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Policies and Practical Drift

I’m working on policies right now, which is always slightly depressing. Developing policies always feels like a lose-lose situation. At least some of them are necessary, but no one loves them. Organizations tend to view policy in very binary ways, either embracing it too tightly as a protective talisman against risk, or rejecting it outright as being oppressive. On its own, policy isn’t either of those things (protective or oppressive). That all depends on how its applied.

I tend to think policy should be used sparingly and carefully, but even then it can still fail to serve its purpose. Which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about practical drift.

Practical Drift

Practical drift is a useful term for a phenomenon all in HR will be familiar with. I first came across it in The Org (a book I have cited on this blog so many times I have lost count), although it was apparently first coined by Lt. Colonel S.A. Snook in his book Friendly Fire – The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq.

It refers to an organization’s actual practices “drifting” from its written procedures over time, so that tasks in practice are performed quite differently than they were initially conceived. Often this occurs because humans are masters at cutting out inefficient work for which there is no obvious reason or reward. But these ‘work arounds’ often fail to take into account the broader systemic implications of cutting out seemingly inessential steps, and in complex environments in which precision is a necessity, practical drift can result in disaster.

The Org discusses practical drift in connection to the Deep Water Horizon oil drilling disaster, and as you can tell from Snook’s book title, the origin of the term stem from the US Army’s deadly Black Hawk helicopter crash.

Most organizations don’t operate in such harrowing circumstances, but practical drift can still cause harm. An organization I worked at long ago had designed an elaborate performance assessment framework that was intended to capture all facets of individual performance the organization valued. It was nuanced, holistic, and arduous to explain or understand. Over time, it came to be largely ignored by managers who could simply override the weighted formula to assign an overall rating. This led to a feeling amongst employees that performance and compensation were being assessed in a subjective and inequitable way.

The policy and framework were designed to provide HR with exactly what we needed to run a perfect, complete performance process. But it collapsed in on itself under the weight of its complexity. It is a lesson I learned then and have re-learned several times, and will undoubtedly learn again.

Design for the Employee

Even with the rise of the term “employee experience” and the interest in ‘design thinking’, it seems as though a lot of policies are being downloaded from the internet and slapped in place with little or no customization. Even when policies and processes are developed in house, they’re frequently written from an HR perspective, not an employee one.

I’ll be the first to say, it’s not easy to unlearn this approach, and it can feel risky to shift perspectives in the face of more and more legislation, and those dire employment lawyer newsletters that I subscribe to.

But posting a generic policy up onto your intranet is just begging for people to adopt work-arounds or ignore it completely.  When this happens, rather than immediately locating this problem as originating in our employees, we might consider why it isn’t being followed.

Under-resourced, over-committed organizations in which employees are pushed to do more with less make ‘efficiency’ necessary. If compliance with policies and processes creates friction, and employees can’t see the immediate harm of skirting them, then it should be no surprise when they adopt an ‘efficient’ work-around. We can throw as many ‘shoulds’ around as we’d like, but that’s unlikely to help.

We all know what practical drift sounds like: “But no one follows that policy”.

Practical drift, if we see it (rather than see people intent on making our lives difficult by ignoring our perfectly good policies), can be a useful signal. A symptom that something is misaligned and deserves another look. Rather than treating it as an act of rebellion, or layering more policy or directives over it, we would be better served by acknowledging it as a data point, and digging deeper. 

Read This Week:

Why Hiring the ‘Best’ People Produces the Least Creative Results – Scott E Page, Aeon

I generally try to share articles that readers of this blog may have missed, or not already read, but this article (which I have seen shared everywhere), is worth highlighting just in case it hasn’t crossed your radar yet. It’s a short read, and an excellent framing of why the ongoing obsession with rockstars and the “war for top talent” is a red herring if we want the most effective teams to do complex work.

“The multidimensional or layered character of complex problems also undermines the principle of meritocracy: the idea that the ‘best person’ should be hired. There is no best person.”

“Optimal hiring depends on context. Optimal teams will be diverse.”

Some of Us Hear You – Kate Bischoff, tHRive Law & Consulting blog

This is such a well written post and call to action.  It’s also a great intro to the #BlackBlogsMatter writing happening this month, in case it hasn’t yet hit your timeline on Twitter.  Bischoff challenges us to consider the ways that our usual approaches to recruitment, promotions, and discussions (or lack thereof) of race in the workplace perpetuate privilege. Please take a few minutes to check it out and the other #BlackBlogsMatter posts this month.

“We have to be more proactive, more intentional with how we build workplaces that accurately reflect the world around us with the diversity of race, age, religion, gender, thought, etc.  If we don’t, we’re missing out.  Missing out on better decision-making, better business, and a better place for everyone.  This means taking a hard look at our current practices, having hard discussions, and confronting the problems whether we intentionally created them or not.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here.  I do know that the best way to start is by listening to those voices we haven’t been very good about listening to and then lending our voices to help.”

David Schwimmer’s sexual harassment videos ring true because they were written by a woman – Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work

With a title that should give us all cause to wonder aloud “How the f^$k did we get here?” this article describes a recent joint project between David Schwimmer (everyone’s least favorite Friend) and a (female) Israeli director, Avin Sigal. The project is a series of short videos called “ThatsHarassment. They were made several months ago and featured on Facebook, and are now being spread more widely in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Given that the limited available research suggests that corporate sexual harassment training is useless at best (and possibly counterprductive at worst), it’s refreshing and rightly uncomfortable to watch videos that more accurately depict the kinds of nuanced interactions many women will be all too familiar with.

The article also links to a set of resources for organizations, which were developed in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center, and are definitely worth checking out.

“Avin first made versions of the films in Israel before joining forces with Schwimmer in the US and reshooting the movies in English with American actors. All of the dramas are actually inspired by real-life incidents that have either happened to her, or that friends have described to her.

it’s the script and stories at the core of the work that give the stories the right psychological complexity, making women who have lived through those moments a little queasy.

Where PSAs and corporate anti-harassment videos tend to forget the subtleties—sometimes don’t even feature women as the victims of harassment, even though they are in the vast majority of cases—these videos forgo blunt devices. Their strength is in the micromoments-“

 Photo by Lachlan Dempsey on Unsplash




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