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The Tyranny of Rules Tue 06 Mar 12

Rules are meant to be an means to an objective not an end unto themselves.

Caution tyranny ahead charlesfettingerThis past week, Beren Acadamy, an Modern Orthodox Jewish high school made the headlines when they advanced to the semifinals in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) basketball tournament.  What made this especially newsworthy wasn’t their basketball prowess (as good as they are) but the fact that they decided to forfeit rather than play in a game scheduled during the Jewish Sabbath, a remarkable demonstration of staying true to your religious beliefs.

Beren had appealed to the TAPPS board for an accommodation to reschedule the time that would not conflict with anyone’s religious beliefs.  The board pointed out that Beren was made aware of the potential conflict when they joined the league years ago and denied the request for an accommodation.  Berens admitted that they knew of the scheduling issued but had hoped for an accommodation based upon their religious beliefs.

TAPPS issued a statement that says in part “When TAPPS was organized in the late 1970's, the member schools at that time all recognized Sunday as the day of worship.   The By-Laws were written to state that “TAPPS would not schedule any competition or activities on Sunday”.  At that time, there were no member schools that observed their Sabbath on Saturday.”  They statement goes on to explain that Beren was aware of this and didn’t see a problem as they wanted to play in a ‘district’.

This story made all of the news outlets and generated a lot of discussion throughout Houston.  Many agreed with the board which was saying in effect “The rules are the rules, you knew about them when you joined we will not change them for you.  Rules are rules.”  Others took the stance of “it’s not fair to the kids, it’s not their fault, they should be given them a chance”.  Still other decried religious discrimination, why is it okay to observe the Christian Sabbath but not the Jewish Sabbath?

Personally none of these arguments holds much sway with me in determining how this should have been resolved.  I believe the best approach would be to look at what is the purpose of TAPPS and the tournament and to choose a course of action that best support those.

According to the TAPPS constitution, “The Purpose of TAPPS is and shall be to organize, to stimulate, to encourage and to promote the academic, athletic and fine arts programs in an effort to foster a spirit of fair play, good fellowship, true sportsmanship and wholesome competition for boys and girls”.  I could not find a stated purpose for the basketball tournament but generally tournaments are held to determine who has the best team.

Noting the concepts of fair play, good fellowship, true sportsmanship and the desire to determine the best team I would conclude that re-arranging the schedule would be the best solution that fits the goals and purpose of the organization and the tournament.  Others might disagree and that’s okay because we would at least be discussing how to achieve the objective.  The arguments are ones of defending the sanctity of rules and the fairness of life neither of which gets us closer to fulfilling the objective.

Beren although disappointed accepted the TAPPS board decision and indicated that they would not continue in the tournament and another school was named to advance to the semi-finals.  It would have ended there except that someone (not the school but presumably a parent of one of the players) filed a lawsuit requesting a restraining order on TAPPS to prevent them from playing the tournament pending the lawsuit outcome.  The TAPPS board then decided that it was in the best interest of everyone to make an accommodation to Beren and reschedule the game by a few hours and Beren was able to play.  At this point there seemed to be a general consensus that is was a shame that it had to come down to a lawsuit to get final resolution.

The whole point of this is not to discuss high school basketball.  Rather in seeing this unfold I couldn’t help but see the similarities to what I’ve seen happen in IT rather frequently.  I’m sure that you’ve seen it too.

Someone will come to IT want to do something and IT will quickly parrot back “That doesn’t meet our standard” or “That violates our policy” the stereotypical “rules are rules” response.  Often the requester will escalate their request and the word will come down from on high to give them what they requested even though it goes against standard or policy.  No one is happy about the process and everyone wonders why it had to go that way.

The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  There is a better way.

We create standards/policies for a variety of reasons.  Some are for compliance, some for security, some for cost control, governance, efficiency, etc.  All of them designed to achieve some particular objective.  Rather than simply saying “No, rules are rules” you might want to look at how the request matches up with the objective.  If it goes against the objective by all means say no but explain why.  You’ll find you’re less likely to get push back and less likely to be overruled if you explained your decision in those terms.

If however, the request furthers the objective than you might want to consider making an exception or accommodation or possibly even adjusting the standard policies.

The other way to approach this is to ask - What would be the harm of granting this exception?  If the exception would be in support of the overall objectives of the organization and the harm is not great they you should probably grant it.

Some simple examples:

  • A user wants to have some security provisions removed as they are hindering his efficiency.  Rather than saying “No, rules are rules” you may want to say “No, that would expose us to high levels of risk viruses, hacked data etc. that outweigh their individual potential gain.”  In this case the potential harm is very significant.  The requester may not like it but they are less likely to try to go around you and you are less likely to be over-ruled.
  • The VP of Sales wants to replace all sales people’s laptops which are standard with tablets that are not standard.  After considering all the factors you may determine that the benefit this allows the sales force to do is sufficient to warrant and exception or an adjustment to the standard.  “No, rules are rules” in this situation could easily make you the bad guy in this case and over-ruled.
  • A sales person asks to get a non-standard piece of equipment such as a tablet or smartphone contending that it would make them more efficient.  The reality is that it really might make them more efficient and efficiency could be one of the objectives.  However, you could still be justified in saying no if the net efficiency to the company doesn’t improve.  Like in the first example a “No, rules are rules” response could easily be over-ruled where an explanation of the hidden cost increases it generates is less likely to be over-ruled.

I’m not at all suggesting that we give in to every request.  I’m simply suggesting that we focus the discussion on whether or not the request furthers our efforts towards the objective or hampers them.  That is a much better conversation to be having and one that can help make IT more effective in reaching our objectives.

By the way, for those of you wondering about the outcome of the tournament; Beren won their semi-final round but lost in the finals to Abilene Christian High School.  As for TAPPS, they are not out of the spotlight yet as some of their other previous decisions are coming to light.

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"Tyranny Ahead" photo by charlesfettinger/ CC BY- ND 2.0 

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