Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rules and Reality

For the past few years I have been consulting with large businesses on software projects. As a result, I see a lot of different companies and cultures. Recently I have been working with a very profitable media company with a more extreme schizophrenia than most companies.

Part of the business involves coordinated release of merchandise from many different manufacturers. The list of manufacturers is constantly shifting. The product standards are high and manufacturers must work off the latest artwork. The artwork is constantly being refined and the time-lines are short and getting shorter. This creates a business need for rapid processes. In addition to a shifting cast of manufacturers, the company relies on contractors to do much of its essential work. Many contractors have worked in the same capacity for years, but there is also a churn of contractors and contractor employees.

Another part of the business is concerned with protection of intellectual property. Protection often requires tight control on access. That is, no one should be allowed access to company property until all the correct agreements have been drafted, reviewed, revised, and finally approved. This desire for protection has bred a culture of slow deliberation. Every formal decision involves slow and ponderous study and documentation (with periodic formal reviews).

These two strains, the need for rapid response and the slow processes that protect, exist in many organizations. In the case of this media company the culture has fractured. The protective processes are so slow and insular that they must be subverted. As an example, access to buildings is controlled by key cards. Getting permission to issue a key card is difficult and slow. The need for access may evaporate before a card can be approved. As a matter of common practice, those without key cards simply follow a carded employee into the building. Carded employees understand the situation and do not question when someone enters behind them. One morning I followed someone to the door only to find that neither of us had cards, so we both waited by the door for a carded employee. That employee let us in without question or hesitation.

For the software system I am examining, the development process involves asking people who use the system for their requirements. A fair number of those requirements are essentially "We have a way to subvert company policy because we cannot possibly follow it, but it is difficult and cumbersome. Could you make the subversion easier?"

For both individuals and organizations there is often a disconnect between our rules and what we actually do. Because people and the world are more complicated than our notions of them, some disconnect is inevitable. The healthy side is when we recognize the need to be flexible to accommodate novel situations. The unhealthy side is hypocrisy and self deception. If you cannot follow the rules the fault may be yours, but do not discount the possibility that the rules or their implementation is broken. Besides, strict adherence to any set of rules is not much of a virtue.

1 comment:

sf said...

"One morning I followed someone to the door only to find that neither of us had cards, so we both waited by the door for a carded employee. That employee let us in without question or hesitation."

CRAZY. So what is the point? They must realize the ridiculous aspect of this detail, if not others. . .