Ask Why When Considering a Policy

“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”  – Thomas Jefferson

I’m going to give everyone who ever made or implemented a policy a break. I’m going to say that every policy-maker had the very best of intentions when they created whatever policy it was that they created.

The policy or in some cases rule, was intended to prevent a current or potential problem. Maybe every policy has prevented a problem but there are a whole lot of policies that fixed one problem and created seven more.

Too often policy-makers consider only the consequences of NOT creating a policy and pay little attention to the consequences of creating one. What’s more, they almost never consider the consequences of the consequences of creating policy upon policy.

Just so we’re clear, I’m a big believer in the need for policies and processes and measurements.  Organizations need to have guidelines and those guidelines should absolutely be followed whenever possible.

When an organization’s policies are based on principles they should be rock solid, they should not flex. If they are really based on principles there can and should be no exceptions to the policy.

When policies are based on opinion, on trends, and on convenience, they should be incredibly flexible. 

Sometimes an organization’s policies will have “been on the books” for so long that no one remembers why the policy was even created. The “need” for that policy may be long gone but the policy persists, blindly enforced by those who have survived the need.

Things change, markets changes, people change, circumstances arise. When “stuff happens” organizations must be nimble enough to adjust their policies on the fly. Employees must be empowered, really truly empowered, to make a snap decision to adjust a policy. That empowerment is even more critical for customer-facing employees. 

Too many well intended policies have the effect of building walls between a business and their customers. Some well intended policies even make it harder for customers to do business with a company. The company’s policy-maker just couldn’t see things from a customer’s viewpoint and as a result, a wall-building policy was developed. 

When a policy is created by someone who will not be directly affected by the policy the odds are overwhelming that the outcome will be less than desirable. 

When a well-meaning employee of that business tells a customer, “unfortunately, our policy says….” you can bet that interaction will end badly for the customer. Organizations that find a way to make their policies work for the business AND the customer are the organizations that thrive.

Policies that separate an organization from their customers will eventually separate the organization from their profits. 

Policies need to be revisited from time to time. Some need to be reaffirmed while others need to go away. Just adding new policies every year is a poor business practice. Here’s an idea: cap the number of policies allowed to exist in your organization. Before anyone is allowed to add a new one, find one that no longer applies and send it to the trash heap of bad business bureaucracy. 

Remember, the more policies you have in place the more paralyzing your environment becomes for your people who have, or had, a bias for action. Never allow a policy to be implemented without asking WHY the policy is needed. After you’ve asked why, ask why again. If there is no absolute need for the policy then there is no need for the policy at all. Policies are great but like everything else in life and business, moderation is a key to success. 

10 thoughts on “Ask Why When Considering a Policy

  1. Paralysis by analysis.

    When it came to sales organizations one thing was clear. Whenever they created a policy, and the troops would get all bent out of shape, I’d always say, “Don’t worry, everything will change next quarter.” And, it usually did.

    Unfortunately it’s not a good way to lead. If you’re going to change policy, stick to it. Otherwise nobody will take you seriously.

    p.s Me hands are shaken thinkin bout gelato. ;-p

    • I’ve seen the same thing and you know what… If a policy can change quarter by quarter, or even year by year, you probably didn’t need to policy to begin with.

      BTW, there is a great Gelato shop in the Mall of America, think I’ll head over there…

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