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On Rules

Consider for a moment the uncertainty we’ve seen in the first two decades (and now into the third decade) of the 21st century. What comes to mind? The global financial crisis, smart phones and technologies, developments of a political-economic nature such as Brexit, trade wars, kidnappings of girls from schools, social unrest around race and equality, and more. There are other signals, moving from weak to strong, that are poised to produce the next uncertainties: income disparity, severe shifts in weather and weather patterns, access to water (be it clean drinking water or just access to any water at all), to name a few. Alongside these we must also content with algorithmic bias in developing artificial intelligence, bioethics, and more.

Schools exist in a remarkably dynamic environment, in other words. The rules upon which we’ve built ourselves — and from which we continue to operate in the face of the aforementioned uncertainties — were designed for a period of evolution that was characterized by circumstances one might consider somewhat predictable and stable, by comparison.

One wonders whether our ‘school rules’ might benefit from updating, in order to keep schools fit for purpose. Let us keep in mind that rules (policies, procedures, processes) were put into place with the then-current context in mind: that was the backdrop, and the rules corresponded to it. Rules tend to be designed to address specific issues; the intent behind rule-making is that those rules will apply for years to come. Some rules may indeed stand the test of time (for how long, one wonders?), yet others have lingered beyond their usefulness. The time may have come for schools to perform a rules audit, as posited by David R. Hannah, Christopher D. Zatzick, and Jan Kietzmann in their MIT Sloan Management Review (Summer 2021) article, “Turbulent Times Demand Dynamic Rules.”

The authors embrace the notion of the ‘right mindset’ to help organizations move from a culture that values traditional rules (those that focus on control, whereby “managers tell employees what to do, monitor employees to make sure they obey the rules, and impose sanctions on people who fail to follow them”) to one that embraces dynamic rules, where management collaborates with employees to modify requirements (61). The argument for such a take on rule-making is that “employees are subject-matter experts, with hands-on, practical knowledge that managers often do not possess” (61).

Their suggestion is that organizations trying to shift to a way of operating that is more dynamic in nature should conduct a formal rule audit. “Similar to a financial audit, which involves an extensive examination of the financial state of an organization, a rule audit evaluates a[n organization’s] existing policies. The goal is to assess whether existing rules need to be updated to fit the organization’s current environment” (63). Thankfully, they don’t recommend evaluating every single rule in existence. Instead, they propose identifying those rules that are the most disruptive, whether for the organization itself or for individuals, and starting from there. That approach, of course, necessitates evaluating roles at the systems level as well as at the individual level, which requires the identification (by management and employees alike) of the most disruptive rules. The next step is to scrutinize each rule’s purpose and requirements (64). Good guidance is that “a rule’s purpose should be both clear and useful” (64). Scrutiny may show that a given rule continues to be critical; then again, perhaps a rule’s purpose remains relevant, but it is no longer useful to the organization. That latter often happens when an organization has not examined its rules for many years. Further analysis would identify the behavioral requirements for complying with a given rule, and these requirements should be made explicit, as many of them have never been specified formally.

How does that end up looking? Here is what the authors have to say:

If a rule has disruptive requirements but serves a useful purpose, then the focus should shift to reducing the disruptiveness of those requirements through the process of rapid experimentation. Managers should explain to employees both the purpose of the rule and how the requirements are intended to serve that purpose. They should then listen to the feedback employees provide and experiment with changes. Managers may decide to eliminate some of the requirements or change them to make them less disruptive or more useful. They should continually assess the benefits and costs associated with those decisions, even if they decide to remove a rule entirely. During these changes, leaders must always ensure that they are engaging with employees who are affected by and knowledgeable about the policies and their impact (64).

Undertaking a rule audit in a school, including at the governance level, would have salubrious effects. One can envision streamlining policies and procedures, revising the personnel system, and even establishing new ways working (e.g., hybrid delivery of education). This is true culture change, and let’s be honest — it might take several years to implement. However, it is time well spent; as everyone becomes fluent in how to audit rules and implement updates, they are getting better and better at focusing on relevance at all times. That’s true from the classroom to the head of school’s office, and on to the boardroom.

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