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Creating "living" policies and procedures

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2005. Creating "living" policies and procedures. Intercom November:16–18.

If you visit any large organization, odds are good that you'll find a large row of three-ring binders that have seemingly been gathering dust since the dawn of the age of moveable type. Yes, these are the policies and procedures manuals, and the odds are good that even the Personnel department no longer knows what's in them or follows their guidelines precisely. Over time, the way that things actually get done within an organization begins to diverge from the way they're supposed to get done—in large part because most people are happier learning the ropes from their colleagues than memorizing hundreds of pages of rules and regulations. Human memory being imperfect, and human nature being to find one's own path through life, actual practice soon drifts out of synch with the nominal practice in these manuals.

In any attempt to improve a practice, it's often effective to take a long step back from the daily habits and question the goals of a practice. Policies and procedures documents are no exception. These documents develop over time as Management attempts to obtain more consistency in its practices and provide a fair set of criteria by which all employees will be judged. Less often, but more effectively, the guidelines attempt to enshrine "best practices" that have been proven to work rather than encouraging employees to continuously reinvent the wheel, and some organizations use these documents as the basis for training new or recently promoted employees. But whatever the purpose of developing policies and procedures, the effort is wasted if neither a policy nor the procedures based upon it supports employees in achieving the organization's goals.

So how do you develop policies and procedures that accomplish these goals in an employee-friendly manner? By asking hard questions about your purpose in implementing a policy, about how the procedures you develop will be used to accomplish that purpose, and about how to ensure that both the policy and the procedures continue to reflect the reality.

Defining the goals

The primary goal of many policies and procedures is to ensure fairness and consistency of practice. If everyone has access to the same information, and is judged by the same rules, it's easier for everyone to be confident that they're moving in the same direction and getting there in largely the same way. (Others see the primary goal as a way to identify training needs and define a training curriculum for the company. I'll discuss that point later in this article.) Less time is wasted figuring out how to do things, there are fewer cases when employees act incorrectly because they've been forced (with insufficient knowledge) to choose their own way to proceed, and managers achieve more predictable results in the daily operations of their area of responsibility.

This consistency is supported by the creation of a clear mission statement that defines the purpose of a policy or procedure—and not the kind of mission statement so justly parodied in Dilbert, but rather the kind that provides useful guidance on how to interpret a policy or follow a procedure, because both the policy and the procedure arise naturally from that mission statement. When an ad hoc mission statement, no matter how reasonable, is tacked onto existing policies or procedures, conflicts inevitably arise because neither the policy nor the procedures were designed with that mission clearly in mind. In contrast, policies and procedures created within the context of a mission statement can be designed to specifically support that mission. Moreover, they are easier to interpret and follow, and managers have a much clearer understanding of when it will be acceptable to show some flexibility and diverge from the rules: if you understand your goal, it's easy to ask whether doing something differently will still accomplish that goal. In contrast, if the goal is hidden or unclear, the policies and procedures may appear mystifying and arbitrary, and both perceptions encourage non-compliance and uninformed decisions.

Documenting "best practices" is another key goal of developing policies and procedures. If a company has developed an efficient approach to accomplish some low-level objective, and that approach supports the organization's higher-level goals, then the relevant policy should explicitly state and support that goal and should demonstrate the efficient procedure. In this manner, the organization's goals are expressed in a manner that lets the employee understand why they are doing something and how to do it quickly and with minimal pain. Both factors greatly increase the likelihood of buy-in and compliance: it's human nature to comply with a rule when the reason for the rule is clear and the procedure for complying with that rule makes one's life easier. Procedures that have no clear rationale, that make no sense, that make it more difficult to complete one's work, and that appear to follow an entirely arbitrary path are the ones most likely to encounter resistance.

As an example of how to design a policy and procedure correctly, consider the following: A former employer encapsulated the review and revision process for their reports within the task-management system provided by Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server. Using a custom-designed interface to the task system, writers, managers, and editors had instant access to the necessary documents (style guides and planning documents that expressed the policies related to writing and reviewing reports), and the procedures based on those documents were built directly into the software's user interface. As a result, the interface guided them through a specific, effective implementation of what the organization considered to be a "best practice" procedure for document review. Moreover, the task management features of this software combination helped managers to track progress towards deadlines and kept the review and revision process moving efficiently.

