Policies and Procedures – Means or Ends?

In our investigations and reviews work we deal with a lot of policies and procedures. Some are short, pithy and flexible. Others are long, detailed and rigid. They should have one thing in common – the objective of solving problems, not making them worse.

That problem solving objective has many ingredients of course. Policies need to be fair, transparent and realistic about the capacity of the organisation. They also need to be legally compliant to the extent that is relevant. They need to have a broad base of support in the organisation.

The bad news is that we often come across situations where the deployment of a policy has actually made the underlying problem much worse than it was at the outset.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first, and one of the most common, is over-complexity. One classic example is the sickness management policy which has so many review and trigger points (often with gaps in the drafting) that some people are able to “play the system” while the majority are entirely mystified about where they are in the process. Another is the change management policy which has such a complex system of interlocking redundancy, redeployment and regrading processes that managers and staff can, quite literally, find themselves in a limbo that the policy cannot retrieve them from.

We are usually able to help resolve these situations, but we do so from a particular starting point. We believe that most problems have a natural and common sense solution which will not always be found in the relevant policy, but which will be consistent with its real world objectives. The good news is that we have also found that in practice most managers and most staff can develop a clear idea of what that solution is with a bit of help.

It would be wrong to say that everyone welcomes regular, iterative conversations about how things are going and what happens next – but a majority do. In practice, having those regular mentoring conversations forestalls well over 80% of situations that might otherwise require application of a policy. This can mean that policies can be reserved for solving really intractable problems, rather than creating new and avoidable ones.