Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Unearthing the Rules

Yesterday, I advised cultivating a certain indifference to the unwritten rules.

Today's post is about the written ones.

Folks who haven't worked in management frequently respond to managers' frustration with common-sense questions, like “why can't they just get it right the first time?” Questions like these are often based on invalid assumptions, such as the commonplace assumption that somewhere, someone has an up-to-date book with all of the rules and procedures in it.


In the public sector, getting anything new done requires jumping from one jurisdiction to another to another, each with its own set of rules, assumptions, and timelines. Anything new, pretty much by definition, will involve combining those rules in ways that weren't foreseen when the rules were made. If the organization has any kind of maturity – and public sector ones absolutely do – then the folks who wrote the initial sets of rules are long gone, and the current staff has inherited a legacy of rules scattered hither and yon. Some of those rules have been honored in the breach; some originated as exceptions; some are internally contradictory; some were never written but have taken on the force of rule by 'past practice'. Simply putting together a list of the relevant rules for something new requires a sort of archeological expedition across multiple sites, with varying levels of cooperation.

If you happen to be in a relatively decentralized system, multiply this issue by the number of sites.

It's maddening, because the only time you find out about the rules is after you've (allegedly) violated them. Sometimes the allegation turns out to be true, sometimes not, but either way it costs time. Since there's virtually no cost for making a false allegation, folks who want to shoot a proposal down frequently resort to claiming recovered repressed memories of long-ago rulings.

Keeping the rules obscure is one way that some long-entrenched folks hold power. They're the ones who (claim to) remember the origin of such-and-such a policy twenty years ago, which they won't bother sharing until there's something to torpedo. (I admit taking a perverse glee in those rare occasions when I can prove one of those claims false.)

In other industries, there's an entire class of people – usually called “lawyers” -- whose entire job it is to go marching through rules to make things happen (or not happen). It's their full-time job, for which the most prominent ones are exceedingly well-paid. If the rule book were clearer, these folks wouldn't be nearly as necessary as they are.

In my world, we don't have the resources to keep an army of attorneys at the ready to do the digging every time we come up with something. So we have to act as amateur ad hoc attorneys, which is a remarkably frustrating experience. It's all the more frustrating when there's no such thing as a law library or a central, single administrative code. Things are just all over the place.

I've seen two responses to this dilemma, neither satisfying. At Proprietary U, the answer was to change the rules from the top down every time the wind shifted. It had the advantage of speed, and cutting through red tape was remarkably easy, but there was a certain arbitrariness to it that made working there frustrating beyond belief. Here, we have the opposite problem. We have multiple processes, plenty of involvement, and 'veto groups' everywhere. It makes stupid and arbitrary changes harder, but it also makes plainly necessary changes harder. Worse, without some sort of parliamentarian or umpire, the processes frequently devolve into interest-group politics, at which point precedents are set based not on what makes sense, but on who was in the room at the time.


Sorry for the whine. I just don't like playing emergency archeologist.

"Keeping the rules obscure is one way that some long-entrenched folks hold power." Amen to that. A few years back, as a newly minted assistant professor, I joined a program area within a larger department. I was mystified to find that not a single thing about the program was written down anywhere. Everything resided in the other professor's head, to be retrieved at her convenience. It took me awhile to realize that if nothing is written down, it is impossible to hold anyone accountable. Ingenious and infuriating.
Your comments ring true in regards to my experience at Enormous CC. Systems arose out of needs that made sense 20 years ago, but sometimes do not have anything to do with how to run smoothly today. Anyone administrative who wanted to really change something never lasted long enough to make progress accordingly, which reified the perspective of the long-timers that their way must of course be better. Very, very frustrating environment in which to try and facilitate any kind of change.
Ohhhhh yes. The bane of schools and non-profits alike, there. My high school managed by simply having people fill those voids. The counselors were a rule unto themselves, the administrators' whims had the force of law (unless someone with equal power contradicted them, and then it was all politics), and the teachers, well... the teachers just made decisions and avoided writing anything down.

(I had the lovely experience of a teacher who manipulated grades based on her personal opinions. Not even the subtle 'you always get a lower grade than my favorite' kind of manipulation, but the kind where she'd look around the room, see who was absent, then declare that anyone who wasn't there was getting "double Fs" for the day, and that there was a surprise "quiz" ("What is your teacher's name?") that was worth about a quarter of the final grade. And then marked all of that down under "homework" in the paperwork.)

My organization, on the other hand, sounds a lot like your situation, only... well, at least if you unearth something in your digging, you have a chance that someone will accept that you did find an answer (even if they then disagree with what that answer is). When I was hired, I looked through my manual and found documents that are literally, physically, older than I am.

No one trained me for my job, they just yelled at me when I wasn't doing something they thought I should be doing. I suppose it should have been a red flag when I asked my boss (who is also my only and immediate supervisor) what I was supposed to do during the day, and he shrugged and said he didn't know. As it is, I'm still having conversations where he suddenly says: "You know, it's your job to be doing X"... when X is something that's happened monthly for seven months in a row, that has always been taken care of by someone else, that no one said anything to me about, and that isn't written down anywhere in what few instructions I do have.

And when I tried to change some (seemingly minor) things (like making the font easier to read on the circulation slips), he blows up because that's the way things have always been done (they haven't; I checked. My handbook says they were different than the way that I got them, and the people downstairs says they weren't always like that, and.. yeah.). Then he yells at me for conversations he has in his head on days when I'm not present. And, well, it's an at-will state and he's the President and CEO, and I've seen him fire people for less.

So... yes. Big problem. Systems calcify, and people substitute for routines ("oh, that's so-and-so's thing" ... only it's not formally their job, they never wrote anything down about it, and no one knows where they got the money to do it anyway), and then nobody notices what's happened until something catastrophic (or supremely petty) gets in the way.
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