You Can’t Fix What’s Broken With Good Policies

“Honesty is a question of right or wrong, not a matter of policy.” – Author unknown

When I was young and inexperienced, I tried to “fix” such problems with policies. I figured — correctly, I think — that any problem I uncovered was just the tip of an iceberg. Since I wanted smooth sailing in the future, I wanted more than an individual solution to a particular problem. I wanted a policy that would shatter the entire iceberg!

So, for many years, almost every time I discovered a problem with the way my employees were managing (or failing to manage) something, I’d write a new policy. “From now, on you cannot say such and such to customers calling after work hours.” Or, “Effective immediately, all salespeople must fill out form 16-B before they can get travel expenses reimbursed.”

It felt good to do this. With a few hours of thoughtful work, I figured I’d be able to save hundreds of problem-solving hours in the future. I was making things easier for my employees, better for my customers, and ultimately more profitable for the shareholders. What could be better than that?

It felt so good, in fact, that for a long time I refused to see that all those new policies weren’t having the effect I expected. Certainly, some policies made work simpler. And some ended longstanding conflicts. Still others ensured a better experience for my customers. Overall, however, the business still had plenty of problems — and many of them were being caused by dozens and dozens of conflicting policies.

Now, I have — I like to think — a more sensible way to handle problems and incorporate new policies into my business. When problems arise these days, here is what I do (or at least like to do):

* I contact the source of the reported problem and try to get some idea about how much “evidence” there is.

* If the evidence seems legitimate, I contact the person responsible for solving the problem and find out if he is aware of it and, if so, how much he knows.

* Then I ask him to copy me on his solution. I resist the urge to suggest a solution and — especially — the temptation to suggest a new policy. When it comes to policies these days, my feeling is “less is more.”

This approach is based on the recognition of certain key truths about people:

1. Good employees don’t need policy to do good work.

2. Bad employees will figure out how to waste time and screw things up no matter how much policy you write.

If I have good people in positions of responsibility, they will come up with good solutions. They may not be the exact same solutions I’d create, but there are more ways than one to skin a cat. By asking to be “copied” on the solution, I can ensure that (1) the problem does indeed get solved, (2) the solution is one that makes sense, and (3) it makes sense in the context of the business as a whole.

Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve been amazed at how seldom I have to get personally involved in solving problems and how many problems don’t really need any new policies to fix them.

One suggestion if you take this approach: Be sure to assign a deadline for the resolution of the problem so you don’t have to worry about the problem’s being forgotten about.