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Saying Why Is A Powerful Tool Wed 01 Jul 09

Adding An Explanation For Our Policies Can Improve Their Effectiveness

Ten commandments robeena Most IT policies are written like the Ten Commandments.  Thou Shalt Not…  Thou Shalt Not…  Thou Shalt Not…  When you read them you almost expect them to be accompanied by a roll of thunder and a flash of lightning as the rules are laid down by the IT god.

Sometimes a more enlightened IT department will write policies in a more positive fashion.  Instead of Thou Shalt Not… they write it as Thou Shall… 

But with both approaches there is still something fundamentally missing.  What's missing is the explanation of why.  People want to know why they can't do something and are more likely to comply if they understand the reason for the restriction.

While God may be able to put forth the Ten Commandments without explanation, IT, despite our own sense of self-importance, cannot and still expect full compliance.  Mark Graban recently posted an interesting piece on the Lean Blog, The Power of Explaining Why - A Funny Example that highlights the power of including a simple explanation.

Explaining why treats people like adults.  People will react in the same way that you treat them.  If you treat them like adults, they'll act like adults.  You treat them like children, they'll act like children.  Adults, once they understand the reasoning in the policy will comply with both the letter and, more importantly, the spirit of the policy.

Complying with the spirit of the policy is important.  I once had a boss that talked about draconian policies and how they fostered what he called "malicious obedience".  As he explained all that it takes to bring things to a screeching halt if for everyone to follow our 'perfect' policies, perfectly.  People doing nothing more than the minimum to comply with the policy is counter-productive to what we are trying to accomplish.

I think people are sometime reluctant to explain why as it might imply the topic is open for discussion or negotiation.  It really doesn't.  Saying that employees are not permitted to disable or shutdown anti-virus programs on their PCs because it opens their PC and the entire network to the possibility of a dangerous virus infection does not mean that it is optional or that deliberate non-compliance won't result in disciplinary action.

More significantly, we may be reluctant to give explanations because user may question the validity of that explanation.  However, if there truly is a valid reason than justifying the explanation is easy and there shouldn't be a problem. 

The difficulty comes when the underlying reason is questionable or self-serving.  If for example, IT sets a policy because it makes IT's life easier at the expense of the users it may rightly be open to debate (at the appropriate levels of course).  However, once the appropriate people have reviewed it and agreed we should have no problem saying it is being done for that reason.

It's actually very simple.  If you don't feel comfortable with the explanation for a policy it probably isn't a valid reason.  If it is a good justification then there is no reason not to share it with everyone.  After all it's really not that hard to include a statement of explanation so why not do it?

Explaining why also has another added benefit - documentation.  Policies have a bad habit of becoming eternal, once put in place it is hard to remove them.  The reason for this is the underlying assumption that there just must be a good reason for the policy.  The problem is that over time the good reason is forgotten and may no longer be valid.  By adding the explanation we are also documenting it and it can easily highlight when a policy should be modified or made obsolete.

Make no mistake, explaining why will not guarantee full acceptance or compliance of IT policies.  There will always be issues but telling people why may significantly improve the situation.  If you can improve the effectiveness of your policies by including the explanation of why it certainly makes sense to do so.

"Ten Commandments" photo by robeeena

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