do with it, too, but that is really an excuse for someone that does not work hard to make their own luck.

Policies are not the only cause of the erosion of excellence. Actually, bad policies are more a symptom of bad management, which itself will erode excellence more than policies can. However, the policies are often the visible agent of the oppression of excellence when bad management presides over an organization. The real story behind bad policies is the bad management behind them, and the subject of bad management takes us back to Pfaff’s quote above. Bad managers force orders upon their employees. Good managers become co-creators with their employees.

The roles of policies under bad management are enforcement and control. The roles of policies under good management is facilitating excellence and documenting foregone conclusions. These are policies that are documentation of decided practices instead of being the ruler to slap the back of the hand; these policies might be used to remind people of their own decisions (and referred to just like a checklist) instead of telling them what someone else already decided for them. What do the policies at your company do?

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