on Principles over Policies

Last week, Brittany* asked if she could stay in Vienna for a few extra days after the Business Agility Conference. My first reaction was “of course, you don’t even need to ask”. After all, she has the leave available (we don’t track vacation days) and it has negligible impact on flight costs whether she flies back on Wednesday or Sunday. My second reaction was “why does she feel that she needs to ask?”. So, I called her…

What I hadn’t truly understood was the cognitive implications of moving from a large company with strict processes to a small company with personal autonomy (and accountability). It is natural to look for the boundaries that define what you are allowed to do. And in most companies, those boundaries are defined as processes.

Brittany: While this is Evan’s blog, given the topic, I thought it right to share my perspective as well. Working for the Business Agility Institute has required me to shift my mindset in more ways than one. While these changes are welcome and have brought a greater sense of ownership and joy to work, I find myself reverting to an old way of thinking more than I’d like to admit! In this example, I was recalling previous “Travel Policy” agreements my friends and I had encountered at our first few jobs out of college, where we were mostly entry-level employees. I would imagine those that we encountered were fairly standard, requiring a form with a description of the trip and signatures from my direct supervisor, their supervisor, and our company’s accountant or Human Resources director (or some similar combination). Adding on a “fun” travel day to the end of a business trip wasn’t forbidden, but would require the same level of approval.

It was with that mindset that I approached Evan to ask about adding an extra day or two onto my upcoming trip to Vienna, Austria. I wanted to be clear that I understood the purpose of my travel was for work, and that I just wanted to take advantage of the hours-long flight I would be on anyways and do a little travel afterwards. I also wanted to be clear that any extra expense (if the flights were significantly more expensive, for example) would come out of my own pocket–I wasn’t expecting BAI to pay for me beyond what is necessary for my work in Vienna.

Evan: So, why has this approach and mindset become the norm? Imagine that you’re an executive in a large company. You have a thousand people working for you. You don’t know them all. You can’t know them all. But you are responsible for their actions and you have KPIs to achieve. The easiest thing for you to do is to create Process and Policy – with a capital P. With that in place, you can stand behind someone in the supermarket and not know they work for you. But as long as the follow the Process, you know what they are doing and how they are doing it.

But, just because it’s the easiest thing for you to do, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. First of all, it undermines the ability for an organization to leverage the intelligence of the people who work for them. Second, it undermines the ability for those people to be creative and to be better.

Brittany: I’m young, so I haven’t been named an executive in my somewhat short professional career (yet!). I can only speak to the effect of processes from the employee side–and they can often feel like an organization has very little trust in its employees. I often felt with previous travel policies specifically that I had already made a mistake–why else would a policy require multiple levels of clearance for a short business trip? Had I not proven trustworthy or capable of separating business travel from personal travel? Did I need to work harder or do more to reach a level of trust to where I could book a flight or rent a car on my own, and simply submit the receipt to prove it?

When Evan called me to discuss my question, we decided to document the set of principles that BAI operates under–rather than a set of policies. We’re sharing them with you below.

Principle #1: Act in BAI’s best interest**

Evan: I want you to imagine that you’ve just joined a company like BAI. “Can I fly business class to Europe?”, “Can I take a couple of days off, do some sightseeing, and fly back later?”. You shouldn’t need to ask those questions. If you understand the principles, and use your common sense, then you can answer those question yourself***. Your previous employer might have a policy that says; you must return on the earliest possible flight. Why? That policy is heavy-handed and misses the point. Worse, is that same company also has a policy that says; we promote work-life balance.

You aren’t stupid. You notice those kind of contradictions. It’s why you left your previous company.

Is taking a few days off in BAI’s best interest? Absolutely yes. I need you fresh and excited and energized. I need you to come to work with an open heart, ready to face whatever comes next.

You’ve been hired because you have the right skills, culture, and attitude to create something of value. You already know more than your boss (that’s why they hired you in the first place). You’re empowered in your job and can make decisions that affect everything from customer satisfaction, product quality, to the companies P&L. So, why should you need to ask permission to spend $100 if it’s already in the company’s best interest.

Brittany: This principle helped me to have a frame of reference for decision-making. I have been extremely fortunate to travel a bit for both work and fun, and it’s proved deeply enriching to my life, outlook, and perspective. I remember the day I got my passport like it was yesterday! Getting the chance to work for an organization with an international scope is simply a dream come true. But, I can’t experience the breadth of cultures and countries I am priveleged to work with from a computer screen–any time I can expand my world will only benefit my work.

Principle #2: Look after your family and health (work-life integration)

Evan: A corollary to acting in the company’s best interest is to look after yourself. Do not sabotage your own well-being for the organisations. That is not sustainable in the long term, no matter how urgent something seems today. If you need time off, take it. While there are a lot of discussions around the pros and cons of unlimited leave, it is our responsibility as employers to create an environment where you are able, and comfortable, to take the time off that you need. You need the time to recharge and come back better and stronger.

Brittany: Most companies give lip service to this, and I have been priveleged to work for organizations that also “walked the walk.” However, this is the kind of principle that’s helpful to see and remind myself of often. We live in a world where people are overworked and have little in the way of real “integration” in their lives. It’s something we can all strive for.

Principle #3: Governance is based on audit not approval (ask for forgiveness, not permission)

Evan: Governance may not be a sexy word but it’s vital. Very simplistically there are two forms of governance; audit and approval. Approval-based governance says; “stop here, until I tell you to proceed.” That’s not how I want to run a business. I hired you for a reason – why should I stop you from doing your job? Another company may be afraid; “what if they make a mistake?” To which I respond, “is the total cost of delay greater than one mistake?” The answer is usually no.

So, make that decision. Do what you think is right. And do it now. But, I’m also not stupid – I will check. If you spent $5,000 on an airfare, I’m going to come and ask you about it. If you make a mistake, I’m going to ask what you learned. If you keep making mistakes, that’s a different issue. As we grow, we may hire someone less than honest – we will discover and rectify that very quickly. In the meantime, nothing in the organisation is going to slow you down. I would rather lose $5k to a mistake than $50k in lost opportunities.

This is not the same as coming for advice. If you need my help, I will always be available****.

Brittany: This principle, translated into the dialect of a true millenial, is: “I hired you because I’m pretty sure you’re not an idiot.” I work hard and do my best, and I’m guessing that’s part of the reason BAI took a chance on me (I also have great jokes and make really good cookies, though the latter is hard to prove while working remotely). Knowing that my supervisor/boss trusts me to do my job is empowering and I don’t waste time waiting for permission.

Principle #4: Delight our members, volunteers, and community

Evan: Technically, this is Principle #1, but for narrative flow, I’ve left it to last. It’s also the most obvious. You are empowered to make decisions, yet I need you to make the right decisions. Will it delight the customer? That’s a pretty good place to start.

Brittany: This one is my favorite principle. At the core of BAI is people and wanting to help people thrive at work. It’s the guiding principle of BAI and I’m honored to be part of it.

Back to BAI. We are small, and our very nature means we’ll never grow too large, but I am going to hold off writing formal policies for as long as possible.

* Our overworked and underpaid sole employee
** With apologies to Netflix
*** If you really want to know it’s; No – we don’t have that kind of money, and Yes – at worst it’s a couple of hundred dollars difference
**** Taking timezones into consideration of course

– Evan
June 9, 2019

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