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Unlocking Talent

August 21, 2008

Writing in the Opinion column in The Times this week, Libby Purves exhorts us ‘to break the rules’.

Her article cites a number of recent instances where ‘bureaucracy’ has either caused or threatened to cause disaster and loss of life.  These include disciplinary action against a lifeboat crew for launching their boat and the sad stories of call centers that failed to despatch medical help because the caller could not give the postcode.

Her point, of course, is not that rules are unnecessary, but that petty bureaucrats often misunderstand or misapply them. Her words almost echo those we have been using at IACCM: she talks about people who “get the traning, tick the right multiple-choice boxes and refuse to think there might be another choice, not listed”.

This brings to mind the whole balanced scorecard syndrome. It reminds me of procurement and contracts staff with checklists of standard terms and conditions. It reflects a conversation I had with a General Counsel this week: “Wouldn’t you think that the purpose of a risk register is to induce action?” he asked me. “For many people, they seem to think that they have done their job just by filling in the boxes.”

Let’s not pretend such stories are unknown in our organization. The image of lawyers, contracts and procurement staff as slow, risk averse and unimaginative is not a creation of fiction. It reflects real experiences. Even today, I see the battle raging in many companies between the champions of compliance and the champions of innovation and change – as if these were somehow alternative states, rather than mandatory conditions for business success which must therefore be reconciled.

Why does this happen? Why do some people just apply rules in this mindless way? Sometimes it is simply lack of time or lack of caring. Others it may be down to fear of making decisions or enjoyment of petty power. No matter what the cause, it is the duty of those who care about their image to ensure it does not happen. Any ‘profession’ is tarnished by those practitioners who fail to demonstrate empathy with their clients and lack the intelligence or ability to exercise judgment. They should be trained or they should be removed.

Once again, Libby Purves sums this up in terms that mirror the IACCM message: “Real training lays down a framework of expertise and safety not to prevent initiative, but to free it. If you really know the rules and their purpose, you can judge when to make an exception and break them.”

In today’s business world, where creativity and the ability to adjust to rapid change are such critical elements of corporate and personal competitiveness, this ability to make good judgment is at a premium. Yet all around us is a growing body of rules, both internal and external. These run the risk of creating growing inertia and conflict – but alternatively they offer the opportunity for talented managers to demonstrate their ability to apply judgment and imagination in their application.

And lest you read this and think “this does not apply to me”, let me pose one final challenge.

Bureaucracy is not just about the way we personally behave. For example, many lawyers are great at exercising judgment. But they often believe that they are the only ones with that ability, so they force their surrogates to become bureaucrats by demanding that situations be referred to them. They should instead be thinking about how they could empower others to make better decisions. Forcing people to gain permission for their actions is just another form of bureaucracy. Making yourself into a funnel slows things down and often forces people into the bad decisions that you claim you are trying to avoid.

Hence Purves’ point about training. Our task is to manage the complexity of a rules-based culture by empowering others to make good decisions. In a perfect world, we would in fact make ourselves unnecessary! (But don’t fear, perfection still looks a long way off.)

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