Don’t scar on the first cut David 16 May 2006

61 comments Latest by Division by Zero

Policies are often the result of something that once went wrong. It’s organizational scar tissue developed from a This Can Never Happen Again mandate. And its almost always ill-considered.

The problem with policies are that they compound and eventually add up to the rigidity of bureaucracy that everyone says they despise. Policies are not free. They demean the intellect of the executer (“I know this is stupid, but…”) and obsolve the ability to deal with a situation in context (“I sympathize, but…”).

Here’s a curve ball: When something goes wrong, have a chat about it, embed the learning in the organizational memory as a story instead of a policy. Stories have context and engage the listeners, so next time a similar situation arise, you’ll be informed by the story and act wiser.

Policies are codified overreactions to unlikely-to-happen-again situations. A collective punishment for the wrong-doings of a one-off. And unless you want to treat the people in your environment as five year-olds, “Because The Policy Said So” is not a valid answer.

61 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Luis 16 May 06

I agree, but also have to add that this philosophy works best with smart, independant thinking people and not with blundering idiots who will surely use the no-policy idea as an excuse for being lazy and making the same mistakes over and over.

DHH 16 May 06

If you treat your employees as blundering idiots, odds are good that they’ll live down to your expectations.

And if you truly have that rare specimen of a true-bred moron on your team, well, then the question should probably rather be: Why do you have a true-bred moron on your team?

Mark 16 May 06

Policies are constraints — embrace them, don’t ask why.

Seriously though, some policies are in place because something has gone wrong. On the other hand, however, policies are in place to steer and to guide to prevent something from going wrong.

As the father of a 5 year old, I completely agree with your statement that the “because I said so” answer is useless and should be avoided because 5 year olds need information to learn. As adults, however, sometimes pushing for the story, or the why, is really not worthy of an explanation — just obidience to the policy as it stands.

Luis 16 May 06

If you treat your employees as blundering idiots, odds are good that they�ll live down to your expectations.

It’s not that they’re treated as blundering idiots, but more that they slowly, over the course of time, eveolve into such. I’ve seen many people shine during job interviews, but once hired, that shine quickly fades and their “idiot-ness” comes through.

Dave P 16 May 06

Can’t say I agree with this post David. Here’s why:

Policies, when implemented _properly_ increase efficiency, promote branding, and provide consistent customer service. They are the MVC of running a business.

The problem lies not with policies themselves, but with their implementation.

Policies usually subject themselves to the whims of their creators. In that, they aren’t always the best solutions. More critical however, is the notion that a policy is “set and forget”. Policies exist for a reason, but when that reason changes, or ceases to exist, the policy should continue to reflect reality. This is rarely the case. Additionally, to few people question policies, and even fewer are listened to when they do.

You’re correct, “Because The Policy Said So� is not a valid answer. Unfortunately, “To hell with the policy” isn’t either.

The correct solution would be to evaluate whether or not such a policy remains relevant and serves a coherent purpose.

Melanie 16 May 06

I think policies are needed in certain kinds of businesses, particularly where a lot of people are involved. The financial and energy markets are good examples.

Mark Gallagher 16 May 06

Agree in general.

But in the real world of big companies, you need some policies.

Example, most companies have a policy that you cannot use internet access on a company computer to go to gambling sites and play poker.

Why ? Because in a company of thousands of employees a few will want to do gamble online. And if you don’t make all employees aware of the policy, the person that does it cannot be legally fired because there was never a policy communicated to all employees.

Is this policy toxic to most of your employees that use common sense ? Not really. Most of them just ignore these policies from “corporate” and understand there is a lot of noise from above in a big company.

So it’s the reality of large numbers. As the Signal vs Noise blog has gained a large audience, you have adopted some informal policies regarding governing what is posted. It’s just the price of getting big.

But agree, there are too many policies and they are frequently made too complicated by lawyers and are communicated poorly in big companies.


