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The pleasure of principles

Friday, 10 July 2009

You may already have been on our principles page (if not, take a look here later), and it is probably our most important page. We firmly believe in doing the right thing, rather than following rules.

Of course, rules are important and useful. However, a crucial challenge is to take time to question their purpose rather than being blindly accepting of them. I would guess that a large proportion of rules were initially instituted for very good reasons, but have a strong conviction that, by having them written down, there is a real danger of the positive rationale behind them being subsumed by a strict, inflexible application of the written word.

An obvious example of this is speed limits. The principle behind them is sound - a desire to protect people from themselves and each other by ensuring that speeds and limited to an appropriate rate for the particular environment. The problem with them (as demonstrated by the quantity of vitriol regarding speed cameras) is that the execution of the rules is seen by many to no longer fit with the principles. There is a 30mph limit past our local primary school, but I would never dream of driving that fast - the school and the road simply are not suitable. But, the rules allow it. Equally, on a clear motorway on a clear dry day, I see nothing wrong with a skilled driver driving at 80mph. But the rules don’t allow that.

Whether or not you agree with this particular example, I’m certain that in everyone’s life, there are examples for them of where the strict interpretation of the rules appears to be at odds with the principles behind them.

This brings me on to the real positive I experienced recently, in my personal rather than professional life. I was talking to an NHS consultant, and, as anyone with experience of the NHS (or most other large organisations) knows, the sheer complexity of the rules appears unending. I was requesting that something was done outside the normal process, and he explained perfectly properly that this would not be allowed, he would get into trouble for even suggesting it, and that the paper trail left behind would ensure that it didn’t happen anyway.

But then he smiled. Of course, he said, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done - I know why you want it done, and that’s absolutely right. We just need to do it a bit differently...

And he did. I’ll be forever grateful for this, and he has my utmost admiration for putting doing the right thing above obeying the rules.

The challenges I would pose here are to approach rules from two different perspectives:

1) Firstly, try to understand why they are there, and what they are trying to achieve. This will put them into context and help with step two, which is

2) Secondly, if the rules are standing in the way of something that you firmly believe is right, work out a way of doing what is right, without contravening the principles behind the rules.

With my NHS example, the rule was more than likely instituted as a cost-saving, time-saving measure. Together with the consultant, we worked out how to minimise the use of resources whilst still getting the job done. And it’s worked.

In your organisation, or in your life, what are those things that you would love to change but see rules as preventing you from doing so. Challenge those rules, not in an anarchist fashion, but with rationality and respect for the underlying principles, and you will be surprised at how amazed you will be.

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There are 17 comments
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gravatar Susanna
September 23, 2015 - 11:44
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gravatar Joseph Hardy – United Kingdom
September 14, 2015 - 07:05
Subject: Ruleas are Good

I agree with your thoughts and rules are good for everyone's sake. I have read the para and found that your are trying to make it clear as simply as possible for those who are not much aware of importance of having such a regulations pattern within the discussions here. I'm a writer and currently working for an online essay service (visit website) here. I think the posts are here helping the readers to have something useful known and at the same time me like writing professionals have some thoughts patterns to get followed with our own writings in the future. It's good if we have some really nice writing people around this wonderful platform and it can drive more readers as it goes positively.

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June 29, 2015 - 21:06

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gravatar Sheridan Webb – UK
June 09, 2011 - 11:34
Subject: Rules offer great starting points

Great article Simon, and I agree 100%. Rules are made based on 'common' situations, but we all know that not every situation is standard. Flexibility is a must, but rules give us a useful starting point.

Reply to Sheridan Webb
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
June 09, 2011 - 19:11
Subject: Re: Rules offer great starting points

Hi Sheridan

I think I'd argue that it is (or should be...) the principles that give us the starting point, not the rules. I see principles as the foundation upon which rules are created as (sometimes) useful shortcuts. The key thing for me is that, as soon as there is any evidence that the shortcuts are not giving us the right results, we refer back to the "starting point" - the principles.

The key to that is ensuring that we are aware enough about what is going on to see, quickly, when the rules are taking us in the wrong direction...

Thanks for your thought-provoking comment - much appreciated!

Kind regards, Simon.

gravatar stella collins
May 10, 2011 - 10:44
Subject: outcomes help too

As always a useful posting.

On the Today programme this morning they were interviewing someone who was providing recommendations for the way social workers operate. She was trying to get away from social workers being measured on how well they followed the rules and more on how well they met the outcomes of protecting children. Fortunately I'm also beginning to hear this idea discussed around some of the local councils I work with too.

I'm sure following sound principles is more effective than following rules and allows people to learn and adapt as situations change - like evolution. Too many rules just means you have to create more rules to deal with changes.

Reply to stella collins
gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
May 11, 2011 - 10:50
Subject: Re: outcomes help too

Hi Stella

I heard that interview as well, whilst stuck in traffic on the M62. I thought her approach was both a strong call to move away from a bureaucratic rules-based system, as well as striking a good balance: realising that, in situations where large organisations and multiple agencies need to work together, some processes are necessary and helpful.

In addition to it being very positive to hear this approach, it was a pleasure to hear someone accepting that there are positives that can be drawn out of both a principle-led approach and and benefits of systems. It's all too unusual to get this balance: too often, people argue for one position to the exclusion of any other ideas. To me, that's more reflective of weakness than strength...

Thanks for your comment - much appreciated.

Kind regards, Simon.

gravatar Julia – Bristol
October 11, 2010 - 09:58

I like the idea of looking at the rules & seeing the whys & wherefors. There's no doubt that some of them do get in the way of progress.

gravatar Simon Roskrow – North Yorkshire
September 15, 2010 - 10:53
Subject: I'm in firm agreement!

Hi Robert, and thanks for your comment.

I believe that principles are the crucial thing - and, provided (a) rules are build on principles, and (b) the principle takes precedence over the rule in cases of disagreement, rules are useful 'shortcuts' or 'shorthand' to have.

Very early in my career, I began to hear a phrase that was regularly repeated - "Do the right thing". It has a danger of being a bit trite and cliched, but, if taken in the right spirit, is general enough to cover most areas. More specific decisions can flow from a broad principle such as this.

Thanks again, Simon.

gravatar Robert Watson – Australia
September 06, 2010 - 12:23
Subject: Rules and Principles

I find that people want to argue about Rules. It might be that they don't like the max/min set, or the frequency of something, or the thoroughness to which something needs to be done. It seems like they feel constrained by somebody else, and the constraint is unwarranted.

However, I find that it is easy to find 'common ground' with ppl if you come back to first principles.

For example, yes, the speed light is 60mph but the road is wet and slippery. The principle here is to be driving at a safe speed. What is the safe speed for these conditions? 45mph.

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