Share the Rules, Not the Outcome, & Realise Potential

One of the remarkable discoveries of the field of study called complex systems is how order, or what physicists call a lack of entropy, can be created out of seeming randomness by individuals or agents following a small number of very simple local rules. Such systems are said to be self-organising or self-assembling, and often have so-called emergent properties that were not part of any of the rules. The study of these emergent properties teaches us that it is the local rules themselves, not the finished product, that natural selection or some other selective products sculpted to make the finished product. – Mark Paget, Wired for Culture

Management loves order.  That desire for order translates to efforts to plan and specify all the outcomes in the system. Instead, we need to leverage the potential of our organisations by allowing autonomy with simple rules.

The Deadly Entropy of Specifications

Specifying everything in a complex system calcifies the ability of the system to adapt to change. This is when management becomes bureaucracy. If there is only one predetermined process and one predetermined outcome, then individual employees are just cogs in a machine of work to achieve that outcome. However, we rarely find the expected efficiency in that machine. To start, the complexity of the machine prevents us from specifying our outcomes as clearly as we would like. 

In addition, people are not machines and the world is not static or predictable. People can do more. They want to help and they want to respond to their environment. They learn more, change things, interpret, and reorganise things locally. However, our fixed system of outcomes won’t allow it. We find other people and a changing environment rarely enable us to execute the outcomes as simply as we believed.

All our effort to impose order accelerate chaos. Disconnected employees, disconnected processes, silos, poor design and mismatches to the environment accelerate entropy. Our system is not broken. It is working exactly as we intended it just doesn’t prove to be effective enough for a changing competitive environment.

The chaos of disruption is just the force of our environment selecting another organisation that is more effective. The chaos of decay sets in as our predetermined outcomes fall short of the require effectiveness of those who make the selection decisions: 

  • our employees who can work elsewhere
  • our customers who can buy elsewhere
  • our communities who can support other businesses (with infrastructure, regulation, licenses to operate and valuable reputation); and 
  • our investors who can seek better returns elsewhere.

An Alternative: Share Simple Rules & More Potential

Most managers use a few simple pragmatic rules (or heuristics) to do their job. The challenge in organisations is that these heuristic rules aren’t discussed. Manager’s rules are all slightly different in their effectiveness. Some of these rules will survive by promotion and be shared by role modelling, but many won’t surface, simply becoming the mystery of high performance. If nobody shares their rules, there is little ability to learn from more effective rules.

Managers should focus on fostering discussion around these simple rules and encouraging people to adopt the more effective ones.  Working out loud is a great vehicle to foster these discussions as it surfaces the how of work in progress.  More formally, organisations are experimenting with approaches like holocracy that force the organisation to surface these conversations about the effectiveness of rules, responsibilities and approaches.  In time, as these experiments continue we will discover better ways to work and to manage.

Allowing people to operate within the bounds of simple rules enables them to exercise their potential, their local information and the judgment to make the organisation more effective. Simple rules tested for effectiveness are a great bureaucracy killer. For years, Nordstrom had an enviable reputation for customer service by having the simple guideline of “Use your good judgement in all situations.” 

Importantly, focusing on simple local rules allows each part of a system to play its role as it sees fit without needing to align to a fixed objective or a higher set of instructions. Employees are challenged to bring their best potential and to be more human, not cogs in a machine.

The focus of this approach is to create enduring effectiveness and a competitive advantage in the organisation based in some simple expectations of the local rules of behaviour. Culture like that represents a critical competitive advantage.

When More Talk is More Action


‘Less Talk More Action’ is a common refrain in management. The best next step may involve more talk and more action.

A bias to action in management is a good way to overcome the inertia of bureaucracy. It helps foster change by requiring that we find ways to move forward. Like all good things a preference for action can be overdone. The traditional engineering mindset of management can come to view talk as a wasteful distraction. In management conversations in all kinds of organisation it is not uncommon to hear,

“This talk is too complicated and going on too long. Let’s do this”

In complicated and complex scenarios that involve systemic issues like culture, the best next step at times may involve more talk and more action. Realising the potential of people as a leader can often mean having to step back from one’s own action orientation to discuss the way forward with others, to gather inputs and to allow others to shape the path through collaboration. We need to recognise in leading the network complexity of the new ways of work that action alone may not be the wisest path.

The Time for Action

The Cynefin framework offers us a useful model to see where we need to demonstrate a bias for action over talk.  If the situation falls in the Simple domain, where cause and effect is clear, then action is straightforward once the position is known. We should have a strong bias for More Action and Less Talk. 

If the situation is truly in a Chaotic domain, where cause and effect are unrelated, then action offers the best chance to move somewhere else. talk may add some value after we act to help understand the environment is chaotic.  However it is action first that will get us out.

Much of our work in organisations is spent in the Complicated or Complex domains of the Cynefin model where launching straight into Action may not be all that is required.

When The Action includes Talk – Sense Making

Each domain of the model requires decision makers to make sense of what is going on in the environment. That sense making process may need discussion with other participants, particularly in the complicated and complex domains where patterns of cause and effect are unclear. For example discovery and analysis are both tasks that need not be purely data-driven exercises. People may need to debate the situation and the work collaboratively to determine the relationships in place. Action have a collaborative element too, requiring discussion as the action progresses to implementation.

Making collective sense of an environment where cause and effect is not straightforward is essential to winning people’s engagement in action and especially action that creates change. The more complex the environment  the more important this engagement will be. Without an ability to make sense of the environment and the strategy to be put into place, people will be at best disengaged and at worst actively oppose the approach.

When Action and Talk Go Together – Working Out Loud

In a Complex domain, the recommended course of action is to probe. A probe is an action done with an intent to learn. In other words, it is an experiment.

To maximises the value of the learning and the effectiveness of the experiment, we often need to communicate that experimental intent. A strategy of probing, sensing and responding can appear confusing to others without a declared intent. Leaders who are trying to take their team on a series of experiments need to be clear on the nature and learning goals of the experiments.

Leverage others to design the experiment and keep you true to your goal of learning. Too many experiments get converted into actions by the management mindset of showing progress at any cost. Think of all the pilots that slid into full-scale launch because nobody wanted to declare them a failure. Working out loud can also help with accountability and also leverage the contributions and learnings of others to develop the collective sense of a complex domain.

Why Talk Matters – Realising Potential in the Future of Work

As Harold Jarche explains in his description of the Cynefin model for the future of work, a key role for leadership in the changing workplace is to help employees use capacity that is released.  That capacity can be used to transition employees from the domains most susceptible to automation, the simple and complicated, to working in those where human contributions are most valuable.

“Less talk, more action” is what we expect of machines. As we see our world of work move into networks and more complex domains, leaders must remember the value and human potential in communication. 

Perhaps we should choose to lead with “More Action and More Talk”.