Making Rules That Stick

April 3, 2010

By John Munce, Deployment Executive, The Tatham Group

Somebody has to make the rules. Like sports, activities of groups of people need some boundaries, some goals, some measures, and some limits on proper play. Somebody has to make them up.

Anyone who’s tried to write the rules of a game, or the steps of a process, knows that it isn’t as easy as it looks. First, you have to capture what you intend to happen. Then you have to include the things you want to avoid. Third, you’ve got to make sure the language is clear enough that everyone can understand. Clear and simple language quickly exposes shaky thinking.

I’ve lost count of the rule-writing exercises I’ve been part of since high school when I was the Student Government Parliamentarian. I was supposed to interpret Roberts Rules of Order, which proved so cumbersome as to be impossible to enforce, much less to teach them to teens who just wanted to talk. So I tried to simplify, though my infatuation with sesquipedalian locutions (ok, overuse of long words) defeated my attempts to write a usable constitution for our little student assembly. Since then I’m always interested in how others take on the rule writing chore.

A new book does an elegant job at making rules. Michael Pollan has released Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual as a distillation of his decade of writing about food including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Recommended by my nutritionist, a profession I fear tends too often to scold, I expected the book to be a long diatribe filled with minutiae and detailed instructions for counting calories, nutrients and factors.

On the contrary, Pollan acknowledges at the beginning that “Eating in our time has gotten complicated…” He wants to simplify. Though he’s written 64 Rules, none is longer than a sentence and no explanation is longer than a page. He acknowledges that many of the rules are variations intended to let us choose the version that suits us. I found the book deceptively simple.

Let me propose three tests for making clear, useful rules and we can test Pollan against them. These may not be all the necessary Tests for Rule-making, so just bear with me, if you would.

o    Are they bite-sized?

o    Is the course of action clear?

o    Are they memorable?

The first Test for Rules has to do with the size of our brain’s working memory and how our brains function under pressure. A long rule with complicated syntax just gives lawyers work. The second Test for Rules has to do with what people look to know when executing an activity:  what do I do next?  The third Test for Rules has to do with whether you want the desired action to become habit or to always be rooted in a book you must carry around.

Let’s apply these Tests for Rules against three of my favorite food rules. Do they pass the test of a well-written rule?

“#7 Avoid foods containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.” This rule contains two ideas and a procedure. Step one: check the ingredients. Step two: apply the third-grader test. A clear image is used to help us remember this rule and what we are to do.

“#21 It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language.” This rule made me laugh out loud when I heard it discussed on the radio. Pollan suggests we consider Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles as indicators of what this means. While I love this rule for the humor that makes it memorable, I don’t find it as useful. The course of action isn’t clear.  Must I check the international status of an item before considering it? It’s an interesting expansion on other rules, but by itself doesn’t measure up.

“#13 Eat only foods that will eventually rot.” Short and declarative, this tells me what to look for in the store. Twinkies, joy of my youth, are out. The nice use of a short, vivid word at the end makes it easy to remember.

As process people, as managers, as project people, we’re in the rule-making business. We help define the simple steps so people can follow the process. If you want to hone your skill, try Pollan’s book as a sample of some good rule making. Test some of your own work processes. You can even try it at home.


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