Because organizations and their environment both change, policies and procedures must explicitly recognize the need to change in response so they can work better under the new conditions. In addition to providing an informal mechanism to solicit and evaluate feedback from those who must live with the guidelines, organizations should also provide a formal mechanism for determining whether existing guidelines continue to reflect reality and to meet the organization's goals. Such a mechanism should also encourage employee input, since it is the people at the bottom of the food chain who must actually live with the constraints and who most intimately understand the consequences of a guideline for their daily work. If an organization has survived the ISO-9000 certification process (see for more information), they have already gone through the process of documenting how things are really being done. This effort is wasted if it does not also encourage a review of whether "how things are being done" still makes sense.

Encouraging compliance

Based on the kind of context described in the previous section, and the analysis of existing policies and procedures that can result from a careful consideration of this context, an organization is much more likely to develop a set of policies and procedures that make sense, both for the organization and for the employees. But how can organizations encourage compliance with those well-designed rules once they've been implemented?

Training is one traditional answer, since an employee can't follow the rules if they're unaware of the existence of those rules. This training may be formal, in the sense of an employee orientation period at the beginning of employment; semi-formal, and performed via announcements at staff meetings or via e-mail, as well as in company newsletters; or informal, in the sense of "just in time" training received when an employee faces a decision and must ask their manager for advice on how to proceed.

The problem with all such training is that learned knowledge is quickly lost if it's not applied on an ongoing basis. I remember with some pain being a federal employee who rarely traveled on an expense account more than once per year, and thus, having to annually relearn the procedure for how I should submit a request for reimbursement. Clearly, then, the bigger payoff comes when an organization integrates its rules and regulations with the way work is actually being done. The report review and revision process that I described earlier in this article is a specific example. But think of a more general principle, namely how a "wizard" in online help accomplishes its magic: at each step in the process, the software tells the user what they must accomplish and how they must accomplish it, and sometimes even does some of the work for the user. The principle is the same in any performance-support system: rather than forcing the user to rely on long-ago training they've probably forgotten, or consult a dusty book at some obscure location in the office, the system supports their performance by encapsulating the desired sequence of steps and supporting the user in performing each step. If the guidelines on how to proceed become part of the process, the need for memorization is eliminated, there are fewer situations when employees diverge from the process simply because the process is not clear or because they incorrectly remember the process, and the increased ease of accomplishing the task facilitates compliance with the procedure—and thus, encourages compliance with the policy.

There is a large body of literature that provides insights on the basic principle of integrating procedural knowledge within the actual task, ranging from papers on the design of electronic performance-support systems and online help to books that provide an understanding of human factors (cognitive psychology) and usability. In each field, the overall goal is largely the same: the designers of the policy or procedure must work together with the employees who will be affected and with the professionals (e.g., intranet designers) who will help implement the guidelines. Together, the team members define the desired results of a policy from both the organization's and the user's (the employee's) perspective, then identify how the results are most likely to be achieved or could be achieved most effectively in the workplace. The result? The development of a practical and efficient way to reconcile the organization's goals with the worker's needs.

Living by the rules

No matter how well-designed your policies and procedures, there will always be rebels who do their best to work around the rules. That can be impossible to stop, and where the exceptions cause no harm to the organization, the employee, or the employee's co-workers, it may even be unwise to try. Insisting on immutable rules carved in stone may be appropriate in an unchanging environment, or one in which employees must comply with onerous government regulations that carry large penalties for failure to comply. But in most other contexts, the work environment and the external environment are in a state of constant flux, and policymakers must recognize the need to adapt to these changes. Sometimes your rebels, rather than being the negative disruptive force they at first appear to be, are the ones who are first to recognize a change and to develop effective ways to cope with that changed reality. Think of these people as an asset rather than a liability, and harness their energy and insight to make life at work better for everyone. Living by the rules is clearly much easier when the rules are living—and thus, are able to change when the situation clearly requires a new approach.

Acknowledgment: My thanks to Ray Urgo for providing a valuable reality check on an earlier version of this article. Needless to say, any misapplied policies or procedures are my own fault.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved