Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Rules and Thoughtlessness

During lunch I watched Barry Schwartz' latest presentation at TED. I couldn't help to make the connection with an article published last week about the federal government's "web of rules".

Here's what Barry Schwartz had to say:
"Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking. [...] When things go wrong, as of course they do, we reach for two tools to try to fix them. One tool we reach for is rules: better ones, more of them. The second tool we reach for is incentives: better ones, more of them. What else, after all, is there? [...] The truth is that neither rules or incentives are enough to do the job.

What happens is that as we turn increasingly to rules, rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by over reliance on rules that deprives us from the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisation. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom. [...]

[We need to] remoralize work. [...] One way NOT to do it: Teach more ethics courses. There's no better way to show people that you are not serious than to tie up everything you have to say about ethics into a little package with a bow and consign it to the margins as an ethics course."
I feel the same way about what I call "management by checklists", another trend I have observed in recent years and that has manifested itself in many workshops I have attended (i.e. staffing), where managers demand more checklists to follow, more tools to re-use, more best practices to duplicate. Consequently, too many managers are abdicating their responsibility and leaving decision-making in the hands of rules, checklists and other standardized tools. I am not a fan of management by checklists, as I believe that just like over reliance on rules, it ultimately leads to thoughtlessness.

Again, you'll find links to my favourite TED presentations in the side-bar on the right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom"

So succinct!