During the past week a number of conversations have clustered around the concept of “Simple Rules”. I began to appreciate the power of simple rules in organizational design and development though my work with Human Systems Dynamics (HSD). The concept of simple rules is a key component of complexity science. One of the distinguishing features of a complex system are the system-wide patterns that are continually emerging.
It is the existence of these simple rules (explicit or not) that govern the functioning of the system and influence behavioral patterns. The field of HSD emerged out of the complexity sciences and emphasizes the use of simple rules to help organizations provide a coherent way for “agents” in the system (employees, leaders, vendors and even customers) to work together.
In the September 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review “Embracing Complexity”, a lead article by Yves Morieux Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You offered further reflection on the importance of simple rules in organizational success.
“As the world has become more complex, companies have steadily increased their performance requirements: Now they strive to offer low prices and high quality; to customize products for local markets and standardize them for greater returns; to innovate and be efficient. The typical corporate response to such conflicting goals complicates things further: Firms restructure and try to align their organizations with extra coordinating functions, processes, and incentives.
This approach does more harm than good. Managers’ time gets sucked up by reports and meetings, leaving little time to work with employees. But there is a better way, says BCG senior partner Yves Morieux: Instead of strangling employees with new rules and procedures, create an environment in which they’re compelled to work with one another to develop solutions to complex challenges.
Managers can create this environment by applying six “smart rules”: (1) improve understanding of what coworkers do and the real constraints they face, (2) determine which people are the firm’s natural integrators and strengthen their roles, (3) expand the amount of power available to everyone, (4) increase the need for reciprocity in the system, (5) make employees feel the “shadow of the future,” and (6) hold uncooperative people accountable.
By tapping employees’ ingenuity through the use of smart rules, firms can manage complexity quickly and creatively—and streamline their organizations.”
- Executive Summary, Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You, Yves Morieux
I agree with the observation that organizations often react to complexity by increasing complicatedness. I also agree with Morieux’s alternative approach of focusing on the actions of “humans” in the system to create solutions.
Where we part ways is in how to instill a new “employee” focus that creates a powerful and empowering shift in how the organization responds to increasingly dynamic and complex challenges.
The six “smart rules” offered by Morieux and Boston Consulting Group offer one approach to “creating an environment in which employees can work with one another to develop creative solutions to complex challenges.” I suggest that there is an essential first step before addressing the “smart rules” -– develop and adopt organizational “simple rules” that provide “behavioral guidelines” that are followed from top to bottom and inform all levels, all functions, and all strategy throughout the organization. Simple rules quite simply establish an embedded code that informs everyone in the organization how to act.
In nature, simple rules are the reason why the seemingly complicated is instead a pattern based complex system, that is non-linear and emergent. In organizations, simple rules become the guidance for everyone’s behavior while still allowing latitude for the fine tuning of independent action. Building on a deeper set of simple rules, the smart rules can offer more precise guidance and ultimately more effective operations.
When the whole system uses simple rules, a new paradigm of engagement, vision and mission emerges.
An example of Simple Rules from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute
• Teach and learn in every interaction
• Search for the true and the useful
• Give and get value for value
• Share the HSD story
• Attend to the whole, the part, and the greater whole
• Engage in joyful practice
Within the HSD Institute, we have agreed that this short list of simple rules will be the guide for our behaviors. We have developed a list of behavioral expectations that describe how we intend to interact with Associates, partners, friends, and the world at large.