The Ready
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The Ready

How to pick the principles that will actually change your organization

You’re ready to transform your organization. You sit down with your team and create a vision of what good looks like. It takes a few rounds of wordsmithing, but eventually you agree. “We want an organization that is customer centric, faster, more innovative, where people are empowered and where we value transparency.”

Sounds good right? Well, no, not really.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good things to strive for. In fact, everyone can get behind this vision. And that’s exactly the problem. Those words aren’t actionable and specific enough when it comes to driving new behavior. It’s more useful to create a set of principles.

Principles, those special special kinds of rules, boundaries, heuristics. A set of tenets, aphorisms and words of wisdom that help us make our way through the world. Sort of rules of thumb that shape behavior in a positive way.” — Aaron Dignan in our podcast

Example: transparency

Consider transparency. It’s a compelling concept because in corporate culture we often default to privacy and secrecy. That said, just choosing transparency as a principle can be hard to link to particular behaviors because it’s brief and abstract. All principles should be actionable, therefore try to express what the ideal state of transparency would look like for you.

To arrive at better principles, ask: What are we trying to get with transparency? Here are a few transparency-inspired principles that are more useful:

  • Everyone is able to find the all the information they need
  • We are not reliant on leaders for context
  • We strive for information symmetry
  • Work in public
  • Default to open

Find the principles behind something that doesn’t work

If you’re starting to re-engineer a work practice, it’s useful to ask, “What are the principles, assumptions and beliefs behind the design of X that aren’t serving us?”

The answers to that question enable you to confront the principles that are at work behind the scenes and give you an opportunity to change them. To illustrate this idea, let’s take a closer look at intersections. This example is described in our book, Brave New Work, by Aaron Dignan. Two roads crossing present a deceptively simple challenge: How do we prevent cars from hitting one another, while maintaining the maximum flow of traffic?

One of the most popular solutions to this problem is the signal-controlled intersection. What are the principles behind it?

  • People cannot be trusted to navigate the intersection on their own. They need to be told what to do
  • Complex problems must be managed with elaborate rules and technology in the form of cables, lights, switches, and control centers, programmed to optimize the flow of traffic
  • We need a plan for every possible scenario with multicolored signals, arrows, the ability to switch from solid to flashing lights, and so on

An alternative system is the roundabout, and it’s built on different principles:

  • People can be trusted, and will trust one another, to use judgment and do the right thing
  • Complex problems can be managed with simple rules and agreements that leave room for judgment: Give the right-of-way to vehicles already in the circle and go with the flow of traffic
  • Many scenarios will unfold in the roundabout but social coordination will be sufficient to handle them

Use principles to redesign your organization

As an example of a challenge in a sales organization, let’s say that some people think their contributions, the ones achieving top sales, aren’t being compensated. One non-people-positive experiment would be to throw all the non-contributing people out and reallocate the money to the top performers. While this probably solves the tension, you’ve now created a toxic workplace.

If you had asked, “What would our compensation and rewards do if they were perfect?” before deciding to go through with the experiment, you would probably get to different experiments that are more aligned with what you want. So, when deciding on your principles, draft them based on a specific process, system or field of your organizational operating system (OS) that you’re trying to redesign, such as: org structure, meetings, decision-making, performance management or incentives, etc. The following prompt is helpful in finding the principles:

What does our X look like when we’re doing it well? If it were perfect, it would…

Since we help our clients adopt a way of working that is people positive and complexity conscious, a lot of our favorite principles will have something to do with autonomy, transparency, decentralization, empowerment and consent.

Here are a few examples:

  • Authority: Distribute as much authority to the edge of the organization as we can stand
  • Structure: Centralize only where it accelerates the teams at the edge
  • Strategy: Steer continuously through experimentation
  • Information: Create accountability through transparency
  • Compensation: Incentivize collaboration across functions
  • Authority: Shift our mindset making decisions with “safe-to-try” as the criteria

Use principles to select new ways of working

With all the trends our networks rave about or we read about in online articles, it’s tempting to believe that all new practices will be superior to their predecessors. This isn’t always the case, however. Some new practices might feel good at first, but actually have a lot of command-and-control baked into them. So whether or not that new practice will help you get closer to the culture you’re trying to build depends on whether the principles behind those practices align with what you’re trying to achieve.

Often in organizations there is debate or conflict over a certain methodology or a way of doing things. Sometimes there is a higher-order principle that can create coherence and says: “If two people have a different approach in moving toward that direction, then that’s probably okay; there are multiple ways to do this, not one right way.”

Tips for drafting good principles

  • Try to keep each principle to a few words or a sentence at most. You may find it helpful to tuck a paragraph underneath it to explain the ways that it manifests but wait until you have some experience with it and what clarifications are needed before you do so
  • Principles should feel a little bit wrong, challenging or controversial. This should be expected because they push the boundaries of the way you work
  • Principles should be used as rules of thumb and allow people to exercise their own judgment. They should not be treated as law. That’s why we like the ones that start with “We default to…” (like, “we default to open”)
  • Try to limit the number of principles to five or fewer. If you have too many, prioritize and eliminate.
  • Re-evaluate your principles often. If they’re no longer applicable or are not serving you, change them!

I work at The Ready: an organization design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. This article is co-authored by Clare Wieck and was based on the contents of the Principles episode of our Brave New Work podcast, hosted by Aaron Dignan and Rodney Evans.

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Jurriaan Kamer

Jurriaan Kamer

Org design & transformation | Author of ‘Formula X’ | Speaker | Future of Work. Partner at The Ready