Mike Swimm 16 May 06


To anyone who works in a company that is more than a few guys in a room this post is ridiculous.

I am certainly not in favor of a 500 page rulebook that needs to be consulted on an hourly basis but a few well thought out, refined, simple policies make everyones lives much easier.

Tell me David, have you ever worked for a company other than 37?

Tom 16 May 06

This strategy so obviously doesn’t scale that I don’t understand why you’ve bothered to mention it here. Do you really think that governments and corporations can make decisions and mediate disputes using “shared stories” from “organizational memory”? Get a grip.

Baeck 16 May 06

Policy in itself is not a bad thing. The problem with most policies is that the people who are implementing them are doing so in the most backward manner possible.

In a good organization, a policy is not an iron-fisted rule, but rather a starting point in the decision making process. The thoughtful employee/manager will refer to the policy and then tweak it to fit the current situation, such that the final decision will more closely reflect the goals of the organization.

Unfortunately, most employees (or employers) seek to use policy as a whip to keep their employees in line and make them as inflexible as possible. Either that, or they use policy as a crutch to avoid actually thinking for themselves. i.e. - “You can’t take this Friday off because Monday is a holiday, even though you’ve already worked 40 hours this week.”
When implemented in this way, policy becomes a cancer within the organization. It drives free-thinking people away, but keeps those who can adhere to the letter of the law and nothing more. Often, those remaining people lack the flexibility that makes a nimble organization, resulting in slower growth or total failure.

Brad 16 May 06

In my industry, the banking world, policies are not only necessary, but required by the federal agencies that enable them to be in business. Doing away with them isn’t an option.

And I that doesn’t even get into disaster recovery/business continuity planning policies. BCP Policies could protect or save peoples lives.

“Policies are codified overreactions to unlikely-to-happen-again situations.”

I bet the banks in New Orleans disagree, I know I do.

DHH 16 May 06

A general purpose discussion of policies is probably fun too, but this post is about scar-tissue policies. Codified reactions to something that once went wrong.

And as with anything ever posted on this blog, an opinion that’s formed and addressed from experiences working at various creative firms. Your distance from that origin can be used as an approximation for how well the ideas translate to your situation.

So just like No Functional Spec probably doesn’t gel when building a nuclear reactor, No Scar Tissue Policies probably doesn’t gel well “disaster recovery/business continuity planning policies”.

Oh, oh, I got it! Seeing how this caused an instance of confusion, let’s institute a scar-tissue policy that says all posts on SvN should come with a Your Mileage May Vary sticker. Let me get right on it…

Rimantas 16 May 06

I lliked the idea of George Rathmann in Collin’s “Good to Great”. Can’t provide the exact quote, but it goes along the lines, that bureaucracy and policies are implemented to compensate for the incompetence and the lack of discipline. If you choose the right people in the first place, you can avoid this type of problems.

Jamie Tibbetts 16 May 06

As is often true with blanket posts like this, examples would go a long way towards making your point I think. As it stands, I don’t see why you think policies shouldn’t be enacted to avoid repeating future disasters. Why do policies “compound and eventually add up to the rigidity of bureaucracy that everyone says they despise” instead of forming a more streamlined, orderly business? When is a policy a “codified overreaction to unlikely-to-happen-again situation” instead of a rational reaction to a likely-to-happen-again situation?

mike swimm 16 May 06


I think you are the one who is confused.

My company is an agile, small (less than 10 people), web based company. I think that we fit in your target audience quite well.

When you preach nonsense that you obviously don’t have any experience with you come off poorly, and people react to that. Dismissing it with “your mileage will vary” is lame. The vast majority of successful business use straightforward, well thought out policies every day. If 37 Signals doesn’t, than YOU are in the minority, not us.

It’s as if you assume everyone outside of 37 signals is a character in Dilbert or Office Space.

Mark Gallagher 16 May 06

This discussion gets at one of the competitive advantages of being small.

