Read this before you write a policy

If I think of good examples codifying desirable behaviours, the ten commandments spring easily to mind. We can probably recall the likes of

Thou shalt not kill

without too much difficulty. They are foundational tenets of many religions, form the moral foundation for many legal structures of the modern world, and present a good example of explicitly documented and understood policies.

In contrast I offer the plight of Private First Class Louden Downey, who in the 1992 film ‘A Few Good Men’, stands on trial for the murder of his fellow Marine Private William Santiago. The defense is making the case that the victim, was given a code red which was implicitly authorised by senior officers hence the junior offers (who are following orders) are therefore not culpable. In a key scene the defense makes the case that not all activities in an organisation are explicitly codified but this makes them no less commonly understood as the way things are done here.

If you are in charge of setting policy for your organisation there are important lessons to take from these examples if you want to drive change through policy.

Lesson 1: Policies are different to standards and rules.

Take the time to create guiding policies that are directional signposts in times of uncertainty and pressure. Let your people know the way things should be and allow them to make this a reality. The Israelites organised a society around 10 commandments. Consider carefully if you are writing a policy or whether you are getting too far into the weeds and writing standards or rules instead.

Lesson 2: Take extreme care what you measure.

I am the firm believer of ‘you get what you measure’. You will drive behavioural change by shining a light on what you want, and importantly, what you don’t want. However, beware the Rubik’s Cube effect whereby measures and policies on the face seem perfectly correct and logical but create unintended behaviours.

If the letter of the law overtakes the spirit of the law, or if achieving an individual measure takes precedence over the good of the whole, or becomes so powerful that individuals resort to any means (good or ill) to meet it, all your good work can be undone.

Lesson 3: Beware implicit policies.

The ‘way things are done around here’ defines an organisations culture. This is an incredibly powerful force which, if left unchecked, will derail your objectives. If there are ‘norms’ in your organisation that are less than desirable tackle them explicitly. I saw an article yesterday by Garr S. Williams Jr. entitled (Informal) Leadership, which started with the quote,

“The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” (Gruenter and Whitaker).

In conclusion, my advice on this is do not avoid the important conversations and put pen to paper to make explicitly clear yours and the company’s position on key topics. Define your organisations culture and put in place good governance to make it a daily reality.


Grant Watling is a Principal Consultant at HICX Solutions advising fortune 500 companies how to optimise their supplier enterprise information management from vision through to implementation and ongoing execution.

Specialisms include: Master Data Management, Big Data, Analytic’s, Enterprise Information Management, Supplier On-boarding, Supplier Life-cycle Management, Governance and Policy, Process Improvement, Organisation and System Design, Relationship Management, Development and Innovation.

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