Killing Stupid Rules
ISE Magazine – Volume 49: Number 01
By Lisa Bodell

At this very moment, one or more of your employees is rolling his or her eyes. And brace yourself: It’s because of some absurd policy or rule created by management. Processes should simplify the necessary tasks to keep business running smoothly, but excess procedure can suffocate your organization. Meetings start standing in for milestones, email threads divert productivity and reports require more time to prepare than the initiatives they outline. The eye roll (and its cousin, the defeated shrug) are the silent protests of people in every area of your organization. If you want to understand the source and depth of their frustration, here’s a surefire way: Invite them to a meeting. Everybody loves those.

Once you’ve gathered your teams together, provide blank sticky notes and ask everyone to pair up. Now, present this question: “If you could kill or change all the stupid rules that get in the way of doing your work or better servicing your clients, what would they be?”

If they stare back at you in stunned silence, you might want to add: “Fifteen minutes! Go!”

After 10 minutes, people likely will ask for more time – not because they’re stumped, but because there are that many stupid rules. Don’t interrupt their catharsis. After all, how often do you see your employees this engaged? Do remind them, however, that government regulations are “red rules” – illegal to change – but everything else is a “green rule” and thus fair game.

When the pairs finish listing stupid rules, ask each person to take a single sticky note and write the one rule he or she hates the most. Meanwhile, create a two-by-two grid on a whiteboard or flipchart.

Axis Y represents how easy or difficult the rule is to kill, and X represents the business impact (low-to-high) of killing the rule. Encourage everyone to place their rules in the most fitting quadrant. If they believe it’s easy to kill the rule and the effect is high impact, it belongs on the top right quadrant. If they believe it’s difficult to destroy – or it won’t impact the entire business – put it on the bottom left. There’s no right or wrong placement because workers define what goes where according to their own perspective.

At this point in the exercise, you have a visual cluster of rules that your employees personally want to smother. Pay attention to any that show up over and over, as this is proof that they need to be re-evaluated. Additionally, rules in the right quadrant of easy to implement and high impact indicate your immediate targets, as these are quick wins.

As you open up discussion about the rules, listen objectively about where change is needed and resist the urge to be defensive. The majority of companies find that their most vilified rules aren’t really “rules” at all. They’re often annoying procedures like standing reports or conference calls, expense-reimbursement protocol and layers of approval.

Now it’s time for the moment of truth – and action. Among these “rules,” take an employee vote on which one should be killed. Then do it, right on the spot. If possible, kill more than one. Or do the next best thing: Kill the rule for a few months and promise that if no one misses it, the change will be permanent. Your people likely will be shocked and ecstatic. And beyond the gratification, this exercise sends a powerful message that you’re listening and committed to improving their work lives.

If your company has adopted complex and tedious procedures in the name of efficiency, killing rules offers a simple solution. It has the power to engage employees and open up positive dialogue within the company. Leaders get a strong pulse on where change is most needed, and people are encouraged to contribute ideas. As your teams feel less strapped by time, they become more willing to tackle the big-picture projects that can measurably grow your business.

Killing a stupid rule can either become the pivotal moment when things began to change, or better yet, the quarterly ritual that inspires employee excitement … and zero eye rolling.