Director Maynard Leigh Associates
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30th Mar 2011
Director Maynard Leigh Associates
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Approximate reading time 2.6 minutes

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” complained Emerson, and Ghandi too did not much rate this obsession of our present age. His commitment was to “truth, not consistency.”

Yet we live in an era of increased regulation. There is a persistent push for standardisation and an unhealthy need for certainty, despite changing times. This shows itself in an ever-increasing drive for detailed processes and interminable standards of consistency. 

Organisations consequently establish interminable systems. There are endless checks and balances to ensure for example compliance, the achievement of quality standards, the meeting of health and safety requirements. 

Compliance though often comes at a price. Whilst it might seemingly favourably affect production, it also sets up a tick-box mentality. The result can be a culture that undermines personal responsibility, invention and individuality. 

In some areas, that is positively detrimental. Take for example the large pharmaceutical company we worked for some years back. They had installed a well-known and costly software system that controlled just about every stage of the production and distribution of its various drugs. When stocks of finished products fell, for example, the computer did the re-ordering, not the staff.

The result was the drugs company completely lost any sensitivity to market movements. The company’s founder bitterly complained that instead of making a common sense judgement about the need to re-order stock, even senior managers were too in awe of the system to over ride its decisions.

The company experienced too many “out of stock” situations and had to unravel the power of computer-driven process for achieving consistency of ordering.

Take presentations, for instance.  In most large organisations there will be a marketing department creating templates that people need to follow.  The template dictates background colour, font size and dimensions of the bullet points. 

People then prepare their presentations that fit this template. This is a sure way to encourage presentations dominated by one boring slide after another, but wonderfully consistent. No wonder we talk of “death by PowerPoint”, because audiences witness the murder of individual creativity. 

The madness goes further when people with limited expertise in a particular area never the less acquire the right to dictate procedures for others who know the territory rather better. 

For instance, the design and communication department might produce the template for learning materials without any actual knowledge of what makes a good development event. 

Recently some of our work sheets for a client, carefully designed to maximise participant involvement, needed the approval of an administrator in the communications department in another continent.  The person saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ had no knowledge of the programme objectives, business need, participant requirements or learning style. 

How does this stupidity arise in otherwise sane organisations?  The compliance culture reflects fear, not excellence. It results in people making decisions to cover their back rather than adding value to the business.  It kills off initiative. 

Many organisations are hungry for people to step up to the mark, take responsibility, and be more proactive. Can they afford a cultural imperative which amount to follow orders, tick boxes and do not step out of line?

In contrast, Nordstrom the famous US service company, produces a thick manual for its staff on what they should do in all situations. It is blank, except for a page that reads: “Use your judgement.”

A compliance culture values bureaucracy above performance.  It is a Big Brother world where those making decisions become invisible to those on the coalface. Understandable people feel powerless and frustrated. 

Of course, there needs to be regulation and checks on compliance. We do not want more Fred the Shreds who drove RBS to near bankruptcy.

However, a compliance culture that emasculates people’s judgment, makes them go through endless hoops to pursue the most basic goals, cannot be healthy.

How do we get the right balance between compliance, regulations and freedom for people to create, make decisions and be human? The bigger the organisation the more this issue surfaces. This is the surely the right mement to give you the seven rules for how to do it.  

er...Watch this space.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to my colleague Michael Maynard for suggesting this item


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