In small companies you can achieve 100 percent compliance for “common sense” among your employees.

As you get bigger (I’d say over 50 people), one or two idiots will sneak into your company. Can’t be helped.

Now you must have HR and corporate policies and the related, costly bureaucracy.

DHH 16 May 06

We’re happy to be in the minority. We’re in minority technically (using Ruby and Rails), culturally (no policies), and operationally (no func’y specs). That’s the reason we blog about the ideas we have. If they were all how most people did most things, there wouldn’t be much to write about, now would there?

Regarding experience, it seems that its often an alias for accepting the way things has always been and shunning of new ideas. It seems to be used as such in this context.

So when I hear minority and inexperienced in this context, my smile lights up and a thank you seems appropriate. So thank you! ;)

DHH 16 May 06

Mark, why can’t that be helped? Why so eager to accept this syndrome as a law of nature? Letting “idiots” might be hard to avoid (some mask it well), but why would your remedy be to scar your organization with policies instead of heal it by booting the idiots?

The inability of many companies to fire idiots once they’re revealed is a subject for another entertaining rant, though :)

Tony 16 May 06

I think if you take a look at how informal information networks in organizations work, you will see that they exist on stories. We pass around tales of success and failure (and lay-offs and promotions) with anecdotes and stories. When smart companies utilize the informal employee networks, that’s one of the things they tap into.

Killian 16 May 06

I work for a big company and the lists and lists of policies are out there but no one consults them for numerous reasons.

I agree that in a creative context policies are counter productive and they will drive a creative person out of that company. My company does Engineering Consulting for power plants and water infrastructure and there are some things that are usefull as general guidelines to be cast in stone but what is more usefull is having the actual project decision thought process as a reference for future engineers to review so they can come to their own unique design decisions.

NO TWO PROJECTS are the same and technology changes all the time- Davids point is valid and very worthwhile

Everyone else can stop hating

Mark 16 May 06

C’mon David -

37S has policies. Just take a gander at the notice under the comment box on this page. Would it be safe to say that policy was born from the scar of numerous off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, or otherwise inappropriate or vapid comments?

How about the terms of use contract for all of your products? There certainly are some policies there as well.

How about the infamous troll cap? I dont recall having a “chat” or having the organization of SvN readers provided with a story to embed our organizational memory.

Policies are required by all organizations — be it a one person shop (policies dealing with clients) or 1,000.

Regarding your statement,

“…No Scar Tissue Policies probably doesn�t gel well �disaster recovery/business continuity planning policies…”

I would have to imagine those type policies were born from someone’s scar somewhere in history.

ML 16 May 06

Mark, those are all external policies for interacting with people outside the company. I believe David is referring to internal policies that apply to employees within a company.

Mark Gallagher 16 May 06

Right, I read the posting as speaking to internal employee policies. The policies a big company puts into a Code of Conduct and communicates to all employees.

In that sense, David, 37s is not in the minority “culturally” having no policies. Most companies with under 10 employees have no formal code of conduct for employees. Sorry, 37s is like the majority of very small companies in this regard. If you want to be in the minority, you need a code of conduct. ;-)

That’s my point on the advantage of being small.

And yes, as you get bigger you try harder to keep any idiot from being hired into your company. At some size and over some period of time, however, you will fail. So bigger companies need some employee policies for many legal and other reasons. That’s just reality.

Good discussion. Mark G

Mark 16 May 06

Sorry if that’s my mistake Matthew. It was my understnading the post was about organizational policies.

While not typical, SvN is a 37Signals organization of 26,296 readers. The policies put in place regarding this blog were, I would think, put there from the scars of those who would go out of the way to try and tarnish your brand. It’s a policy born of a scar, or “codified reactions to something that once went wrong” — something David is saying corporations shouldn’t do.

