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Balancing Policy and People as You Scale Your Business

During a workshop a few months ago, Michael Burcham said: “Every time you make a policy for something that is common sense, you take a little piece of everybody’s brain.”

I chuckled at the candor (and the image), but have been digesting it ever since.

It seems to me that policy, best used, establishes a safety net for the organization (or a community of people of any sort). It sort of says: if our people or our actions fall below this basic level, or beyond this broad range of acceptable behavior, then there will be consequences. If there are uncertainties for the individual member where he needs guidance from the organization, there it is.

In these cases, policy is intended to be behind-the-scenes and not an explicit part of everyday interactions (except for the HR directors and the like who manage them for the organization). Policy should provide a baseline, or set of parameters, that most successful employees don’t spend much time hovering around.

But, often as companies scale and try to codify their work, instead of providing broad parameters, policy is perceived to define the accepted level of execution. It moves from covering the organization for the worst-case scenario to codifying expectations of daily performance. So, people at a decisive moment defer to policy rather than their common sense.

And, this, according to Burcham, is where we lose a piece of our brain, and (according to me) our soul.

So, we must decide if we want to scale policy-driven organizations or people-driven organizations (or likely an effective balance of both). The former leverages the tools of the organization, the latter the tools and creativity of all of its members. The former slows and systematizes organizational function, the latter helps it remain nimble and open to new inputs. Either of them in the extreme exposes the organization to a different set of threats.

Which brings me to another quote from Burcham that day: “Your people should grow at a faster rate than your company.”

So, there’s the real challenge! When you look at your company or your organization, are the people who make it up growing faster than the entity as a whole? Are they pushing you for new opportunities for personal growth? Can they execute without micromanagement? Do they surprise you with their problem-solving? Are they generating innovation and developing ideas to drive you forward?

Or, are they waiting on direction? Acting only if policy is there to guide them?

If it’s the latter, you’re probably scaling policy more than people and “taking a little piece of everybody’s brain” as you do it.


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