Are business rules made to be broken?
Effective Resource Management requires that leaders Understand Systems. Recognizing how people and processes interact is a necessary professional competency to avoid the quagmires created by mixed message rules.
It happens. A well-intentioned policy or procedure creates a mixed message, and the result is an operational glitch. We’ve all been there. Conflicting rules frustrate employees, and managers are forced to spend time on problems that could have been avoided.
There is a way out of the “business rules that don’t work” mess. It’s this: Realize that getting people and processes working together is worth the effort. So, yes, some rules do need to be reviewed and revised. It’s a question of confronting system disarray and fine tuning what isn’t working so everyone can work.
Muddled business rules lead to people and processes being at odds
I’ve been guilty of giving people mixed messages.
An example was when I owned a retail store in a regional mall and one day noticed some dusty shelves. I liked the store neat and tidy, so I mentioned to the employee on duty that keeping the shelves clean was a priority. I didn’t even remember that “off-hand” remark until a few weeks later, when I saw my sales associates busily dusting the shelves while potential customers roamed the store. Then it dawned on me, what I had done: People interpreted what to me was a comment as a rule.
Another set of befuddled procedures almost led me to changing my job. I was an international client manager charged with maintaining long-term client relationships, which meant it was vital to spend face time with our clients. The problem was every time I filled out an expense report for a client dinner it seemed the accounting office demanded even more documentation than the time before. I about lost it when they demanded itemized food bills, or else they wouldn’t reimburse me. Several times I spent what seemed like days trying to get itemized bills from restaurants that in some cases didn’t issue them, or I forgot to ask for one when paying. Then my expense checks were held-up for weeks.
To complicate matters the organization had a policy of not paying for alcohol, which meant I paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket every year.
A system functions well only when properly tuned
Obviously, the next time I met with my store employees, I explained that customers were a priority, and I had a long talk with myself about how to do things differently.
That led to understanding that while I paid lip service to the concept of teamwork, I hadn’t fundamentally realized that my employees and I were parts of a system. Further, to manage my resources well, I would need to ensure that our system was running at its best.
I did a few simple things. One was to write a basic (and brief) operational guide, so everyone knew what was expected and the priorities. But before launching the guide, I reviewed it with my sales associates and asked for their input. The result was everyone felt clear about their jobs and the system that supported us all. I’ve taken this lesson with me to every job since. In my first weeks in a new position, I start by reviewing work processes with everyone involved and, just as happened the first time, I’ve gotten excellent feedback that we used to fine-tune our system.
Realize the power of teams (even small teams)
Over time, as I gained experience, I came to the “gut” realization that teamwork is much more than a slogan. Teams really do matter, even small ones. We hear the comment that two heads are better than one, but many times we don’t realize how true it is.
My growth as a leader taught me that all organizations rely on teams, even entrepreneurs with one desk in their office. Like it or not, we rely on other people to achieve our work goals, no matter how informal or formal the relationship, and what’s more, people enjoy interacting and learning from others when they can be productive (meaning the system doesn’t work against them).
I look back at my expense report frustrations and understand that the roles and functions of the groups involved needed to be revised to eliminate the competing goals. A balance between technical sales and administrative activities is necessary in all organizations, though this is just one example of how a manager must grasp the complex interrelationships and interdependencies in an organization and clarify work processes so that people can better support each other in achieving common goals.
Build Your Competency: Focus on systems and teams
- Ask your employees what policies and procedures get in the way of serving customers and clients.
- Review or, even better, diagram business processes that are causing malfunctions and thus illustrate the complex interdependencies to everyone involved. Then consider streamlining.
- Hold annual “fine-tuning” review sessions with your staff and invite appropriate support functions such as accounting, finance, and operations to discuss policies, procedures, and outline requirements and priorities.
Dr. Wesley Donahue
I’m Wes Donahue, President of Centrestar, Inc. and I also lead the online graduate program in Organization Development and Change at Penn State University.
Centrestar is a training organization that helps people identify and use the 35 competencies needed to succeed in any industry or profession. Learn more about us at www.centrestar.com
For more information about the 35 competencies, see my book Building Leadership Competence: A Competency-Based Approach to Building Leadership Ability.