The other side of the coin, since Brad brought up New Orleans, is lack of a codified and unified, strong corporate reaction / policy, which is, as we all saw, just as dangerous.

Mark 16 May 06

Also Matt (et all 37S), since it’s been clarified this applies to internal only, how does this thinking jell with Jason’s previous post regarding the software industry lacking discipline? Does having hard and fast policies without the story or reasoning behind the decision somehow enhance productivity?

It’s an honest question. I’m really not trying to be a troublemaker.

Mark 16 May 06

Sorry, I meant distract from productivity.

Alex Bunardzic 16 May 06

Funny how people often tend to overlook the time dimension. I think David’s post was brilliant. But let’s first talk about small and large organizations.

To me, small organization means not an organization with small number of people, but an organization with small incidents of turnover. Once I’ve worked for a company that had about 300 people. But it was a very small organization, because almost al the people working there have been steadily with the company for the past 15 - 20 years. The vibe in the company was decidedly ‘small, easy going’. Why? Because everyone had huge memory bank of what transpired throughout the years and what was it that made them survive (or, on the flip side, made them almost go under on more than one occasion).

This is I believe what David was talking about. He was talking about cultivation, and its result — culture.

The real problem arises in large companies — not large judging by the number of employees, but large judging by the number of people who join and leave the company each month, quarter, year.

Faced with such situation, the company has no other choice but to instigate policies and procedures. Yes, the old timers probably don’t need those, but the army of new hires needs it badly.

So the solution is to cultivate long-term relationship with your staff. Simple.

random8r 16 May 06

Mark wrote:

Also Matt (et all 37S), since it�s been clarified this applies to internal only, how does this thinking jell with Jason�s previous post regarding the software industry lacking discipline? Does having hard and fast policies without the story or reasoning behind the decision somehow enhance productivity?

Mark - the trouble is, you’re looking from an outside-in perspective. Discipline is not something that is necessarily IMPOSED upon someone… that’s just how it’s been mostly in our society. What about self-discipline? This is where one is a disciple of a “way”, yes? It’s where one is following a path - albeit most of the time a self-imposed one. Nonetheless - one must stick to something… and if one doesn’t - one becomes lazy, etc. etc.


Adam 16 May 06

The relavant example here is the rule of law within nations.

The argument that relying on common sense and policy-through-stories can’t scale over large organizations is quite simply false: both the American and British legal systems are based on the idea of case law, in which the majority of decisions are based on ideas of fairness explored in previous decisions rather than strictly codified. This stood in stark contrast to the Napoleonic code which limited the role of the judge’s common sense. (Of course today, this is being changed by the increasing codification of minimum sentences, etc. replacing judicial discretion) The idea that case law, and policy by common sense, is based on is a simple one: you will never have good rules if you don’t have good people. If you don’t trust people enough to come up with the correct decision in a particular case, why do you trust them to come up with a policy to cover all cases without exception? And if you do trust them, why constrain their behavior without having all the information they have?

random8r 16 May 06

Adam - not to mention the question of “who sets the rules?” and “how are they qualified to set the rules?”. It becomes an almost cyclic problem.

random8r 16 May 06

DHH - why are you blogging about these processes if you’re happy with them being the minority?

From the Tao Te Ching:

“When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, that in itself is ugliness”.

What would happen if THE ENTIRE WORLD started Getting Real, do you think? Is that what you want? What do you want? ;-)

DHH 16 May 06

radonm8r, I want more people to enjoy what they do. That’s why I created and released Rails, that’s why I continue to share my thoughts on what I think helps happiness along and what I think creates misery.

I people who could be happier and more productive using Getting Real to use it ;)

Siddharta Govindaraj 16 May 06

I agree with David here. We are not talking about policies in general, but policies that are created in reaction to the *one time* something went wrong.

I’m reminded about the theories of common cause variation vs special cause variation. Common cause variation are the things the cause problems regularly and are an inherent part of how that particular company works. Special cause variation on the other hand are one time or rare.

