It’s not Easy Being Simple

By Monica Crocker posted 11-08-2012 17:31


When I took motorcycle safety training, the most difficult part of the course was the slow, tight figure 8.  In order to execute it successfully, you have to turn your head in the opposite of the direction you are traveling, almost completely over your shoulder, to look in the direction you want to go, while still moving forward.  Not just glance, but completely turn your head and hold that pose until your bike catches up and is headed in the same direction as your face.  It was completely counter-intuitive to look away from the path you were traveling.  Every fiber of my being resisted, but I did manage to follow the directions I was given and turned my head.  Even though the instruction was simple, it was very difficult to put into practice.

Along those lines, I have recently been working on a corporate Policy and am currently working on some enterprise Guidelines.  I have noticed that the simpler the document needs to be, the more difficult it is to write.  How do you write a policy statement so that it is all-encompassing, yet enforceable AND easy for even the most casual reader to understand?  It would be easier to write a comprehensive essay detailing the underlying rationale, the implications, and a comprehensive list of exceptions.  It’s not as easy to write “Do Exactly This Under the Following Circumstances and Here’s Why” in less than 500 words.  I have come up with a few “steps” in that process that might help others.

First, you have to define scope.  Which situations does this cover…is it every situation or only those that fall under a certain criteria?  One of the most difficult parts of writing a simple rule is to word it in such a way that there is no need for exceptions.  Take for instance, the following alternatives:

  • All employees are eligible for a telecommuting arrangement
  • All employees who are not subject to “work improvement plans” are eligible to telecommute
  • All salaried employees are eligible for a telecommuting arrangement
  • All employees at X level and above are eligible for a telecommuting arrangement

The scope of that rule is very different in those three examples.  The wording needs to reflect the intended scope and eliminate the need to include “except those that are hourly” or “except those that are subject to a union bargaining agreement” or whatever the scope excludes.

Further, you have to differentiate whether you are asking people to “Do This” in addition to what they are already doing or instead of what they are currently doing.  That might require additional words because you can’t just say “Do This,” you also have to include “And Stop Doing Anything Else.”

Then you have to clarify whether it is mandatory and to what degree (will failure to use email in a businesslike manner result in your termination or will you just lose a point on your annual review or just irritate your manager)?

Another challenge is to ensure that the words on the page involve no assumptions.  It might be completely obvious to you that this policy does NOT apply to emails between an employee and their spouse, but unless “this rule only applies to work-related communications” is explicitly stated, you set yourself up for (a) potential objections and (b) potential abuse of the rule (I’d hate to get canned because I sent an “unprofessional” email to my mom).

You also have to review the document to ensure that it contains no contradictions or inconsistencies and that it doesn’t create any contradictions or inconsistencies with other governing documents.  For example, if you say the Document Management system is for managing “corporate records,” including meeting agendas, but in your Records Management Policy, you define meeting agendas as “non-records,” you have a contradiction between those documents in how records are defined.

Finally, one of the more time consuming parts of developing an enterprise rule is to work through each possible use case in order to validate that the rule is applicable within that context.  For instance, if you make a rule that “all documents in SharePoint are records” how does that apply when a user saves a white paper they downloaded from the internet to SharePoint?  Good rule writing requires enough understanding of the work affected to be able to determine the impact of the rule on the business process.

In sum, to quote Albert Einstein:  Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler. 

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