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Evan Davis on... company rules

Updated Thursday, 1st October 2009

Do we need rules in the work place? The Bottom Line's Evan Davis ponders over a workplace without rules.

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What do we prefer; companies that are disciplined, stick by the rules, or companies that have free spirits, making it up as they go along? Well, I think if you talk to the average worker or the average boss they’d probably say, “oh, we like the free spirited company”, “we like to give our workers responsibility for themselves to make their own decisions”, “we don’t like to stick by the rules”, “we like to encourage innovation and creativity” and all those things that modern companies like to encourage. Well, I want to give a little bit of a defence of rules. Start by just thinking of a company where there are no rules.

What does that mean? It means discretion. Discretion is the opposite of rules. It means the staff having to make decisions for themselves about how to behave, about how far they can go in one direction before they’re behaving in some sense badly. It means people making decisions for themselves. Now that can be truly liberating, but it can also be a tyranny. It can also mean you spend a lot of time thinking about things that other people have already thought about, trying to decide whether you can go in this direction when actually the company already knows whether you should go in that direction. It has an institutional memory, people have done it, it didn’t work and they don’t want you to do it. The rule itself can often be extremely liberating for workers and, of course, for bosses.

So I tend to believe that the rules have a purpose and the rules don’t necessarily stifle creativity. It’s about allowing within the rules enough room for space or enough space for people to innovate, develop and be creative. You don’t want your rules to be ridiculous rules or oppressive rules but rules all over the place and an understanding that there’s an expectation that you’ll stick to those rules. Rules are not meant for breaking, contrary to the popular phrase. I think, in that way you’ll often get a better company, a better organised company and a more productive company than one where people have to invent every decision for themselves from scratch. So let’s hear it for rules.

That’s my view. You can join the debate with the Open University.





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