Policies and principles

As we learn to manage ourselves, we often start by setting policies. Policies are iron clad rules that help us achieve certain objectives. Examples of policies are –

1. I will always go to the gym first thing in the morning
2. I will never check email on Saturdays
3. I only eat sweets on Sundays

Of course, these policies are just ways to live by certain principles. For example, the principles behind these 3 rules might be –

1. I care a lot about exercise and would like to make sure I get it done
2. I need to feel relaxed during the weekend
3. I care about the sugar levels in my blood and would like to make sure I keep them low

Now, these principles provide us degrees of freedom. For example, you might be okay checking your email on a Saturday as long as you are feeling relaxed. And, those degrees of freedom enable us to be more effective by applying these principles based on the context.

Managing by policy is an amateur’s game. This is just as applicable whether we’re managing ourselves or an organization.

This, in turn, is exactly why culture matters – both in organizations and individuals. Google’s employees are not held back from discussing confidential information from their company’s weekly all hands because of a policy. Rather, it is their commitment to the culture. Great cultures are important because they enable leaders to focus on principles rather than policy.

For short term wins, policies can work great. However, if you are in it for the long term, principles are the way to go.

6 thoughts on “Policies and principles”

  1. “Managing by policy is an amateur’s game.”

    This is something that has taken me a long time to learn — and something I still struggle with (more so with myself than managing others).

    I’ve been thinking a lot about compasses over maps.

    The world moves to quickly to deal with the rigidity of maps. We just need to ensure we’re pointed the right direction. I don’t *have* to write 500 words a day, but my life is better when I write more often. If I’m feeling good about the amount of content I’ve produced M-TH, it’s okay to skip Friday and watch a movie with the family.

    (Of course, that brings to play another principle, right? Which is where prioritizing and layering comes in play.)

  2. Rohan,
    I fail to understand. Doesn’t this contradict the goal vs. systems approach?
    We create systems and these systems inherently have policies built in. As you rightly pointed out, these policies are based on principles.
    But if we give ourselves the degree of freedom, then we would be exhausting our will power reserve for every choice we face. Won’t that lead us back to square one?

    1. I don’t think the answer is to have no policies. But, I think fewer the better.

      It might be helpful to talk through a specific example. Do you have a system example in mind?

      http://www.ALearningaDay.com – *Never failure, only learning and never older, only better..*

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