Rules and policies that reduce responsibility are costly | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

Last week I read a piece in the HR Examiner that hit on one of my favorite topics, plus it was so juicy that I wished I had written it.

If you are a manager or small business owner I strongly recommend the free subscription available to Don’t be put off by the title, the content is HR related but not geeky HR stuff. It covers practical everyday issues that happen to fall in the HR bailiwick because often the HR folks are the only ones paying attention to them, but really they are management concerns about performance, people and productivity. In other words—business concerns, your concerns.

So now, about that article. It is titled The Innovation Rule.” How often have you felt the need in your business to have a rule about something or other because you felt your employees needed guidance in some aspect of business behavior? Probably fairly frequently, right? (I am not talking about the rules put in place because employees are not trusted…that’s your problem, not your employees!)

Have you had any of those rules come back and bite you in the butt? Of course you have and here’s why. When you came up with the rule you didn’t really mean it as a rule. You meant it like Webster defines it, a noun meaning “one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.”

What you didn’t mean was “now that we have this rule you are excused from using your best judgment in all cases regarding this issue even if it means damage to a customer or vendor relationship.” But in some cases that’s what you got, right? An employee behaving consistently with a rule you came up with driving business out the door or annoying a vendor to the point of saying your account just isn’t worth the hassle. And your rule was being followed perfectly!

Have you ever heard the term, “unintended consequences?” It basically means: outcomes that were not foreseen or intended by a purposeful action. These come in three types:

1. Unexpected benefit…these are never a problem.
2. Unexpected drawback… you mainly get what you want but there is bonus bad stuff you hadn’t imagined might happen.
3. Perverse result…my personal favorite, when we, with the best of intentions, make matters worse. I have to share this one with you because it’s too good. The Cobra Effect, ever heard of it? The term cobra effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising persons began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

Well, mostly I am not concerned here with either cobras or perverse effects. My main aim is to draw attention to those rules that meet the “unexpected drawback” criteria —mostly you get what you want but then there are some negative bonus features. Todd Dewett, the author of “The Innovation Rule,” gives several examples of rules that he finds annoying. He gives us this:

Here is the one rule to rule them all – I call it the Innovation Rule: all rules should be considered ideal first references, not final standards. Are there exceptions for certain rules in areas relating to safety? Of course! But the point is that all rules have exceptions and if you don’t respect that, you certainly shouldn’t expect innovation.” 

I am not going to take the hard line that Todd Dewitt takes about rules. I have a rule about things like that! But I do want you to give some thought to your rule-making and consider this. When you get that burning urge to create a rule for your employees…stop! Take the issue to them. Let them know what you are concerned about and ask how they think the issue could best be addressed. You probably get a solution employees will own as theirs. You save yourself and them from unnecessary parental controls. You get responsibility where previously you got compliance and you may learn why you have the issue in the first place and it won’t take a rule to sort it out.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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