The Mouse or the Permit: Process & Productivity

In Ohio it is illegal to catch a mouse without a hunting license. Why does such a silly law still exist? While most homes aren’t overtaken by rodents, I’m guessing no one is getting a permit to set a mouse trap. Why? It’s a process over product issue, in my opinion.

Rules that are disconnected from reality can keep you or your organization from progress. Institutions often do this when they formalize rules into processes and procedures and bury them never to be revisited. That’s why in time you end up with a encyclopedia-like employee handbook that is more concerned with mouse permits than with getting rid of mice ― figuratively speaking.

To further press the metaphor, it can be easy to let your organization be ruled by rodents ― again, figurative speaking― if you’re unwilling to reconsider outdated policies. To avoid this, being ruled by rodents that is, you might need to focus on productivity and rethink potentially archaic processes.

Think about how most policies are born. Option A: someone does something that is deemed unacceptable and a policy grows up to prevent future error. Option B: new growth requires new parameters and procedures. Processes like these are the result of failure or innovation.

I want to argue that these can be good reasons to add a sub-point to an employee handbook. To be clear, I’m not proposing a rule-free existence, and of course, not having rules would itself be a rule. The problem I want to challenge is putting unnecessary process concerns over productivity. This happens when policies no longer have a compelling and rational connection to reality.

This can happen for a variety of inevitable reasons: the people change, the situation changes, the market shifts, whatever. But often policies are like shag carpet, they’re tacky remnants of the past that refuse to go away. To have processes that guard against clear failure or result from true innovation is a good thing. To guard these processes long after any real connection to either exists is like bragging about wearing velour sweats: It doesn’t make you or the outdated fashion statement look any better.

Another reason for institutionalizing processes (Option C if you will) is due to best practices.



Why do these two words obligate us to a path of action?

Where do best practices typically come from? They usually come from individuals or organizations that blaze a trail. As others learn principles that can be applied to their own situations they brand these methods as “best practices.” But best practices are as best practices do.

Pick up a leadership book on best practices from a decade ago and you will find companies given as examples that are no longer in business. Caution is in order before we baptize best practices and submit ourselves and our institutions to them in life-long servitude. They might turn into rodents, I hope you get the point.

My point, to state it an un-mousy way, is that product, or better, productivity, should be the focus for leadership. While some managers can obsess over satisfying every jot and tittle of past policies and procedures, uncritically following the written and oral histories of their organizations, or insisting on best practices that stopped being “best” a long time ago, leaders must love an institution enough to challenge those things that impede growth. Leaders have to call out the “mouse permit policy” for what it is.

Managers live within handbooks, fret over processes, while leaders challenge the status quo and inspire productivity. Managers set boundaries. Leaders set trajectories.

Graphic design offers an example: Artists generally care far more for the product than processes. It isn’t what techniques a designer used to arrive at their masterpiece. It’s that the artist was working from a vision. They used techniques. They focused on vision. Their work followed their vision. But what if they focused on techniques without having a clear vision?

It’s simple, they wouldn’t be very good artists.

I think leadership can be similar. Let’s allow our techniques to serve the vision and not the other way around. So, what does that mean for your big fat policy and procedure rule book? Start by asking of most (if not all) of your policies, “Why?” Why is it there? How did it come about? Is it still relevant? Is it still necessary? Does it help accomplish the vision? How can we help our team members be the most productive?

Leaders have a big job. They have to find ways to inspire others towards a clear and compelling vision. But that’s not all. They then need to give team members the resources they need to be the most productive in pursuing that vision ― even if it means challenging and changing status quo policies. At the end of the day what is more important a “mouse permit” or keeping mice out of your basement?