Its okay to come up with policies to manage the common cause, but reactionary policies to control special cause - and these policies are normally created after the event - are mostly a waste.

Jason 16 May 06

I thought long and hard about this, but decided that I agree with what’s being proposed, although it sounds to me like something that is great in theory but would require fine tuning given different environments. The knee-jerk thing is spot on, though.

Perhaps instead of implementing policies when things go wrong, what about getting some people in the orgainzation together early on and establishing ideas about how to govern yourselves within the organization. Going back to the no gambling sites at work idea, instead agree on a general idea such as “use your computer responsibly.”

Let’s face it: most people know what to do and not to do at work. Using the computer to gamble might just make some employees perform better if they can get in a game of poker after an especially hard project. I think it should be encouraged. More than likely, what DHH said would be true: those who can be responsible at their job will flourish and those who can’t will find organizations with stronger policies in place. Let’s not forget about the individual, too: they have to be the right fit for both the job and the environment.

I will concede, however, that this is a great idea when dealing with your employees but stands little chance of working when dealing with customers. Not so much because the idea isn’t sound, but it’s doubtful to me that any company has the time and personel to have a philosophical debate with a customer for every issue that could arise.

Andrew 16 May 06

Is there a good way to record and redistribute a past story in a larger organisation? I mean, policies are great for new employees to not screw anything up on their first day of the job, but if we are to replace policies with stories, how can we help newbies learn?

An online ‘story book’ in a wiki perhaps?

Charlie 17 May 06

I feel like most comments on this entry - even David gets lost halfway through - are missing the point.

The title is “Don’t scar on the first cut”. I think this is great advice.

Don’t be reactionary. Don’t be knee-jerk. Don’t legislate away the problems you already know about.

I was in two (too?) long meetings today because of avoidable disasters. Now we have brief and clear policies in place to avoid these two specific problems, which are very unlikely to occur again anyway.

But we managed to avoid fixing the problems and the way these events were allowed to happen. It was very, very important that we have an “all hands on deck” to explain that these problems are not acceptable. And now they are forbidden to happen again.

It feels like we’ve put a sticker on the light switch in a closet. The sticker reads “don’t use this switch!”. Page 74 of the employee guidebook also has a clear warning about the light switch.

But even if the next poor sap in the room manages to see the sticker in the darkened room, he’ll flip the switch right next to it … and cause another disaster.

And up will go another warning note.

Can we please try to turn off the electricity, or remove the switches? Stop putting up stickers!

David Nitzsche-Bell 17 May 06

I like what DHH has to say here. I agree that too often a truly unforseeable and once-in-a-blue-moon event happens which then gets a policy, like those T-shirts: “Things went wrong and all I got was this lousy policy!”

One thing that I have never been able to understand relates to getting rid of people who are true-bred morons, blundering idiots, or otherwise detrimental to the team or company.

Too many times I have heard people say that a person couldn’t be fired because it was political, because it wouldn’t be nice, because they might sue us, because they have a permanent contract, etc. even though everyone knew the person was incompetent, grossly underperforming, or otherwise.

(In one case, someone was drinking copiously and conspicously on the job even during meetings with gov’t officials - granted he was Czech and working in Ukraine, but even they have some decorum.)

But, for some reason, these people stay on, their contracts are renewed, they get pay raises. Why? Because their managers don’t want to be the bad guy. Because they haven’t got sufficient proof of inadequacy. Because they don’t want to find a replacement. And, best of all, because of budgetary reasons. Think of the bad rap teachers have these days. There are some excellent teachers and some who are just not qualified. But, teacher salaries are so low. Sure, you could get rid of the bad teachers, but where are you going to find a vibrant, engaging, qualified teacher who’ll work for $20,000/year?

