There is a building next to our office which is currently being demolished to be rebuilt fresh into something else. It used to be a lively place as one of my client’s office, which I had visited often more than a decade back in my previous avatar as a one-man software development organization. Almost every day, I have been gazing at it nostalgically remembering my experiences in different rooms as one by one they keep coming down. I see the old structures vanishing and the freedom locked within being released with immense new possibilities emerging. By now, all the old structures are gone and the place is in a state of almost complete freedom, except for the boundary walls. The whole experience reminds me of my favorite concept of structured freedom.
In the absence of any structure the total freedom is useless, as you can’t do anything with it. The people who inhabited the building needed the structures to enjoy their freedom. They could work safely because of the walls. They didn’t have to stand the whole day because there were comfortable chairs. They were not sweating in summer because there were air-conditioners. They could see things clearly because of comfortable lighting with all its wiring with fittings & fixtures. In short, all those structures helped them to go about their work and not be bothered with the inconveniences. Structures are good – they help us. But do they also sometimes come in the way of our freedom?
One day during my visit, I had noticed that they were shifting their accounts section to another room because they needed the current space for expanding the testing facility for the engineers. But the new place available for the accounts guys was comparatively small and I could see the unhappiness on their faces. The engineers of course were happy and so was the management because the dispatches would now go up.
The chairs & other accessories could be easily moved around because they are flexible structures. Same thing could not be done with walls because they are rigid and to change them you need to break them.
This was the case with the physical structures, but the management had also to deal with the mental structures. Some of those who had to move out adjusted quickly while others kept nursing the wounded ego. The management had to deal with soft versus hard structures and choose a strategy suitable for each type. This was an interesting case study in retrospect.
Now my mind was back in the present. On one hand I was sorry for something that was brick by brick going away forever. On the other, I was excited by the brand new structures I would get a chance to see soon. But that is what life really is about, isn’t it?
From the systems thinking perspective, everything we do individually or in groups, boils down to just four types of basic activities. These are to execute, decide, facilitate and ensure. Execution is the simplest and most fundamental of them because nothing gets done till some tasks or actions are executed. Actions are generally taken individually while the tasks may be executed individually or collectively. The other three activities are more in the nature of being supportive to the primary activity of execution.
Decision involves making a choice from multiple options. This is where the concept of “Rules & Strategies” comes into play. There are a number of definitions of the terms “rule” and “strategy” used in different contexts. Hence it would be helpful to specify the meaning in which I am using these terms. For me, rules make the choices for us while strategies are the choices we make. Let me take a few examples to illustrate this. When I was child, there was a rule at home that the small children must be back home before the sunset. The choice for us was already made for us by the elders in the family. However, till sunset we were free to make our choices of what to play, when and with whom. Similarly, when I grew up and started driving motorized vehicles, I had the option of choosing a particular path to reach my destination. But when to move and when to stop was decided by the traffic signals. Society and the government also make lots of rules for us. For example, society lays down the rules for one of the most important decisions in our life which is, whom we can marry and whom we can’t. Similarly, because smoking is a health hazard the government has made a rule that any public display of smoking has to be discouraged. The film-makers however come up with an innovative strategy of superimposing the warning sign quite attractively while Katrina Kaif danced to an item number.
So it is safe to say that we encounter rules & strategies in all walks of our life, though we don’t often realize it. Here are some common differences between rules and strategies. Generally rules are defined by few to be followed by many, whereas the strategies are formulated by us for ourselves. Rules typically have consequences; whether legal, social or emotional. Strategies don’t have consequences as such; though we may be have good or bad outcomes depending on how well the strategy worked. Rules try to cover a large number of situations whereas we need specific strategies for each type of situation.
In terms of execution and decision, in case of rules, the time gap between decision and execution can be quite large. For example in religious, social and cultural rules this gap could be in generations or even centuries. Strategies on the other hand normally have a short time gap. For example, a cricket team may decide the strategy for a game before it starts but mid-way they will have to come up with a revised strategy depending on how the game is going. The captain would decide the strategy even for each over, sometimes changing the field placement half-way through the over.
An important category of rules is about those which we make for ourselves. When we strongly believe in something, it severely limits our choices. We may fool others with ingenious strategies, but we can’t fool ourselves. Only way to loosen the stranglehold of our beliefs is to get beyond them and critically examine them from outside. This requires an open mind to learn from failures and new exposures.
Why is understanding of rules & strategies so important for all of us; partially because they shape our decisions and actions? We can’t facilitate others’ working unless we understand the rules and strategies at play in their context and in their specific situations. A good grasp of the framework of rules & strategies gives us a great handle to influence others and shape their behavior.
Ability to ensure the desired outcome is the essence of leadership and it is imperative for the leaders to understand and use the right rules & strategies for a given set of persons for a given situation.
When there are restrictions placed on us we want to be free from them. Tighter the restrictions, more we crave for the freedom. But do we really look for absolute freedom? Not necessarily, because we also like the protection that the rules provide us. For example when driving on a road, we are happy that the traffic signals are stopping the cross traffic from coming in our way. The social, cultural and legal rules provide a great safety net for the disadvantaged when they are thoughtfully formulated and sincerely enforced.
By nature human being are lazy. We live in the comfort of the belief that whatever is working today will continue to work forever. So we keep making similar choices and keep repeating certain actions over other alternatives. This is strongly habit forming and kind of gets into our muscle memory. After some time, almost without any conscious thought we go through same motions again and again. It is great for productivity and speed of execution, but we must remember that this also gives rise to certain structures. With repeated use, these structures tend to get stronger and stronger. When our decisions and actions are aligned with the structures, we experience great momentum. However, the moment there is need for change of direction or a course correction, the same structures exhibit tremendous inertia. So the reality of our lives is not absolute freedom but a kind of “Structured Freedom”. It is therefore in our interest to be aware of the structures and the strong influence they have on our freedom and be able to recognize the structures that exist in our minds as well as around us.
