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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Policy is for when you don't trust your staff anymore

I watched the video of David Heinemeier Hansson’s keynote address from RubyCon 2010 the other day. It was unapologetically pro-Ruby, and delivered with the flair and showmanship that has made DHH and 37Signals the polarising force that they are. Being quite fond of Ruby, I found myself nodding along to most of what David had to say. But I don’t wish to add even a small amount of new fuel to the programming language wars that seem to go on endlessly around the place. The purpose of this post is not to join in on any Ruby circle-jerking.

One of the things that particularly stood out to me in DHH’s keynote was a quote from Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language:

The very fact that it’s possible to write messy programs in Perl is also what makes it possible to write programs that are cleaner in Perl than they could ever be in a language that attempts to enforce cleanliness. The potential for greater good goes right along with the potential for greater evil.

The potential for greater good goes right along with the potential for greater evil. This is a great quote and it rings very true for me. Along with some other parts of David’s address, it got me to thinking about how the uniformity that we enforce in other aspects of life in order to minimise the potential for evil may also be minimising the potential for good. One such aspect of life that came to mind was the workplace. I have what I sometimes feel is a greater familiarity with the ways of the Australian Public Service that I would like. As with most government bureaucracies, the APS has more than its fair share of policies and guidelines. The APS also has more than its fair share of staff who almost seem to take an unreasonable amount of comfort in following – to the letter – every policy and guideline, regardless of whether reality may be indicating that the outcome may be better if just a little personal judgement was employed1. This kind of thing is not just confined to the public sector, I would imagine that similar shenanigans go on at almost any organisation once it becomes large enough and its hiring practices devolve sufficiently.

There seems to come a time when an organisation decides that it can no longer really trust its staff, there’s too many of them, maybe they’re too geographically disbursed. The usual solution seems to be to start making rules, lots of rules that govern each and every aspect of work. I could think of a few examples, but individually they wouldn’t really convey the feeling I’m trying to get across. It’s that feeling that every extra little rule added to the top of the pile combines to become more than the sum of the parts and creates a work environment that no longer fosters innovation, passion, enjoyment. In their place are apathy, disinterest and buck-passing.

Some time ago, I was at a job interview and the moment came around for an obligatory workplace diversity/occupational health and safety/industrial democracy question. The question was something like: “How do you foster productive working relationships with colleagues?”

I spoke about how I’m a very unassuming and easy person to get along with, how I listen when people speak, how developing working relationships isn’t just about talking shop it’s also about discovering shared interests that may lie outside of what’s directly work related, how my family is quite ethnically diverse and therefore ethnic diversity in the workplace is a normal situation for me, how doing favours for people not surprisingly makes them more willing to do favours for you, how you just need to treat people as people. There was a pause, and one of the interviewers then said: “Yes… But is there anything else?”

I thought quickly, and then remembering the nature of this organisation, I said something like: “I also ensure that I’m adhering to all relevant workplace harassment and diversity, occupational health and safety and industrial democracy policies.” This seemed to contain the necessary keywords and resulted in much head nodding and notebook scribbling.

Too many rules will at best cut off both ends of the bell curve and leave only the average workers at all gruntled with the situation. while the racist guy who got filtered out by the HR policies may be gone, odds are the clued up guy with the unconventional and original ideas also left because he’s sick of having to wade waist-deep through red tape to get anything done. Start treating your workers like they can’t think for themselves, and eventually that’s how they’ll become.

Having said all this, I’m not deranged enough to think that organisations, especially large ones can get by on anarchy. As with all things, there’s a balance to be found. I just think too much of the time this balance is eschewed in favour of slow death by policy.

What’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. My hunch is that keeping the hierarchy as flat and open as possible might help (something like the Google model, perhaps). Trying to combat the silo mentality that can so easily befall large organisations would also help I think, doing things that encourage cross-team and cross-branch communication. A positive organisational culture is generated by people talking to one another each day, not by a boring rulebook nobody wants to read that’s been handed down from on high. It would surely help to ensure that hiring practices do not devolve to the point where clueless HR staff are happy to put anyone on the books as long as they tick all the right boxes (tertiary education + regurgitated the required keywords at interview? Tick, you’re in).

I guess the other option is to stay small and agile. I like the sound of this option the best.

  1. I always think of an old quote that I believe was from Yes Minister or Yes, Prime Minister that went something like: “But I am a public servant, and therefore forbidden to use my own judgement in any way.” 

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