Sadly, most organizations will always be saddled with such people.

kevin rutherford 17 May 06

I agree with David’s intentions with this post, and I agree that “don’t do that” rules are bad. However, I find the solution weak. Stories are good and folksy and all, but in the end are subject to the ebb and flow of people. I prefer reactions in which the “fabric” of the organisation is changed so that it’s easier for people to do the “right” thing. Like water flowing downhill. (This is the approach being taken now by the most advanced traffic designers too - instead of erecting more “slow down” signs, they design the road itself so that reckless driving is hard or impossible.) This also seems to me to be more honest: “we live in this place too” instead of “we tell you what’s allowed”.

Lars 17 May 06

Having witnessed policies being drawn up as a knee-jerk reaction to unfortunate incidents in a major consulting firm, I couldn’t agree more with the post and with the statement “Policies are codified overreactions to unlikely-to-happen-again situations.”
Back then, it was usually when our CEO felt something was amiss that he would slam his door and write up a new SOP - Standard Operating Procedure. When he called the office and somebody answered the phone in the wrong way - slam - new SOP on how to answer the phone. When he read somebody’s document and he noticed errors concerning apostrophes - slam - new SOP on spelling and use of apostrophes. When somebody had too much wine at a client lunch - slam - a new SOP about lunching and dining with clients.
I think it is about control. Being nervous about the firm having grown so big that the people at the top don’t know everybody, they didn’t vet them in the hiring process so who knows how they behave with clients. I have always admired organisations that trusted their employees and held common sense in high regard. Most people are endowed with common sense that will help them make the right choices. And if somebody repeatedly fails to pass the test, deal with that person instead of irritating, ridiculing and demeaning the entire staff.

Paul D 17 May 06

This is probably the most important entry ever written on this blog! Very insightful.

Paul D 17 May 06

Now that I’ve read all the comments that claim policies are good, and the more the better, I think I see how people are missing the point.

Rules and systems, like almost anything else, are a design problem. Gradual “band-aid” policy accumulation is a poor way to design a company; as an analogy, you don’t design a program interface by sticking in new, mis-matched icons and buttons and menu items wherever they’ll fit every single time you encounter a bug or receive a feature request. Instead, if you encounter serious problems, you re-think the entire design and adjust it so that the whole thing works intuitively.

A thick policy rulebook is like one of those corporate applications that is full of Excel macros and VB script and Java bits and Access hooks and other cruft; as a result, it’s hard to use, harder to maintain, and impossible to adapt.

Prophetess 17 May 06

Thank you for crystallizing the reasons why the blanket creation and application of policy is such a bad idea.

A longstanding saying of mine is “If you have to quote policy to me, you’ve already failed to keep me as a customer.”

Anonymous Coward 17 May 06

kevin rutherford: “I prefer reactions in which the �fabric� of the organisation is changed so that it�s easier for people to do the �right� thing. Like water flowing downhill. “

That’s one of the best comments I’ve read anywhere this month. And such a beautiful model for UI as well, or as my horse trainer puts it: “make the right things easy and the wrong things difficult.”

But I also think that storytelling can be a big part of this, and it *can* scale in the right circumstances. Stephen Denning writes quite a lot about storytelling in organizations (including big ones), as does Peter Senge in “The Fifth Discipline — the Art & Practice of The Learning Organization” (from MIT Sloan School of Management, a systems thinking approach)

DHH — I agree with you on this, especially because of the point Dave P made “when that reason changes, or ceases to exist, the policy should continue to reflect reality.” I have yet to work for a company of ANY size where that was true. Policies can be important, but I’m not sure they are worth the tradeoffs, especially when there are other options (but those options require more creativity, flexibility, trust, and perhaps most of all—better hiring decisions).

George 17 May 06

Here’s a little post-9/11 travel joke I made up:

Q: Why does TSA not provide shoehorns at screening checkpoints?
A: Because they don’t *require* you to take off your shoes.

