SOCAP International

If the Answer Is “It’s Just Policy,” You’re in Deep Trouble

Here are four reasons you should be reexamining your “policies.”

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SOCAP is proud to have Aaron Dignan as a keynote speaker at SOCAP's 2016 Annual COnference this October 23-26 in Orlando. He'll be presenting "The Ever Better Organization: Care in the 21st Century," where he'll explore the implications for care in the digital age, as well as the emerging and potential trends that will shape the next decade. His challenge to attendees is to bring a mindset of urgency and possibility to this issue.

As we know, good customer care is predicated on the personalized attention we want to give every customer. This article by Dignan gives insight into how our "analog" interactions with customers still matter just as much as out digital outreach.


PoliciesI recently visited the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company and asked if I could drop a small notebook at the front desk for a friend who works there. Here’s the exchange that followed:

Them: We don’t accept packages of any kind.
Me: Why not?
Them: Because we can’t be held responsible for loss or damage.
Me: It’s a journal still sealed in cellophane. What could happen?
Them: It’s just policy.
Me: Could I sign something, relinquishing my right to claim any damages if you lose or damage it in the 30 minutes between now and when he picks it up? He really needs it.
Them: No.
Me: OMG.
Them: It’s just policy.

This is not the first time I’ve heard that line. We hear it all the time — whenever we ask for a favor or an exception or a presently unmet customer need. If you’ve heard these words in your workplace, consider that the following might be true:

1. Your policies have unintended consequences.

Typically, these sorts of policies are attempting to be one-size-fits-all when the complexity of modern life demands more nuance and flexibility. Our obsession with minimizing risk has created umpteen policies that are not user friendly. The policy I encountered above is designed to protect the company from the one-in-1,000 chance that they lose a laptop at the front desk, get sued and lose. But in the process, the other 999 of us get inconvenienced.

2. You don’t trust your own people.

Policies that don’t afford people at the front lines the ability to improvise are built on the assumption that consistency matters more than context, that the people you’ve hired are morons, and that they can’t be trusted to make decisions. In this case, one of two things is true (and both are bad): Either we have indeed hired poorly, or we aren’t getting the full capacity of our people as thinkers and keepers of the customer experience. Based on what we’ve seen in real world examples of self-organizing companies with hourly employees, let’s be clear, the problem isn’t the people.

3. Your people don’t know why your policies exist.

More often than not, when I ask a front-line employee why something isn’t possible, the person on the other side of the desk just shrugs. Tragically, this means they have the burden of enforcement without the benefit of understanding and ownership.

4. Your policies don’t change based on real world data. Ownership

No one has ever responded to my request by saying, “Sir, our current policy says we can’t accept packages, but I can see how silly that is when we’re talking about a journal, so I’m going to bring this issue to our next policy meeting and see if I can’t change it to make it better for you and our other guests. And, of course, today I’ll make an exception for you. Give me the journal and I’ll see that they get it.” That never happens.

When you add up all the assumptions and oversimplification that goes into a “It’s just policy” work environment, you can see how much potential energy is there, trapped and waiting to be free. People are waiting to be trusted, waiting to be educated, waiting to participate in their own roles and rules.

In the absence of trust and the ability to change, the organization is brittle. It cannot bend, so it can only break. It can’t evolve at the hands of the people with the most information — the ones at the edge. A firm saddled with dogmatic policy will (usually) avoid the risks it feared, but almost certainly miss the risks it didn’t see — the opportunities to capture new markets, to delight and retain customers, to transcend its current state.

That’s why many organizations today are striving to put adaptability and learning at the center of their operating model, something I wrote about at length in “The Last Re-org You’ll Ever Do.” One of the best first steps comes to us from Fred Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations.” This exercise is simply to question the assumptions behind our policies.

If we ask people to clock in and out, perhaps we are assuming they’re untrustworthy or bad at time management. If we give bonuses to individuals instead of teams, perhaps we’re assuming that individuals influence outcomes more than teams. The point isn’t that any assumption is necessarily wrong or right, but that we confront the beliefs that underlie our status quo. That alone can be the start of a real conversation about change.

And that conversation is critical, because a policy isn’t just a policy, it’s a signal into our way of working and engaging with the world — ideally not as a place to be controlled, but as a dynamic system to navigate and learn from.

P.S. Just for kicks, I took the journal to the mail room around the back of the building. They accepted it with a smile. Take that policy!


Aaron DignanAaron Dignan, Author, Digital Strategist and Founder, The Ready

Everywhere he looks, Aaron Dignan sees the same phenomenon. Our most trusted and important institutions – in business, healthcare, government, philanthropy, and beyond – are struggling. They’re confronted with the fact that the scale and bureaucracy that once made them strong are liabilities in an era of constant change. For the past eight years, Dignan and his team have been studying the fastest growing, most profoundly impactful companies of our time. What they’ve found is that this new guard represents a major shift in mindset. Dignan contends that teams everywhere need to upgrade their organizational operating system and adopt a new way of working that prioritizes purpose, networks, emergence, adaptivity, empowerment, and transparency. As a transformation partner, Dignan and his team have advised the leadership at global brands like GE, American Express, Hyatt, PepsiCo, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Motor Company, and The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum on their future in an increasingly complex world.

Dignan is an active angel investor and helps build partnerships between the startups and end-ups he advises. He sits/sat on advisory boards for GE, American Express, and PepsiCo, as well as the board of directors for Smashburger. He is the author of Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success (Free Press, 2011) and an upcoming book on organizational design, Boxes & Lines.