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Rules aren’t created for those who will comply

I already wrote about our non-traditional organizational structure and the increasing reliance on communities the organize our teams. I recently had an interesting conversation about the use of rules within communities and within the overall organization.

Breaking the rules

The conversation went something like this.

  • Dan – “We already use self-organized teams and increasingly rely on communities to get our goals done. Why do we need to add formal rules? Isn’t this against our approach of trusting people?”
  • Me – “Implementing rules doesn’t mean we don’t trust people. The rules are simply there to help everyone understand which behaviors are acceptable so our community can work efficiently.”
  • Dan – “This goes against self-organized teams. If the teams want to work without rules, they should be allowed to.”
  • Me – “Yes, but only up to a certain point. Without rules you will quickly get chaos and anarchy. I believe rules should disappear over time but they are initially required to help regulate the actions of the group.”
  • Dan – “I believe we shouldn’t have any rules. If I want to do something, I don’t want any stupid rules to prevent me from doing it…”
  • Me [light bulb goes on in my head] – I wonder if people oppose rules because they may (want to) break them…

This question quickly lead me to the debate around the proposed legislation to reduce the blood-alcohol level from 80 to 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood. A similar public debate was launched when Quebec decided to experiment with photo radar a few months ago. In both cases, it seemed to me that the arguments often used to oppose such rules are that they go against people’s freedom. Although the rules make sense, you will find many people who will oppose the rules pretending they interfere with their freedom of choice and action.

It appears to me that the people who oppose rules may eventually break them and as such, anticipate being caught. Keep in mind that rules are very rarely opposed by those who will comply with them.

  1. Seems to me that Dan has rules of his own :

    Rule #1 : Teams must be self-organized
    Rule #2 : No rules allowed

    Rules will always exist, whether formally or informally. With that in mind, we might as well come up with some good ones. Oh! By the way, the best ones will come from the teams.

    If it makes anybody more comfortable, replace the word “rules” with “sandbox”, “guard rail” or “guidelines”.


    December 7, 2009
    • I love the ideas of “guard rail” and “guidelines”.

      December 7, 2009
    • I love it. Ensure the rules come from the self-organized team and change the vocabulary. Too bad for Dan…

      December 7, 2009
  2. I agree with both Dan and you.

    Where I agree with you:
    – We need rules to prevent the complexity falling to chaos.
    – After all, self-organization is about making sensible rules in the context of the team.

    Where I agree with Dan:
    – Rules leaves out context. They may have been created for a good reason (even this is questionable), but with time they lose their meaning, and even prevent adaptation.
    – Rules often cost a lot, only to be maintained.


    December 7, 2009
    • You bring good points Yann. Rules do need to be challenged. Tremeur had a great post (French) on this topic a few weeks ago.

      As for the cost of maintaining the rule, self-organized teams should assess if the value of implementing a rule will exceed (or not) its cost. If not, a different rule should be sought or the team should discuss if implementing the rule is required in the first place.

      December 7, 2009
      • “Rules do need to be challenged”

        When I was studying arts I was told that rules were for the beginners, so they won’t mistakes, and they were to be broken as needed by the experienced artists

        December 8, 2009
  3. And remember to challenge everything

    December 7, 2009
  4. Martin

    By introducing formal rules too early you risk stifling emergent values, implicit rules and behaviour. It’s a short term cost/long term beenfit thing.

    December 7, 2009
    • Indeed Craig. Rules should only be introduced when required and in order to improve the team’s performance. It should be the self-organized team’s decision to implement new rules after they have had the opportunity to experiment without rules for a while.

      Thanks for your comment.

      December 7, 2009
  5. Julien #

    A problem with formal rules is that it is often the decision of one single person (the Ruler) imposed upon a whole team (the… hmmm… Rulee).

    Very often, the Ruler is not affected by it’s own rules and cannot see it’s drawbacks unless he receive feedback from the Rulee.

    When a Rulee complains about a rule or try to chalenge it, it’s perceived by some Ruler as a chalenge to it’s autority, instead of an opportunity of improvement, therefore pushing the Rulee to break the rule as the only mean of improving it’s situation.

    Here are some exemples of rules and their direct consequence :
    “Rule #1 : Do not talk about Fight Club.”
    – Brings more members to the Fight Club each week.

    “God’s ways are inscrutable.”
    – Push unconvinced Christians to atheism.

    “Don’t look down!”
    – Makes anyone look down.

    “Rule #2 : Do NOT talk about Fight Club!”
    – Brings even more members to the Fight Club each week.

    December 9, 2009
  6. I never heard about self-organized teams before (and I read a lot about Project Management). I read your article about the subject, and IMO, creating rules defies the whole purpose.

    January 27, 2010
  7. Does it bother you that nobody invented the rules of the English language? They evolved (and continue to evolve) out of complete unregulated chaos.

    Does it bother you that nobody enforces language rules by punishing violators?

    If something as complex as language can be left to chaos why can’t small teams of intelligent people?

    April 27, 2010

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