Matt Henderson 17 May 06

I disagree. Policies exist to define the organizational entity, so that, for example, a customer, whether working with company team A or team B, will experience consistency at the organization level. Their specific scope and application can certainly have undesired consequences, but I think you’re wrong to challenge the basic existence of policies.

xian 17 May 06

How about an example of such a story?

Re the TSA rule, every time I fly I thank my lucky stars that that guy was the shoe bomber and not the underpants bomber.

James Mathias 17 May 06

As in “real” life, policies arise from a variety of situations and circumstances. Idiocy is not always the cause, nor is idiocy a constant. Not everyone who makes a mistake is an idiot, and the majority of strict-business-policies arise from mistakes made by perfectly capable and smart individuals.

However, I do believe that policies, again like life, need to be more flexible and adaptable to the current situation at hand, but in reality they are a necessity for customers that just won’t take no for an answer.

indi 17 May 06

Old but apropos…

Example of how [scar] company policies are made:

Put eight monkeys in a room. In the middle of the room is a ladder, leading to a bunch of bananas hanging from a hook on the ceiling.

Each time a monkey tries to climb the ladder, all the monkeys are sprayed with ice water, which makes them miserable.

Soon enough, whenever a monkey attempts to climb the ladder, all of the other monkeys, not wanting to be sprayed, set upon him and beat him up.

Soon, none of the eight monkeys ever attempts to climb the ladder.

One of the original monkeys is then removed, and a new monkey is put in the room. Seeing the bananas and the ladder, he wonders why none of the other monkeys are doing the obvious. But undaunted, he immediately begins to climb the ladder.

All the other monkeys fall upon him and beat him silly. He has no idea why.

However, he no longer attempts to climb the ladder.

A second original monkey is removed and replaced.

The newcomer again attempts to climb the ladder, but all the other monkeys hammer the crap out of him. This includes the previous new monkey, who is grateful that he’s not on the receiving end this time, participates in the beating because all the other monkeys are doing it. However, he has no idea why he’s attacking the new monkey.

One by one, all the original monkeys are replaced. Eight new monkeys are now in the room. None of them have ever been sprayed by ice water. None of them attempt to climb the ladder. All of them will enthusiastically beat up any new monkey who tries, without having any idea why.

Brad 18 May 06

I’ve been thinking about this post and must agree with the DHH, and not just because I’m a 37s groupie but also because I�m cool in my own right.

I don�t think that this idea is limited only to small, 7 person Chicago former design firms now hip/trendy web 2.0 gap models. However, I must add that a working environment like that, where story precedes policy, does not exist on its own. It must be part of a larger culture. You can’t just implement a new policy of story telling and watch your people flourish. You need a broader culture that encourages innovation and imagination at the price of potential failure. You need a safe place where the worker bees do not fear the loss of their jobs and are not judged on some arcane and archaic system of employee performance and output. You need a place where peer relationships precede hierarchical structures; where if it�s even necessary to begin with, the manager/employee relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. You need a company that embraces the employees as owners and contributors, not simply cogs.

The main point is that if there is fear in your organization, at whatever level and in whatever place, you are fucked. If employees are afraid that they could lose their job if they screw up � you�re fucked. If managers keep amending the policy book because they are afraid that the worker bee will screw up � you�re fucked. If the only place the stories are being told are in the gossip corners or on the walls of the bathroom, you�re fucked. Embrace the entirety of who your company is, who your company has been and who your company is becoming. Openly share the stories of the company�s successes and failures and build a culture where the corporate memory is shared and owned by everyone.

Now sure, I�ve become rather preachy and it�s not even my blog. But the DHH makes a point that underpins what I see as a guiding philosophy of 37s; one that continues to piss off the idiots who can�t see the desktop for the icons. SvN is the open and shared corporate memory of 37s. It is their policy handbook. It is their story. It is the unapologetic philosophical blueprint of their company. If I was to start working for this company tomorrow (which by the way I�m available if you�re asking), I wouldn�t need a policy manual to know where I fit in or how I should act. They preach what they believe and live what they preach. That�s why I keep coming back to this blog; that�s why I�m a groupie; that�s why I�m cool.