All of us are responsible to ensure the desired outcomes. The scale expands as our responsibilities increase. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to directly change the structures. More the force we apply, more is the resistance. If they are rigid they will brake; if they are flexible, they will spring back. Only way to effectively change the structures is to understand how changing rules & strategies and patiently repeating the new ones often enough leads to modifying the existing or creating the new structures. This is the only permanent solution.
We have only scratched the surface of this immensely important concept which has tremendous possibilities in all walks of our life and work. Let’s together explore it further in future, peeling each layer as we go. If my thoughts find a resonance with you, please share your experiences and thoughts. If you have a different perspective, I would love to understand it, even being challenged. So you may like to join me on this exciting journey.
I am a big fan of SWAMINATHAN S ANKLESARIA AIYAR who writes a column “SWAMINOMICS” in Time of India Sunday edition. Last week, he wrote on importance of creating the right institutional structures to combat the menace of corruption in public life. Let me share a few important points that I liked in this article along with my takeaways on how these relate to the importance of right institutional structures in an organization for it to move towards excellence.
He felt that “Exposure of criminal cases is not enough” and suggested the institutional change “We need a new law mandating that all cases against elected MPs and MLAs will be given top priority, and heard on a day-by-day basis until completed.” In his opinion, “This will make electoral victory a curse for criminals—it will expedite their trials, instead of giving them the political immunity they seek. If such a law is enacted, we may well see criminal legislators and ministers resigning in order to get off the priority trials list.”
Second institutional change suggested by him relates to speedy justice. “Many countries have tried to speed up justice by enacting laws that oblige judges to speed up various procedures like adjournments. Research shows that almost all these initiatives have failed. What has succeeded is institutional change to promote judges who complete the maximum number of cases. Once this incentive is in place, judges themselves devise all sorts of speedy procedures and shortcuts which become precedents and so are adopted by all.”
The third change suggested is “We must extricate the police from the control of politicians, and have a truly independent Police Commission, which will stand up to politicians as firmly as the Election Commission. Law and order is a state subject, so we will need police commissioners in every state, under a national police commissioner.” He has given a compelling logic that home ministers of almost all the states give least priority to crime detection because for them the priorities were to “use the police to harass political opponents, use the police and prosecutors to tone down or dismiss cases against their own parties and coalition members, and to provide VIP security.”
Common thread in all these three suggestions is focus on normal human behavior. Rather than trying to create respect for the structures or fear of consequences of not doing what is expected, it is far more effective to leverage human nature. Everyone likes freedom and is ready to accept that the freedom is within the limits of the institutional structures. When the structures go against human nature, there is resistance or a desire to subvert them. But when the structures are intuitive, they are effective. This is the concept of “Structured freedom” and it goes a long way in promoting the organizational excellence.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
While on vacation, I am currently rereading an excellent book “Maverick!” by Ricardo Semler, owner of Semco Brazil. He is well known for his unusual management ideas. Basically, they are bottoms up like,
- Every new management hire is interviewed by people who would report to him. If they don’t give him an okay, he doesn’t get the job.
- During annual salary review each person is given a choice to decide his new salary level. He is provided with information about what others at similar level are getting within and outside the company. If he asks for an exorbitant raise, management does not say no. But he has to face the peer pressure because his salary is going to affect profit share of others in the business unit.
- Same applies to expense reports. If he decides to stay in a five-star hotels and others in similar situation normally stay in a three-star it is known to others and the peer pressure works.
- All the employees have access to financial statements and training is given to each person on how to read the balance sheet.
- Each new team can decide and buy the furniture they would like to use.
- Each employee has a vote in important decisions affecting them like where to locate the new plant out of multiple choices.
In short, employees have great freedom to make decisions. They are encouraged to have all the necessary information to take a decision. As a result they also have the responsibility for the decision because their actions are visible to all and those who are affected put the pressure either encouraging or discouraging such actions.
I see a number of parallels with Scrum,
- The processes are few and light-weight. The administrative overheads are drastically reduced.
- Minimal but important information is collected which is freely made available to all concerned.
- There is a shared commitment; whole team either succeeds or fails.
In short the teams are self-organized. We can see lot of references on why self-organizing teams are so effective and successful. But in practice, it takes great efforts to bring that into reality. Semler had to drive it passionately and continuously from the top before it became an accepted way of working at Semco. Similarly, Scrum teams take time to reach a stage where the teams are really self-organized. Why is it so? As Semler says “It is all about giving up the control and those who are in control find it very difficult to do so.” That is the reason, so many people impressed with and talk highly of his approach but we do not see them widely being applied in many organizations. Similarly, unless the management completely understands what is involved in Scrum and prepared to implement the spirit of Scrum, the practices of Scrum may be put in place but real benefits may still elude.
I suspect there is another aspect which is not so obvious but has an important role in creating self-reorganizing systems. People want freedom but at the same time are reluctant to give up the structures which give them comfort. You can’t suddenly give complete freedom and hope that everybody will lap it up. People need structures. Hence when the management is ready to give up control, rather than adding new structures out of insecurity they have to understand the effects of existing structures and slowly starts loosening them so that people learn to demand and use the information and take collective responsibility.
Semler is already applying what has worked in business environment to the school system in Brazil. Combination of giving up control and progressively preparing people to take freedom responsibly and maturely will help apply these ideas in lot many organizations. Similarly, the right approach of creating self-organizing teams may help software development teams even if they are not following Scrum.