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March 01, 2005


I saw an email from someone we work with today, and it essentially said, "This is our policy, take it or leave it."  Policy is a fine word that can have clear meaning in the right context.  If I go to Wal-Mart and ask "what is your return policy on this pair of tennis shoes that I bought last week, that now I realize is the wrong size" it is pretty clear what I mean.  I'm not looking to renegotiate the buyer-seller contract, I just want to know if I'm going to get my money back or be able to exchange the shoes for a pair that fit my size 12s.

But there are other meanings to the word "policy."  It can be used to mean "I don't want to hear your problems or your opinion."  It can mean "I'm not even going to tell you who made up this rule.  It wasn't me, and if I did know who to talk to about it, I'm not in a position to try to get it changed."  At its worst, it can mean "tough, go away if you don't like it."

I just looked up the definition of "Policy" and I was surprised that at least according to my dictionary, it means 1. wise management 2. any governing principle, plan, etc.  (See Police)

I've never seen anyone suggest that a policy was "a governing principle."  If that were really how most people used the word, I wouldn't have had such a negative reaction.  We don't have a lot of policy at Gold Systems because I think most issues are best handled with the latest facts and the best judgment.  To try to create Policy in advance of a situation is very difficult.  I'm all for process, guidelines, plans, principles, but for me Policy is too limiting in most situations.

Many years ago I worked for a very large corporation.  I needed to back up a computer that for some reason was not on the corporate network.  In other words, if I didn't back it up and it someone accidently formatted the disk, our project was gone.  I went to the supply room and requested ten tapes so that I could implement a rotating backup. I was told that it was Company Policy to allow an individual to get only two tapes per year, because people were using too many tapes.  Now my first thought was "are you saying that people are doing too good of a job backing up their computers?" but that seemed highly unlikely and just plain stupid.  Perhaps someone was stealing the tapes?  If that was the problem, why not just fire the person who's signing for lots of tapes with no good justification?  I didn't argue with the person though, I just spent the next couple of hours walking around until I found four other people willing to go to the stock room and give me their yearly tape allotment.

That little story about a Company Policy on backup tapes perfectly illustrates the problem with most Policy.  This particular Policy didn't keep me from getting the tapes I needed.  And if I was a criminal with a good fence for proprietary tapes cartridges, it still wouldn't have stopped me.  So it wasted the good person's time and it didn't stop the bad guy.  "But wait!" you say.  The problem was that the Policy didn't go far enough - they could have been more clear with the policy and they could have written even more rules around bringing in your friends to get around the limitation.  Ah, but then you go from Policy to Bureaucracy, which is tomorrow’s word of the day.

If you are a customer, partner or employee of my company, and you feel we’re hiding behind the word Policy, give me a call at 303 381 6700. I love blowing up dumb policies.

March 1, 2005 | Permalink


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