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Rules is rules

By Dave Snowden  ·  January 29, 2013  ·  Reflections

There are those who love the language of complexity, but fail to really think it through.  Self-organisation and emergence are taken to mean anarchy, when in fact, the essence of a complex system is there constraints of some type are necessary for emergence to happen.  Then we get statements like Rules are only guidance and the like which generally come from those who lack responsibility (a double meaning here) and can therefore indulge themselves in loose collections of populist platitudes.

The simple truth is that human societies, and organisations need rules.  Not only those some of those rules need to be enforced.   We have the obvious ones at a society level that protect life and limb.  Protecting the weak does not arise from self-organisation despite Anarchist dogma.  If you are really taken in by that fantasy read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed or try and run a company on such principles.  Safety issues also require rules.  In an operating theatre there need to be rules that enforce best practice (the simple domain of Cynefin) and which control professional qualification to perform the operation in the first place (the complicated domain).

On the other hand, rules can also be used to stifle initiative and prevent the legitimate exercise of human judgement.  Why anyone ever conflates Lean with Sick Stigma is a source of puzzlement to me.  Lean, properly understood, is about eliminating the type of excessive control created by 6σ.  So excessive rule making attempts to treat a complex system as it it was ordered, frequently with catastrophic consequences.  However calling all rules guidelines or seeking to remove them is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. And, to be brutally honest, those of us who want to achieve real change could do with out the idealistic prattling of the inconsequential and the foolishly idealistic. 

One of the points of Cynefin is to create boundaries of legitimacy between different and potentially contradictory conditions.  

  • So rigid enforced rules for action are more than appropriate for the simple domain.  Not only that, there are some things which while complex we want to make simple, so in human society we can choose to impose rules to create order.  If we do it too excess, or inappropriately then we get the collapse into Chaos, the bottom boundary of Cynefin.
  • In the complicated domain authority relates to process.  So we have rules that cover the qualifications of experts and processes to enforce appropriate analysis.  The mistake here is to restrict the application of that expertise to single options.  Any expert knows about the nuances of behaviour, external consultants generally don't.  

When we move out of order into the complex domain however rules are unlikely to be appropriate, but control and management is still needed.  This is where heuristics come into play, and they have a longer pedigree in human systems than guidelines.  One well known case is the one used by the US Marines when battlefield command breaks down: capture the high ground, stay in touch, keep moving.  

My developing view on this whole field is that we need fewer, simple, better enforced rules.  Then we need a clear rule for when (or who) we can break the rules and heuristics that apply on the other side of the boundary.  If you have to break the rules then that is OK, it will happen, but you have to then follow the heuristics.   If you break the rules and don't follow the heuristics then punishment is legitimate.  If you break the rules and follow the heuristics then we know sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't, but you should not be punished.   

This field is of growing importance.  Most health and safety regimes end up with excessive rules designed to protect the organisation from prosecution.  They are not really there to make people healthier or safer.  Organisations then depend on people breaking the rules to get the job done which is terribly hypocritical.  Pragmatism requires rules and heuristics with a proper boundary between the application of both.  Those who reject rules are as bad as those who impose them, both damage people and their social interaction.