Collaboration rules

Operations groups like to make rules. It’s our superpower. I guess this comes from our awareness of how laws, regulations, and university policy apply to the business. We have to develop internal guidelines to clarify grey areas and ensure compliance, so rules are a tool we’re familiar with. And maybe we reach for that tool too often.

Rules are necessary to prevent serious risk: to the security of personal information, to institutional reputation, to charitable status. (Other useful “rules” are actually standards; think of counting guidelines, which don’t target behaviour but ensure consistency, transparency, and credibility for fundraising reporting.)

Rules are less useful when the risks are operational – those times when doing something out of the ordinary puts us at risk of being inefficient. This new thing creates manual work, or it means some data that could be useful to the business is not created or used, or causes some disorder or uncertainty by straying outside of established process.

Efficiency is a worthwhile goal only when you’re doing the right things. If a new thing is the right thing to do, there should be allowance for short-term inefficiency and uncertainty. The size of the opportunity determines how much disruption is okay.

When an opportunity arises and a decision must be made, the best approach is to collaborate and consider the unique circumstances. (Barring legal, reputational or other serious risk.) Operations should advise on internal risk and be given due consideration. If there are short-term risks that don’t cancel out the benefits, and there’s a path to return to equilibrium, then it makes sense to mitigate the risk and press on.

This works when Operations is integrated with the front line, is fully aware of organizational goals, and is considered a credible partner. If Operations is just a back-office service desk disconnected from strategy, then you can create all the rules you like. Good luck with that.

To mess with a quote borrowed from Émile Durkheim: When there is a culture of collaboration, rules are unnecessary; when the culture is lacking, rules are unenforceable.

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