Blog > A doorstop versus relationship rules

September 23, 2009

Many years ago I read a very good article about the differences between a Big Mac and the Naked Chef by Joel Spolsky. It was 2001. It’s about scaleability, and quality. And surprisingly, it’s still on the web, hence the link. The main premise was this:

  1. Some things need talent to do really well.
  2. It’s hard to scale talent.
  3. One way people try to scale talent is by having the talent create rules for the untalented to follow.
  4. The quality of the resulting product is very low.

Now Joel was talking about IT companies. I think this can be applied to anyone, anything. Especially organisations that want to control the quality and outputs of their workers. It is, of course, possible. The price is quality and innovation.

Fast forward to 2009 and the book In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew May that I wrote about here.

My heart sinks when I see the manual – the guide on how to do things. There’s a belief that if we have a manual (or rules of engagement, or accredidation, or similar) we can minimise risk and ensure quality. Matthew May argues the opposite. If we have the rules all set out we stop paying attention. And we are less engaged with the task at hand. He cites Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer and innovator.

Hans Monderman is behind the design of Laweiplein in Drachten – an unregulated traffic intersection that accounts for 22,000 cars, thousands of cyclists and pedestrians.

One of the reasons this works is because “…you are not just another adherent to an imposed order, but rather a fully engaged and contributing participant in the emerging self-organisation.”

What Hans Monderman discovered is the same as what Jackson Pollock discovered. And is also true for flocking birds. “When you are fully involved in a process governed by very simple relationship rules, a natural inclination takes over, and a self-organised pattern emerges that is far more orderly than anything legislation could produce. Under those circumstances, you’re connected and interacting with what’s around you.”

Now let’s apply that to organisations. Is it possible that a handful of relationship rules, that are interpreted by people, would be more effective, engaging and purposeful than a doorstop of a manual full of do’s and don’ts?

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