Preach on.

Don Schenck 18 May 06

I agree with Tom Peters’ opinion on this subject.

Peter 20 May 06

I see ‘Don�t scar on the first cut’ as a guide, not a rule. Try to live without policies. Make them the last option.

I work in a 30+ software company which didn’t make much policies until now. We work in a small, up to 7, teams. Couple of things went wrong and now we have policies. It doesn’t help much, net worth is negative. People are not happy so they are less productive, creative…

Avoid if you can and usually you can.

Jeff Longhurst 20 May 06

You’ll know when things have really gone wrong when your company shackles everyone to the enormous volumes of policies it instigates and then calls in Gallup to do a Q12 assessment and wonder why hardly anyone is an “engaged employee” anymore.

will 20 May 06

I’ve worked for some massive companies and I’d say about 80% of the ‘policies’ in the book are there specifically to cover their asses in case of lawsuit. you always sign something saying you’ve read them. no other reason. liability rules all.

In general, I totally agree with this post but if a RoR project isn’t built on a set of ‘policies’ I think we have a language issue. ;) Because those ‘policies’ are in place (DRY anyone?), it becomes very easy to churn out apps. Knee jerk policies are just dumb and debilitating but ‘policies’ on the whole are worthwhile and make life better if you ask me.

DHH 21 May 06

Tom, the e-myth is an excellent guide to build factories. Be they food factories (McD), commerce factories (WalMart), or similar enterprises. Taylorism works well in such a setting.

It’s a terrible recipe for software shops.

Again, this article is about scar-tissue policies. Not policies in general (not that I’d particular fond of those in general, but there are certain scenarios and setups where they may be beneficial).

Robert Cowham 22 May 06

I always like the saying “rules are for fools… and the guidance of wise men”.

Chris 24 May 06


I know exactly what you’re talking about and agree with your post completely. The same thing happens all the time with our government. A single event that isn’t likely to recur at all, or only with extreme infrequency, triggers a knee-jerk new law that permanently outlaws or limits particular actions in certain contexts for all time to come.

Whereas, if we just recognized that the event was only a rare instance, an exception to the rule — then we could put a halt to the overgrowth of laws, rules, regs, and policies, and the freedom that they stifle and destroy over time.

Thanks for a great post.

Cory Foy 26 May 06

I just came across this post as someone commented on a posting I made about this very thing.

I agree that policies are indeed necessary, and when you are dealing with federal regulations, you may not have any choice but to have those policies. But sometimes your implementation can be open.

For example, one company I know, who deals with mortgages and other federally regulated home/finance type things, was able to meet the federal regulations for documenting their process by using Fitnesse tests and a tracking process for them.

In my own example from my site, management wants all machines to be identical because of a problem they had with version conflicts. The problem I see is that we had a problem, but we didn’t give our teams the chance to come up with a solution - management just dictated one. And in situations like those I wholeheartedly agree with your post.

Don’t get me wrong, my wife has a MS in I/O Psychology, so I’ve gotten a glimpse at all of the crazy rules and regulations employers are required to follow to do things like hiring/firing/promotions, etc. But for policies outside of that, involving the impacted teams to come up with a solution seems to be exactly the way to both create a workable solution and actively involve your employees in the company.

Division by Zero 26 May 06

I once worked for a fairly large tech company (about 600 employees) that had a 5-page dress code policy. One stipulation was that “undergarments must be worn at all times.” This was obviously a scar-tissue policy of the stupid nature that DHH thinks companies should avoid. As a manager I certainly didn’t want to be a member of the “underwear police” and didn’t see why any company needed 5 pages to convey an acceptable dress code.

Yes, companies do need policies (guidelines) but they should be logical and sensible, not reactionary.